If these were silenced, the very stones would cry out:
Meehan’s Virgin speaks
Christine Hoff Kraemer, 1997
Paula Meehan’s “The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks” uses the ages-old convention of animating the inanimate in order to criticize the social and religious establishment. The poem puts an unexpected twist on the traditional connotations of its iconographic narrator, however. Meehan’s statue espouses a standpoint that is hardly a Christian one. Ironically, the poet uses the most beloved symbol of Catholicism to bitterly attack what she sees as an ugly, bloody religion, one which (at least indirectly) caused the death of the 15-year-old who came to give birth at the statue’s feet.
The first stanza opens with a series of harsh winter images, as well as the first of many agricultural references.
It can be bitter here at times like this,
November wind sweeping across the border.
Its seeds of ice would cut you to the quick.
The phrase “seeds of ice” is suggestive on a number of levels. Meehan implies that the wind sows seeds of ice as a farmer might sow a crop. Ice seeds, however, can only produce more ice – enough to satisfy the demands of a brutal Irish winter. The switch to the second person that directly follows indicates an understated threat, or perhaps faint condescension: though the ice seeds would cut the (presumably human) addressee to the quick, the stone statue is impervious. Her tone increasingly ringing with contempt, the speaker describes the town below as “tucked up safe and dreaming,” naively oblivious to the world around it. Still, she betrays a hint of jealousy with the resentful remark that she is “stuck up here in this grotto.” The word “stuck” is colloquial and out of place in her graceful speech; the statue, it seems, sees the townspeople as having placed her perfunctorily without much further thought on the matter. Lonely, she wishes for a “star or planet to ease [her] vigil.” This, subtle as it is, is the first intimation that the statue is not a Catholic sympathizer. Why would the Virgin, symbol of a religion that decried astrology and fought desperately against astronomy for centuries find comfort in the stars and planets? This first jangling inconsistency foreshadows the poem’s later anti-Christian attitudes.
Ghostly, eerie imagery characterizes stanza two, which focuses all the more strongly on the merciless wind. Not only does the wind bring winter, but it also
. . . carries intimations
of garrison towns, walled cities, ghetto lanes
where men hunt each other and invoke
the various names of God as blessing
on their death tactics, their night manoeuvres.
According to the statue, the wind brings death in more ways than one – literal death by freezing for the local wildlife, and reminders of murders done far away, scent-like on the breeze. The wind’s perverse work is visible even from the grotto – the trees are forced to “cavort in agony,” an oxymoron that pairs playfulness with intense pain, and parallels the statue’s later fantasies of frolicking corpses. Also unsettling is the speaker’s phrase “the various names of God.” If we had any doubt about the religious leanings of the statue, this denotes a rather universalistic (or, perhaps, atheistic) outlook on religion. Nevertheless, she reveals a heavy contempt for human religious feeling when she states that men only invoke God to bless their murders. At the same time, the statue is acutely aware of her surrounding environment. She describes lakes polluted with turf smoke, dying fish, stagnant water. It seems she participates in these deaths, unlike the previous ones – she hears the fish dying, tastes the murky water. This is the first evidence of the statue’s intimate connection with nature, which she will make more plain later in the poem.
In the third stanza, the statue identifies herself as she is seen in the eyes of the world. Meehan’s fondness of assonance, consonance, and alliteration are particularly noticeable here (italics added).
They call me Mary – Blessed, Holy, Virgin.
They fit me to a myth of a man crucified:
the scourging and the falling, and the falling again . . .
They name me Mother of all this grief
though mated to no mortal man.
This repetition of sounds (as in the previous two stanzas with ‘this’ and ‘quick’, as well as ‘trees’ and ‘free’) lends considerable power to Meehan’s nearly prose-like verse. Not only does the technique lend emphasis, but it enhances the bitter, cutting tone of the statue’s speech as she rejects the role she has been forcibly ‘fit’ to. Her disgust with the violence she scents on the wind extends to Christianity as well – she describes it, not in terms of sacrifice or love, but in the graphic, ugly terms of physical crucifixion. This Christian obsession with death, she implies, is perverse and sick, as is the idea of a mother who conceives without intercourse. The statue’s repeated use of the impersonal ‘They’ to designate the townspeople has become significant as well. ‘They’ are faceless, essentially indistinguishable. The statue’s lack of sympathy for them is all the more chilling when she questions both the compassion of God and his very existence with the lines,
They kneel before me and their prayers
fly up like sparks from a bonfire
that blaze a moment, then wink out.
Is God listening? Is he even there? Though the statue makes no judgements, she apparently sees the townspeople’s prayers as useless, too weak to reach God – or, perhaps, too small and dim to withstand the force of the wind.
Unexpectedly, the poem takes a lighter, nostalgic turn that is yet tempered by the speaker’s derision. “It can be lovely here at times,” she says, echoing the first line of the poem. The phrase “times like this” is missing, however. Though her grotto is occasionally lovely, it is decidedly not now. The statue goes on to describe the burgeoning greenery of spring, but comments that the “[g]irls in Communion frocks / [are] pale rivals to the riot in the hedgerows,” suggesting that the beauty of nature is far greater than that of human beings, even those in the bloom of their youth. The seasonal progression continues in the next stanza with a particularly vivid description of midsummer. For the first time, the statue takes interest in human customs, forgetting her anger to express deep longing.
