POEM: Pádraig Ó Tuama’s “Affirmative Action”

Belfast, N. Ireland

I recently began reading Pádraig Ó Tuama’s book of poetry Readings from the Book of Exile (London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2012). Insightful in its profundity and subtlety, his poetry pushes us to the edge of our pods of comfort and forces us to look beyond, to others and our communion with them. I hope to offer an occasional reflection on some of his verses, and where he permits me, post pieces on here. Pádraig has graciously allowed me to post his poem “Affirmative Action” here now.

Pádraig’s poetry on occasion draws on the poetic nature of the Irish language. He opens his book with an exploration of exile, entitling his poem “Deoraíocht,” the Irish word for exile. He explains in a footnote that the word carries the implication of “to be in a state of tears.” In “Affirmative Action,” Pádraig discusses, via Irish linguistics, the importance of marrying our words to our actions. To me, this ties in well with my earlier discussions of Peter Rollins’ notions of understanding our beliefs as our actions rather than our espoused doctrines or values. My words, then – while carrying significance and weight, and certainly with a power that can simultaneously encourage and demean – do not reveal my positions, indicate my priorities, or point to what I find meaningful in nearly as profound a way as my actions. St. Francis of Assisi is often regarded as saying, “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” We convey our beliefs and our values more through concrete, observable doings (or not-doings) and less through well-articulated language. With that, I offer Pádraig Ó Tuama’s “Affirmative Action” and invite your reactions.

Affirmative Action

In the Irish language, there is not a word for ‘yes’. There is
not a word for ‘no’ either.

You can only answer in the affirmative – you can say ‘I
will’, or ‘I won’t’. You can say ‘I can’. You can say ‘I am’
or ‘I am not.

It is appropriate that a language so poetic as to suggest
a bridge between the world for exile and the word for
weeping would be rooted in an earthy solidity that requires
answers to be linked to an action. Affirmative answers are
indicated by action.

Let your yes be yes and your no be no.

Let your yes be seen in your doing.

Let your no be not-doing.

If you say yes, but do-not-do, it is a no.

So, forget all your talk.

Tell me by what you do.


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  2. Tony Brennan says:

    Padraig this week is visiting Hobart Tasmania Australia where I am Michael. I’ve used ‘Affirmative Action’ as a reflection with some leaders to draw them into the power of our word/ our words to as you say ‘simultaneously encourage and demean’. When we give voice to the depth of ourselves (and indeed listen to it in others) it is our words that try to contain the hopes, joys, fears and hungers of our humanity. thank God we have poetry and the poets like Padraig to help us in the great word search for meaning, so that we can hear ourselves trying to speak truth.

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