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Featured Poem: On Leaving by Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda

Written by Rachael Norris, 19th August 2019

This week's Featured Poem is On Leaving by Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin.

I’m starting with this poem by thinking about the idea of leaving and what kind of emotions it might stir within us. So many possibilities! I think it’s perhaps instinctive to think of leaving – whether it’s a place, a job or school, or a relationship – as a sad occurrence, or at the very least something we should give some time over to mourning in some way, especially if we have ‘stayed’ in the situation for a lengthy period. As someone who can feel unsettled when circumstances change I do admit to leaning more towards the pessimistic outlook. On the other hand, leaving can in many cases be a positive, bringing forth new experiences and possibilities, and paving the way for changes that might transform us in ways we possibly may not have even thought of.

With that at the back of our minds, let’s look at the poem.

This person does appear to be struggling with their leaving. There’s the deep sorrow of ‘grief clouds my sad brow’ – this same grief is casting a shadow over what seems to be a very beautiful landscape, taking its gloss away somewhat and imbuing the place that is being left with the sadness that is felt.

The second verse is intriguing me, as it starts quite matter-of-fact. It seems to signal that the person has resigned themselves to leaving. It strikes me that the same simple, three-word sentiment could convey something different depending on how you say it.

Time to leave. The eager crew
to wrench me from my earth,
hoists sails, and ready winds
rush from your fiery ground.

I get the sense of opposition here, between ‘the eager crew’ being ready to set sail and move forward and the person who is reluctant to go. There’s a difficulty that’s physical in the word ‘wrench’, which makes me feel pained for this individual – I’m thinking of them clinging on with their fingertips, being desperate. It’s making me think of how leaving is a vastly different experience when the choice to do so is being taken out of someone’s hands – for example, in a couple or family, when one person is opposed to leaving and how that might affect not only the experience itself but their relationships with others and the world around them. Is this what’s happening here, I wonder – that the person is leaving against their will?

I’m trying to get a sense of what the place that is being left is like. For the person in question it seems idyllic – perhaps to some degree idealised? Even with these harmonious descriptions I find myself stuck on ‘your fiery ground’. I don’t know whether to take that literally, thinking that it’s a matter of safety that the person is leaving. Or is it more reason to not want to go – that there’s vibrancy and passion that will be left behind, and that will be missed out on.

I’m also struck by the lines

Wherever angry chance may force my path
your sweet name will soothe my ear.

Again, there’s a real feeling of reluctance to embrace change there, not just at the immediate moment in time but also further down the line. I feel a bit frustrated and sad that the person doesn’t have a better outlook on their future – that they feel their path will always be forced – but at the same time it’s reassuring that they will always have the comfort provided to them by the memory of the place they love greatly.

The ending seems more than a little ominous, which perhaps isn’t the most reassuring way to leave off. It’s fitting in a way, though – certainly for this person’s situation, but also for the concept of leaving itself. While it brings us to a bit of a cliffhanger it also reminds us that we can’t predict what’s ahead, no matter how much we try.

On Leaving

Sea pearl, western star,
shining Cuba, night hides
your bright sky in its thick veil
as grief clouds my sad brow.

Time to leave. The eager crew,
to wrench me from my earth,
hoists sails, and ready winds
rush from your fiery ground.

Fare well, my happy land, my Eden.
Wherever angry chance may force my path
your sweet name will soothe my ear.

Fare well. The huge sail crackles,
the anchor lifts, the anxious ship
cuts the waves and flies in silence.

Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda

(translated from Spanish by Frederick Sweet)

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