From the Republic of Conscience was written by Seamus Heaney in 1985 at the request of Mary Lawlor, then head of Amnesty International in Ireland. While I find it perhaps a little bit too cutely virtuous as it goes on, I do love the opening image – or rather soundscape. To hear the curlew, you need
When I landed in the republic of conscience
It was so noiseless when the engines stopped.
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there, but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunder storms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
The hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.