Or the grace of a midsummer wedding
when the earth herself cries out for coupling
and I would break loose of my stony robes,
pure blue, pure white, as if they had robbed
a child’s sky for their colour. My being
cries out to be incarnate, incarnate
maculate and tousled in a honeyed bed.
The imagery she uses is lushly sexual, recalling the pagan fertility rite of Beltane, which occurred at midsummer. Further, the statue refers to “the earth herself,” a phrase which leans heavily toward the vocabulary of the old religion. Momentarily, her contempt for Christian iconography returns as she describes her attire as resembling a child’s crayon drawing. She seems to see the townspeople’s conception of Mary to be childish, naive, and inappropriate, and herself as a ridiculous caricature of that conception. With a passion that would undoubtedly shock the pious townspeople, she longs for sexual intimacy, playing off Mary’s traditional label ‘immaculate’ to visualize herself disheveled, happy, and human in a marriage bed. Though summer stirs the statue the most, she gives a nod to autumn in the next stanza, describing the hedges “heavy with the burden of fruiting” – richly pregnant, as it were. She appreciates the solemnity and symbolic appropriateness of the autumn burial, observing, “Death is just another harvest / scripted to the season’s play.” Dying is part of the cycle of nature too, as it should be.
The seventh stanza roughly jerks the reader back to the speaker’s icy present. It is All Soul’s Night, she reveals, elucidating the supernatural imagery of the second stanza. The wind appears again as the relentless bringer of death, and the statue imagines corpses rising from their graves
. . . to join in exaltation with the gale,
a cacophony of bone imploring sky for judgement
and release from being the conscience of the town.
Here Meehan may be once again using Catholic iconography against itself. In some Catholic writings, the Holy Spirit is synonymous with wind. Meehan’s sinister characterization could be yet another subtle undermining of Catholic symbolism. The disturbing image of the dead celebrating death has an additional purpose, however. Once again, the statue casts doubt on the Christian religion’s validity with her description of the desperate ghosts appealing to an empty sky. Though she calls them “the conscience of the town,” theirs is apparently a hopeless task, as the next stanza suggests.
With a tone that wavers between pity and anger, the statue describes a young girl (“with fifteen summers to her name”) that secretly came to give birth in the statue’s grotto. The similarity between the girl’s story and the story of Mary is striking. She, like Mary, is young; like Mary, her pregnancy is illegitimate; like Mary, she has no “midwife or doctor or friend to hold her hand,” and would be rejected by the town (“tucked up in little scandals”, as the statue says) if the people knew the circumstances of her pregnancy. The statue’s repetition of the phrase “tucked up” echoes its earlier use in the poem, “tucked up safe and dreaming.” Clearly, she means to remind us of the town’s petty naïveté, of the ignorance that allowed this tragedy to happen. Unlike the Virgin Mary, the fifteen-year-old dies in childbirth. The speaker, her sudden switch to short lines of verse punctuating her emotion, says:
and though she cried out to me in extremis
I did not move,
I didn’t lift a finger to help her,
I didn’t intercede with heaven,
nor whisper the charmed word in God’s ear.
Though the lines are ambiguous as to whether the statue cannot or will not help the girl, her repeated questioning of the Christian God suggests that she simply can do nothing. Additionally, the deliberate parallelism between the girl’s labor and Mary’s levels a heavy criticism against the Christian religion. The girl is a follower of a religion obsessed with death, and is condemned to death because of her religion’s inability to accept her pregnancy. Was then death also the result of Mary’s labor, when she brought the founder of Christianity into the world?
From this dramatic climax, the statue’s monologue segues into a lament. Abruptly, however, there is a break in the verse. This signals the reader that the speaker’s addressee has changed. In a move that both rejects the transcendent God and reaffirms the statue’s belief in the eminence of nature, she calls on the sun as “molten mother of us all.” Though the statue prays for mercy and pity on the creatures that participate in the “foolish dance” of life, her characterization of the sun as “burning heart of stone” leaves little room for hope. The sun’s heart is neither soft nor warm, the traditional adjectives used to describe a merciful personality. Nature as the ultimate law of the universe is beautiful but savage; the statue’s plea, it seems, is likely to go unheeded.
Considering the poem’s blistering attack on Christianity, it is no surprise that Meehan herself is a vehement ex-Catholic. However, her apparent sympathies with the older, pagan nature religions soften an otherwise pessimistic sentiment. God is indifferent or nonexistent; humans are violent, murderous, death-obsessed, ignorant; the statue is helpless, weary, and like the literal meaning of her Hebrew name, bitter. Nevertheless, the natural cycle in all its terrible beauty continues. Though Meehan indicates our chances of compassion from our “molten mother” are slim, still there is one reassurance – the sun will shine with equal heat upon us all.