An analysis of ‘reconciliation’

September 9, 2022

Pádraig Ó Tuama breaks down the poem 'reconciliation' by Jónína Kirton, a poem featured for National Poetry Day 2022. ‘Reconciliation’ comes from Jónína Kirton’s book An Honest Woman (Talon Books, 2017) and this analysis also appears in Pádraig's upcoming book Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems to Open Your World (Canongate Books, 2022).  

Read 'reconciliation' here.

‘reconciliation’ begins with a question: ‘how will I reconcile myself?’ This is not reconciliation to another person – ‘how can I be reconciled to them? – but about the speaker’s rela­tionship to herself. Many poems centre on the question of ‘Who am I?’ but here we have a slant to that query. Who can I be? this poem asks, and because of a split self, the speaker of the poem searches for an image of a bridge that will support her need to reconcile her mixed heritages.

Jónína Kirton is a Canadian poet of Métis and Icelandic heritage. Métis are a distinct Indigenous group who have both Indigenous and European ancestry – ‘métis’ is the French word for ‘mixed’. In Canada there are particular areas, slightly north of Manitoba, especially, that have a long and distinct connection with Icelanders.

A bridge is a feat of engineering. How much of a load can it bear? How deep does it need to be anchored on each side? What modifications to the land on either side of a bridge are necessary? As Jónína Kirton imagines a bridge between Métis and Icelander culture she recog­nises the danger of using a typical bridge as a metaphor. Anchors weaken the earth, and the bridge might ‘swing wildly’. Were she to build a bridge between Iceland and Canada, what safety nets would such a feat of engineering demand, she wonders? Then there’s those waves, those ‘rushing / waters below’. Such a bridge fails even the imagination: open to structural failures and also attacks: enemies who’d cut supportive cables. Threats above and below; threats from structures, threats from others. There’s a sense of crisis in the poem. It’s clever to use this metaphor – a stretched and perhaps flimsy bridge – in order to speak about of feeling personally stretched, at risk of collapse, or attack.

The crisis culminates at the end of the first stanza: ‘maybe one day I will just float away / see where the water takes me’. Is this abandonment? Or giving up, or ending? The tensions Jónína holds are tensions that go to the very fibre of existence.

A linebreak, between two todays, begins to address the crisis. In a poem about unbridgeable places a break is used in order to move the poem towards strength. The poetic form itself implies that not everything that’s separated needs to be split. A new way of holding split selves together is considered: ‘today // today I will rebuild’.

In the second stanza, rather than abandon the idea of a bridge, Kirton abandons the idea of building, imagining instead a bridge that grows. Once, in a public reading I found online, she shared how she researched bridges from around the world, then landed on living root bridges found in India; bridges made not of steel, but of the roots of trees stretched across chasms. The oldest of these bridges is thought to be five hundred years old. Something living – a tree – can be held in the earth in a way that allows the earth and the plant to be mutually sustaining. A living root bridge is part of the earth, spans the chasms of the earth, and lives; it is not just a means to an end, rather it’s a breathing thing itself. Where does one tree end and another begin? The answer is that something new is created in the in-between. In the zero-sum game of having to cut off one of her identities, Kirton rejects the binary choice, instead seeing her body as a type of living bridge, nurtured by the earth of two places, sustained by both, alive across its entire span.

Many of Jónína’s poems are a search for self, or even a reclamation of a self. She published her first poetry collec­tion at the age of sixty. Against a backdrop of ageism, misogyny and identity erasure, her poetry argues for, asserts and creates self-narration.

Many people might remember learning about metaphor in poetry classes at school. Kirton says that her experience is of being a bridge; not being like a bridge. She’s using the concrete image of a bridge and creating a direct poetic line between those structures and the circumstances of her life and identities. She searches for the right kind of bridge to use – in this way, she’s feeling for the right metaphor. Bridges are walked on, put under stress, stretched. Supported yes, but under strain. Kirton is in need – physically, as well as emotionally and culturally – of a new way to describe her multiple-cultured life. The poem models a creative way of self-support: in a time of difficulty, pay attention to the images that come to mind; study them, research them – it might be that your intuition’s landing on something more supportive than you think.

‘reconciliation’ responds to a binary choice – choose one identity, reject the other – and replaces singularity with multi­plicity. Jónína Kirton’s poem is an act of defiance, imagination, research and hospitality. It is an act of reconciliation.

Pádraig Ó Tuama

Pádraig Ó Tuama is an Irish poet, conflict mediator and theologian. He presents Poetry Unbound with On Being Studios, and the series is the most successful poetry podcast ever, amassing over eight million downloads since its launch in early 2020. Pádraig travels widely, lecturing and leading retreats, and writes both poetry and prose. He lives in Belfast.