Donna McDowell is head of Schools & Family Learning at St Paul’s Cathedral. She has worked on a number of artistic projects such as Under The Skin, Alternative Advent, Live Street Art, and Where Light Falls. She has also worked on a distance learning resource for families during lockdown, which you can find here.
My name is Donna and I work as head of Schools & Family Learning at St Paul’s Cathedral. Part of my job has included working with young emerging poets to retell the stories of the Cathedral, and so I am passionate about poetry and about listening to the voices of those whose stories haven’t been included, or who are seen as footnotes. That is why I love Seventh Circle of the Earth by Ocean Vuong – not only is it a superbly crafted and innovative piece of writing, it also tells a story that would not otherwise have been heard, and alerts us to the tragedy of the silencing of LGBTQ voices.
Ocean Vuong (2019)
Ocean Vuong was prompted, on hearing the news in 2011 of the murder by immolation of two gay men in Dallas, to write a poem. Entitled Seventh Circle of Earth (an allusion to Dante’s Inferno) the finished piece took three years to write and Vuong eventually formed it from his footnotes which lay at the bottom of the page of an original draft, reworking the piece so that the footnote became the poem, leaving the page mostly blank, and leaving the story to exist on a subterranean level, not unlike the subsuming of these men and their love.
The title sets the scene for violence and the epitaph begs the question: What world have we made where this kind of thing can happen? Before the poem begins the worst of humanity is laid out before us and we prepare for discomfort. But Vuong surprises with his craft ; he blindsides us with his ability to mix the erotic and the horrific. He conjures a private, intimate space in the midst of their love, in the throes of their deaths, in the confines of the footnotes. He honours the couple, telling the truth of their story in both its beauty and its horror, so that even in death passion lingers.
Seventh Circle of Earth makes us confront the truth of our world and through that the reality that we are either living as footnotes or forcing others to. But despite the awfulness of the facts behind his poem, Vuong leaves us with hope, with a subversive possibility that if we change the way in which we see and hear the truth, by giving voice and power to the marginalised, we are then all enabled to move along a path towards redemption and ultimately, transformation.
As part of Pride Month 2020, Crossbeam and Waterloo Festival are presenting a blog, featuring LGBTQIA+ artists and those who hold LGBTQIA+ art dear to them.
Josh Mock, curating the series, writes:
"It is my hope that by sharing the stories of diverse artists, we can appreciate and celebrate all those who strive to use art as a vehicle for LGBTQIA+ inclusion, activism, and advocacy."