Of Circles and Squares and Belfast

Essays, Featured — By on March 4, 2013 at 3:00 am

Sadly, things are beginning to heat up again in the city of Belfast. Centuries of conflict and centuries of fear have been passed down through the generations. Much blood has been spilled in the name of religion and opinion and freedom and oppression. The walls are built high between the people, both figuratively and in reality.

Just a few months ago, my wife and I were walking around this beautiful and fractured city. We made our way over to the western suburbs where much of the violence of the past had been situated. There, between the red, white, and blue of the Union Jack and the green, white, and gold of the Irish Nationalists, stands tall a fence. Commonly called the Peace Wall, it, along with many others in Belfast, were first constructed in 1969, to separate Protestant areas from Catholic. Some of the fences have been torn down, others still cut a line through the neighborhood. A physical wall of separation standing as a mirror to the deeper socio-cultural walls of separation.

In the part of Belfast where we walked, the wall is covered in the signatures and scribblings and artwork of thousands of tourists. It has also become a place of commissioned artistic mural. Local artists and youth initiatives have brought sculpture and poetry and painting and graffiti art to the wall, much of it as statements of solidarity and the desire to see the wall torn down both physically and socially. The art sits atop the fence as a complete defiance of the fence. It is held up by that which it challenges. It is subversive.

I like this about art. That it has the ability to sit between us. Not as a separating wall. But as the creative expression of a common desire. It makes bridges out of walls. In this sense, it is prophetic in that it sees what could be and declares it. It whispers to people of a new reality. A world beyond our walls and our conflicts. It encourages us to step over the walls that separate us and see what lies on the other side.

mckerrow2It reminds me of the work of Goncalo Mabunda, an artist from Mozambique. He creates stunning sculptures out of the rifles and the bullets that once were shot in the violence of that nation. It is an aesthetic of redemption. The artistry of peace. He makes his sculptures knowing full well that he may be making them out of the very guns that have killed his family members and neighbours.

As a poet and a writer I must recognise that every piece I create will either perpetuate the walls that separate or they will subvert them and so provide us with new ways forward. Whether I realise it or not, as soon as I let others see my artistic creations they become a social statement. A perpetuation of walls or step toward dismantling them. As a human, may I also recognise the same. That every social interaction, whether I like it or not, will either perpetuate walls or dismantle them.


I wrote the following poem that day as I walked the Peace Wall.


The circle was a circle

till I walked around the corner.

The square to stay a square

till she walked around my own.


The powers that be built a wall upon our street.

Between the buildings and the factories

Between the circles and the squares

Between I am right and you are wrong.

They built a wall and we threw our stones.

I threw my stones till she asked me

to walk around the corner

cross the wall that stood between us.

I stood

where she had always

looked up upon my circle

to blink in disbelief to see

it was a square.


The next day

she came to where I had always made my home.

She turned to her square, she saw it as my circle.


From the shapes

that we believe in

to the God of three dimensions

our angles

do betray us

till we walk around the corner.



Joel McKerrow is an author, speaker, performance poet and educator from Melbourne, Australia. He has, for the last five years, been on faculty at Tabor College Victoria running a program in spiritual and identity formation for 17- to 22-year-olds and is now a full-time performance poet and writer. He is the founder of The Centre for Poetics and Justice (www.cpj.org.au), a nationally recognized community arts organisation in Australia. He is a regular host on the IndieFeed: Performance Poetry podcast (the most well-known spoken word podcast in the world), and in 2012 was the third ever Australian to represent his nation at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships.

oel has toured extensively, performing, teaching, preaching, and running workshops at poetry venues, universities, theological colleges, festivals, and churches throughout Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. As a performance poet, he has released a highly successful spoken word album and has performed at venues such as The Nuyorican Poets Café, the Bowery Poetry Club, The Cantab Lounge, and Busboys and Poets, and he has performed alongside such poetry greats as Ken Arkind (US National Slam Champion), Mahogany Brown, Jive Poetic, Sarah Kay, Phil Kaye, and Shane Koyczan (US and Canadian National Slam Champion). He has been commended by the Australian National Poetry Slam Champion, Luka Lesson, as “a true leader in Australia’s performance poetry scene. . . . A man who can tear a roof down with his performances and bring tears with his subtle eloquence.”

As a writer, Joel is a published author and poet. His latest published work, Beyond Rhetoric, Writings in the Tradition of Kahlil Gibran (UNOH Publications), has found acclaim as a modern day poetic fable. Father Richard Rohr provided the foreword for the book, stating that “Maybe wisdom is recognized first by those who love beauty. We Franciscans frequently believe that beauty might, in fact, be the truest name for God. You will find such wisdom beauty here.” Joel is also a regular feature writer for the Gestalt Journal and the New Urban World Journal.

Brian McLaren (author and activist) has said of Joel, “In a time when politics, theology, and other important avenues of human intercourse suffer from a flatness of prose and a vacuum of meaning, Joel walks on stage just when we need him, sounding off with all the craft of a first-rate poet and all the verve of a first-rate performer.”


Joel has a BA in psychology, a BTh in theology, a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment, and an MA in Vocational Practice. He is passionate about discovering a new way to live outside the system of the Empire of Greed and spends much of his time trying to match his actions with this belief.


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