Be honest: if someone told you that Bono wrote a St. Patrick’s Day poem about Ukraine, and that Nancy Pelosi read it in public, on earth, at the annual Friends of Ireland luncheon at the White House, which is apparently a thing that exists, and that poem turned out to be three maudlin limericks in a trench-coat, and that when it was over, all these people sighed with pleasure, and then the Speaker of the House of Representatives (of America!) said “Riverdance!” and then Riverdance came out, would you have believed them?
No, you would not. If someone told you this had happened, on St. Patrick’s Day, you might suspect they were very drunk, because “drunk” is what our wretched country has made of Irishness. And yet, this is precisely what happened in the sober light of yesterday.
A performance note, while I try to pull myself together: Nancy Pelosi is wearing a blue dress with a yellow pin, the colors of Ukraine’s flag, at a St. Patrick’s Day event, a holiday at which one is notoriously pinched if you are not wearing green, because violating bodily autonomy is what this wretched country has made of Irishness.
An etymological note: the name Zelenskyy is apparently derived from the word “Zelyonoe” which means “green.”
A genre note: the whole point of a limerick is that it’s obscene, that it’s transgressive, that it’s trashy, basically. Limericks are about a man from Nantucket, whose dick was so long he could suck it. Theodor Adorno said that to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric; Bono decided to write three limericks about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A Bono note: as Nancy Pelosi remarks, “Bono has been a very Irish part of our lives.”
The poem itself. It’s awful. If it was anyone but Bono who sent it to Nancy Pelosi to read, at the annual Friends of Ireland luncheon at the White House, you’d be sure that it was a prank. The point would just have to be to write the worst possible poem and then laugh your ass off when Nancy Pelosi — an extremely powerful member of an extremely powerful government of an extremely powerful country — didn’t seem to realize that she was reading three limericks.
But this is Bono. Have you seen the sunglasses he wears? He named himself Bono. He does not have the self-awareness to be bad “on purpose.” His mind is on higher things. And that’s why the poem begins with an enjambment so thudding that it would make a lesser artist doubt himself, and start over:
“Oh Saint Patrick, he drove out the snakes;
With his prayers, but that’s not all it takes”
But Bono has never doubted himself. He presses on. Having tantalized us with a deep desire to know what else it takes (to drive out the snakes), the poem slows down, sensually, like a lover:
For the smoke symbolizes
an evil that arises
And hides in your heart as it breaks
When future scholars debate whether Bono intended Nancy Pelosi to say “snake” instead of “smoke,” I think the consensus will probably be that she misread the line, what with this being the first mention of smoke, and what with snakes being an extremely on-the-nose symbol of evil, and also with Bono being just an extremely on-the-nose person in general.
However, until we get our hands on the original text, I think we need to take seriously the fact that she said “smoke,” and not snake. So what we have is this: smoke, which is a symbol for an evil which arises yet also deceitfully hides in your heart, which it simultaneously breaks.
Much is still in question, at this point in the poem. For example: Who is it hiding from? Why does it “arise”? What has happened to the question of “what it takes,” since the poet is asserting prayer’s insufficiency as an exclusive property? What else did St. Patrick have in his bag of tricks? Javelin anti-tank missiles?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. There is, as a poet would say, just a lot going on here, and so the second limerick takes up the heavy burden of teasing it out:
And the evil has risen, my friends
From the darkness that lives in some men
But in sorrow and fear
That’s when saints can appear
To drive out those old snakes once again
Comforted by the notion that we are among friends, we nevertheless quiver with these new revelations. In the first limerick, smoke symbolized an evil that lives in your heart (as it breaks), but the second limerick now clarifies — just as the old testament is both replaced and redeemed by the new — that the rising darkness actually lives in “some men,” not just symbolically. Of course much is still shrouded in mystery: Does the darkness live in their hearts? Or is that implied? But what we know is that while the evil rises out of this darkness, it does not, it now seems, necessarily live in the heart.
We could linger in these mysteries for days. But I want to press forward, because while the second limerick moves the plot forward, the smoke thing seems to have dropped out completely, and also Nancy Pelosi absolutely butchers the first two lines (she actually reads “and the evil from risen from friend from the darkness that lives in some men” and seems pretty confused, as who wouldn’t be, to be fair), and also, I want to get to Riverdance.
The real meat of the piece is this absolute banger of a final limerick:
And they struggle for us to be free
From the psycho in this human family
Ireland’s sorrow and pain
Is now the Ukraine
And Saint Patrick’s name is now Zelenskyy
Petty critics might ding Bono for the use of “the Ukraine” (no “the” is required or welcome), but I have my eye on omission of the possessive, ‘s, presumably to preserve the rhyme. But while “Ireland’s sorrow and pain; Is now the Ukraine’s” would be more grammatical than what Nancy Pelosi recites, I think posterity will ultimately agree that the best choice is “Ireland’s sorrow and pain; Is now in Ukraine.” Whether Nancy Pelosi’s unorthodox performance choices are at the root of the mystery, I count myself unequal to say; on that, we’re all looking through a glass darkly. But really, isn’t this just pedantry? Bono, I think, is after bigger game: the human soul.
Like so many poets in history, Bono uses a poetic device called “ambiguity,” delicately keeping unspoken the actual name of this haunting figure, this “psycho in this human family.” He comes out and tells us Zelenskyy’s name, so I’ll confess, I was frustrated by the omission. But the more I think about it, the more I think shrouding the identity in mystery is exactly what this whole poem is about (what it “symbolizes,” as poets would say). For just as Milton’s Satan was always more interesting than God, the rather predictable revelation that Zelenskyy is the saint in question gives way to the deeper, more philosophical questions Bono is posing about what on earth this poem is about. It’s definitely not about snakes, because snakes are obviously not a part of the human family (the sub-order of serpentes contains 14 families of snakes, as it happens). And it’s not about smoke. Is it about Ukraine? Yes, it is about Ukraine. But it’s also about the nature of evil, which is, I think, not snakes. (unless?) Also who is the “they” who struggle for us to be free? (Is it snakes or is the saints?)
Yes. And there is no doubt, certainly, that questions remain. But if there is one thing we can say about this poem, it’s that, like Ireland and Ukraine, and snakes, and Bono, and Nancy Pelosi, it exists in the world. And doesn’t that just give us all some comfort, in these dark times? God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.
And now, Riverdance.
Aaron Bady is a writer from Oakland.