Book review: Good Ground Beneath My Feet. Poems from Iona by Martin Hayden.

By Jill Segger
August 12, 2020

The title of this collection offers a promise: a sense of place. In our deracinated age, this is something which many long for and  here, as so often, is  at the heart of good and memorable writing.

The poet has made many visits to Iona, the small island of monasticism, pilgrimage and evolving spirituality which lies close to, if not exactly upon, the western edge of Europe. That sense of ‘farness’, which remains my strongest memory of a short visit, seems to run through the poems. As a volunteer in the Iona Community, Martin Hayden’s perceptions and records are of a very different order to mine. However his catching of what it means to live for a while in a place so ‘other’ and yet so much part of our spiritual and imaginative traditions, has a foot in both the commonplace and the mythic.

From the sharing of narrow roads with a bull and an elderly sheepdog ( A Case of Good Manners on Iona and Another Case of Good Manners on Iona), to the theological speculation and doubt-wrestle of No father-figure healer, the reader encounters a stratum of our being which has been given space in a way that is both challenging and reassuring: the not-entirely-familiar yet recognisable unfolds throughout this collection. History is ever present, providing the timeless glass through which the preoccupations of Everyman in all times are seen and reflected upon.  We are held in balance for the leap into undertanding.

The self-deprecation and restrained eroticism of The Pelagian Heresy Revisited, the awkwardness of farewells, the slight irritations which arise between people from very different cultures who may have different expectations, all these experiences native to the human condition are observed with a sharp but compassionate eye. It was ever so, we feel the poet hint, and we – readers, pilgrims, community and visitors – are enabled to encounter the power of the place to hold both the quotidian and its transcendence.

That power is perhaps most vividly experienced in the poems describing the natural environment of the island. If one poem is to be praised above the others in this remarkable collection, it must be Under Colum’s Command. The ecstatic tumble of words recalls Hopkins, but never loses its narrative flow nor falters for one moment. Its evocation of sea, sky, salt, birds and landfall is truly masterful. Buy the book for this alone.

Perhaps the best gathering together of this collection is to be found in the manner in which the poet takes his farewell of us – a modest disclaimer to a pilgrim who has praised his work:

“...I find I cannot speak to thank him,

a tongue-tied ex-teacher

seeking the sine qua non,

a would-be latter-day St Francis

preached to by the birds.”

*  Good Ground Beneath My Feet. Poems from Iona by Martin Hayden. Published by The Garlic Press. ISBN 978 1 9161086 1. It can be ordered here

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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