This Is What You Shall Do

I was in New Jersey visiting my family a couple of weeks ago, and I went with my mother – who has lived in New Jersey from birth – and my 4 year old nephew, as well as my new Scottish family, to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. None of them except my sister and me had ever been there before, and it was a delight to share with them the moving stories of people from so many different places coming into my original home country, America… a place I’ve always celebrated, for all its problems, as a true melting pot of peoples, cultures and languages. It seemed especially poignant at a time when the worrying name Trump (aka the Wall Builder) was on everyone’s lips, and it was particularly interesting to see one display of political cartoons from the 1920s when America was in a political debate concerning ‘the control of racial purity’ and was in the process of limiting the influx of European immigrants.

Everything in waves, everything in cycles.

I am saddened today by the UK’s (or should I say part of the UK’s) vote to leave the EU, which has, especially since my moving to Scotland, always represented a commitment to peace, security and fluid borders in a way that made me feel so lucky to live in the UK. When I received my British citizenship, I was amazed that it also meant I could travel, live and work in so many other countries, and I have continuously benefited from the EU as an individual, as a poet and as Programme Manager at the Scottish Poetry Library, where we have received EU funding to bring poets to Scotland from around Europe and to send Scottish poets to countries in Europe. Facing the vote to leave today feels like a turn down a dark path toward all the things I fear – lack of communication, closing of borders, isolation, mistrust of others, and so on. Even the likelihood of another Scottish referendum and the chance that Scotland at least could find a way to stay in the EU, while exciting, emphasises the deep split between the thinking in Scotland and England that continues to surprise and concern me. I hope that whatever happens we can seek to see connections rather than differences in one another.

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” ― Walt Whitman

By jlwpoetry

Books by JL Williams include Condition of Fire (Shearsman, 2011), Locust and Marlin (Shearsman, 2014), House of the Tragic Poet (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2016), After Economy (Shearsman, 2017) and Origin (Shearsman, 2022). Published widely in journals, her poetry has been translated into numerous languages. She has read at international literature festivals and venues in the UK, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Turkey, Cyprus, Canada, Hungary, Romania, Montenegro and the US. She wrote the libretto for the opera Snow which debuted in London in 2017, was awarded a bursary to develop a new opera with composer Samantha Fernando at the Royal Opera House and was a librettist for the award-winning 2020 covid-response Episodes project by The Opera Story. Williams curates writing events and creates workshops and professional development activities for poets. She is hopeful about the simple and mysterious power of poetry that allows us to know ourselves, each other and the world more deeply.

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