When Politics force the Poets Hand

The background to my collection White Horses


As Carol Ann Duffy recently said on the release of her last collection as Poet Laureate With the evil twins of Trump and Brexit … There was no way of not writing about that, it is just in the air. In the last years I have found it increasingly difficult to avoid bringing politics into poetry. Poets strive to make their poetry timeless, open to the readers own interpretation and analysis.  Yet there are times when current events force the poets hand.

2016 was the year of two political shocks. The first dominated by zealous right wing evangelism, used as the front for a populist agenda. The second a rebuttal of a framework designed for peace post-WW2. Living in Germany I felt I was watching a slow motion global introduction to the end of democracy and progression. Christian imagery of the end times and warnings of war, a strong part of my upbringing in conservative Ulster, seemed omnipresent.

White Horses is in many ways a book of polarities. Each theme has its equal diametrical opposite, much like life. Death is reflected by hope and birth, dogmatic religion is counterpointed by transcendence and spirituality, insular politics expand into more global themes of injustice. The misogynist, anti fascist, artist is shown, by the women in his life, to be emotionally weak.

It started to take shape in the wake of the aforementioned political turmoil. I had been working on two seperate sequences. The first an exploration in the voices of the women in Pablo Picasso’s life, and the second a sequence on growing up in the North of Ireland in the midst of the troubles. Writing about the troubles is an intimidating task. In the wake of great poets such as Heaney, Longley, Muldoon it can feel like everything has been said already. I am restricted to my own personal experiences, as a woman, living overseas, looking back to my childhood. Memories are always viewed through the kaleidoscope of life experience gained since. In many ways my recollections are those of an outsider now. While exploring these themes, the interlinking themes of patriarchy and abuse of power started to gain their own momentum.

Political background

My grandfather Joe Burns was the Ulster Unionist MP for North Londonderry between 1960 and 1973. I grew up in a predominantly nationalist town in Mid Ulster. In this rural environment the vast majority of people were just busy getting on with day to day life. There were moments of horror when the news mentioned people and places you knew, but on the whole people tolerated one another. The happenings in Belfast and Derry seemed far removed from country life. Life was black or white. You were one side or the other, as mentioned in

The Mid Ulster Machinery Museum:

And for a while tanks taught us division, subtraction.
And our History revolved around war machines––

more tangible, for a kid, than evolution theory.
And every child knew the meaning of strange words
like “denomination” and “sectarian”. And we happily played
Across the Barricades, acting Kevin and Sadie, unaware
that most don’t look under cars before they can even drive.

 When I moved overseas to study, then travel, the world opened up. Seeing a police station without barbed wire turrets shocked me. I started to realize that normal, was not normal at all. The monochrome of my mindframe started to gain colourful nuances as I discovered the world around me, meeting people who were neither side of the dynamic I knew. I became fascinated with other peoples’ belief systems. Certainly when I look at my poetry I realize this is probably my central theme. I’ve never been able to shake off the obsession with split societies and power imbalance.

The imbalance and dependency of politics on religion (and vice versa) is not restricted to Ulster. It can be seen throughout the world. As the evangelical community in the USA embraced Trump, I was finishing a poem on the rejection of evangelical dogma.

On Faith

My God, a mother, a mountain, cries
No more. Punch the stained glass out.

Turn the music up louder to drown out the messengers.
You can’t be saved. You’ve been saved all along.

I left in 1994 on the cusp of the Good Friday agreement. Since then I have lived in Scotland, Israel (briefly), England, Chile and Germany. When I left, Hume and Trimble were on their way towards the Nobel Peace Prize. The Clintons were being cheered in the streets of Belfast. Donald Trump was the latest divorce scandal in Hello magazine at the local hairdressers. Life was optimistic for an 18 year old. Possibly I am tinted with middle aged nostalgia for a different, seemingly more progressive time. In an elegy to Martin Maginnis, I tried to convey how remarkable, and unlikely, that period in time was. For many it was (and still is) hard to forgive and move forward and yet giant steps were made towards a tentative peace.

Piano (after the forte)

One who, better late than never, brought hope, 
but also for every man a testament––
a reminder that we’ve the right to be judged
by our last fermata and al fine note.


The book title

Growing up in a distorted world trained my eye and ear for distortions elsewhere. In the last years, distortions in the form of fake news and nationalist propaganda were thunderingly loud.

The overarching book theme was starting to look almost biblical. Indeed the final section is titled revelations.

In some cultures, white horses stand for the balance of wisdom and power. In Celtic mythology, the white horse was sacred, associated with Epona, who occasionally took its’ form. With the spread of Christianity throughout Europe the worship of Epona was eclipsed but the imagery was absorbed and transformed within new religions into one of purity. In Islam, Christianty and Hinduism the white horse carries the world’s saviour in end times. There is an element of prophesy, often emblematic of war. In mythology, the white horse is ever present: The white horse associated with Mars, the god of the fury of war, or the horses pulling the chariot of Helios, the sun god. 

In modern day and fairytale culture, the white horse is traditionally the vehicle for the gallant knight, on his way to save the helpless princess. It seemed fitting, when writing about the eclipses of power, politics and war to also explore the unbalanced politics of relationships. Who better to give voice to that than the many women (many talented artists themselves) surrounding Pablo Picasso?

It’s hard to expand, warped in your vacuum,
eclipsed and refracted in the limelight of lenses.
So tell me, Galaxy LRG 3-757:

If space-time fabric is trampoline flexible
with room for every atom of our dark matter,
why do you always have to be in front of me?

This Einstein ring, where ideals can’t meet. My mass
is peripheral in your relativity. And maybe
my thinking’s wrong. After all, it seems to be physics

that galaxies have strong universes in their shadow––
invisible to man, to scientist, perceived as merely a halo.

It is impossible to write about Pablo Picasso, war and politics without mentioning Guernica.

The symbolism of the white horse in Guernica is disputed. Do the horse and the bull represent the fight between Loyalists and Nationalists, the Spanish people and Franco’s regime? Or the ongoing struggle between the female and male? Darkness or light? In Guernica the white horse is in agony, impaled by a javelin. Some saw this as a prediction of the downfall of Nationalism. But it can also be the people portrayed as helpless, dying a senseless death. Again we come back to polarities and equal and diametrical opposites. The white horse can be the victim:

…………….. I’ve never judged men by their convictions,
but Dios, I’ve learnt to judge them by their spines.

I’ve discovered sincerity in unsung notes.
They offer solace. The silence comforts me.

or hope itself:

His poll and chest lift up, celestial, as front hooves conduct the clean dispersal.
In pirouette he curls as cirrus, a twisted scream of cyclone, swirling.

This corona around his heart is mist released by dance, wrapped in tenses.
Paint can’t hold his aura, spirit as white pulse streams into shore, spindrifting

This corona around his heart is mist released by dance, wrapped in tenses.

Paint can’t hold his aura, spirit as white pulse streams into shore, spindrifting.

Picasso never committed to an explanation of Guernica: “… this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning.”

Interpretations and symbolism aside, white horses are a biological example of transformation. They change from dark at birth to white over time. They can represent winter, a time of rest and rebirth. In the current political climate, in the wake of the #MeToo and resistance movements, the urgency of the final poem in the collection is obvious. The politics of society, democracy and, by default, the politics of patriarchy and relationships have never been more closely entwined as now.

And Lo Behold


For my daughters, I want much more
than this. So, for Matria, good men

and for the love of God and Eden
and for all that has been held from

women. Saddle up. There is no time.