Sorley MacLean

The Great Famine

The clouds of famine with loathsome stink
in the glitter of the sunlight,
withering flesh on bones,
making beauty a disgusting thing.
Breasts that were firm, upstanding,
ropes hanging to rib cages,
thighs and calves that were shapely,
brittle sticks of fire-wood,
and the belly that was sleek and slender,
a dry tight hideous buoy.

Many a famine and great thirst
were in the world from the start
without television broadcasting them
to the fat wealthy towns,
with no radio voice telling of them
to kindly or uncaring ears,
and to ears hot with shame,
to the ears of saints and of the wicked,
and to the ears that were listening
to the hunger of their own children.

Was it sin that made this destruction,
a destruction far more than twenty times greater
than the fire and brimstone of the showers
that poured on the Cities of the Plain?
Does Nature not care at all
and is Predestination cold-hearted and cruel?

More than twenty million,
more, more many a time
than died in the Famine of Ireland,
more than twenty million.
Who will measure the pain,
the torture that tears the heart
though there was only one
one child on whom there was not seen
the wonderful bloom of youth,
the bloom that might last
many a year without fading,
roses opening to full beauty.

Hearts of mother and father
and of sister and brother
torn with rusty nails,
with iron splinters from shells
that come without whizz from the sky
to tell of the world’s plight.

From where have you walked,
you three merciless companions,
famine, weakness and cholera?
From where have you come with your loathsomeness,
From where have you come at all?
Is it from stubborn ignorance or from the uncaring laziness,
from the small sin,
or from the great sin,
or from the indifferent selfishness
or from wickedness itself
or from the worst malice,
though mankind is so generous,
so merciful, kind and pleasant,
so careful of the state of his children.

Africa is far away
but television is near
comfortable rooms
and near tables rich with food
and drink the gleaming silver
and every other privilege of the stomach
of the eye and the taste
and the desires of the body.

How will food be shared?
How will the desert be watered?
Is death from famine and cholera
unavoidable as it was
throughout every generation that has come,
throughout every generation that will come?

Will every man and woman and daughter
and son and infant that will be spoilt
and killed with famine and cholera,
will all of them get the eternal Paradise of the spirit
throughout the lasting generations of infinity?
How good would the principal and interest be
as ransoms needed by the thousands 
and hundreds of millions of creatures
after the great distress of life.

— translated from the Scots by Sorley MacLean