Jarod Carruthers: Part of the Astronomical Clock, 2010 (CC)
From PN Review:
Inside St Mary’s Church in Gdańsk stands a Clock of Everything. At fourteen metres, it was the tallest clock ever built when Hans Düringer completed it in 1470, and it remains the largest wooden astronomical clock in the world. So beautiful its creator was allegedly blinded upon finishing it, the clock is the first thing that greets you as you enter the basilica by the north transept, its dark medieval wood highlighted by the white walls. Composed of three discreet but interlocking sections, like the Trinity, it functions as an at-a-glance answer machine, the Google of the fifteenth century. Of course it tells you the minute and the hour. But if you want to know the phase of the moon, or the relation of the moon to Taurus, or the relation of the sun to Capricorn, or the relation of the sun and moon to each other, it will tell you that too. And at noon each day, beneath the forked tree of our Fall, like hatches to the realm of metaphor, tiny doors open and out wheel the three Kings followed by the four Evangelists followed by the twelve Apostles followed by Death brandishing a scythe – an order which undermines the hopeful face of Mary with her baby enshrined at the clock’s base as, Christ notwithstanding, Death’s caper reminds us, Time does for us in the end.
It’s the last week of August 2020. In a late-summer window of grace from the ravages of Covid-19, I’ve travelled here to accept the European Poet of Freedom Award for my collection On Balance, translated into Polish by Magdalena Heydel. Apart from having to wear a face mask in the hotel corridor, things seem pretty relaxed. Shops, cafés and museums are all open. The quayside is crammed. Along the Long Market, street hawkers tout luminous balloons. Any foreknowledge I have of Gdańsk is over seventy years old and in the wrong language: the sing-shattering sentences of Günter Grass’s maniacal Tin Drum unspooling in my head.
I’ve only been here an hour when I walk into St Mary’s. After contemplating the Clock of Everything (or as much of it as I can within a span of ten minutes), I begin to explore. An exhibition of black-and-white photographs flanks the southern side of the nave. I step closer to discover Pope John Paul II on board a makeshift chapel built as a ship surrounded by Soviet-era tower blocks. He’s gesturing out towards a sea of insects – ants or locusts descended on crops, something swarming. Except – they’re people. Men. Women. Children. A million Tri-City citizens turned out to welcome their native son. I stare. It’s a hot June day in 1987. Back home in Ireland, they are yet to uncover the mass grave containing 155 corpses on the grounds of a Magdalen Laundry run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity in Dublin, or the remains of just under 800 children at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. The Catholic Church sex abuse scandal is brewing while this Pope will dither and wring his hands. But for the crowds on a disused airstrip in Zaspa, he’s a light in the darkness of Communist dictatorship. Flip the context, switch the frame, and an alternative meaning emerges, the two truths not cancelling each other out but co-existing – rival languages in the one city – and I don’t know what to do with my revulsion. It doesn’t go away, but is added to, and unresolved. It pulses in the air in a shaft of sunlight like the shimmering, throughother aura of migraine.
That first evening, as the sun slides into the Baltic, I walk past the clattery restaurants, the replica Black Pearl with its useless paraphernalia of seafaring, the ship museum named after the Stakhanovite shock worker Sołdek, solid in its own shadow, out past the bridges and the fairgrounds and the glass apartment blocks of the New Poland to what’s left of the Lenin Shipyard.