Shock at the lockdown and terror of the Covid-19 virus has affected everyone. If poetry is, as it should be, a vital living force that should never be done without, then why not now, of all times, be immersed in it. Poetry is a lifesaver in emergencies; it can comfort, clarify, connect and enable both poet and reader to cope with the traumatic, almost surreal situation we find ourselves in, irrespective of race, creed, societal differences.
I personally sank into the poems which came almost unbidden. In fact, I was going to avoid writing about this situation as I thought people would be Covided-out, what with all the analyses, graphs, reports daily on TV…
Then I thought: no. Poets need to register such a cataclysmic time – as the Great War poets did – confronting, here, the invisible enemy. I am fortunate enough to live down an isolated country lane and I wanted to record the change (as well as steady cyclical patterns innocent of the virus) in nature, plus the obvious disturbing changes in our daily lives. I am still mainly in isolation, having had double pneumonia five years ago. I inserted a poem about a childhood experience of mine when I caught polio in another pandemic; the Prologue refers to the Brontes and the decline caused by tuberculosis, another killer. I also included a ‘bereaved horse’ poem to illuminate how an animal such as a horse instinctively deals with death and bereavement better than most humans. The moon is a symbol running through my sequence which is, really, a long poem. Other images, too, such as swallows, are interwoven throughout to make the separate poems all of apiece, and to illustrate strange kinds of progression. The fragility of our lives is stressed, and the care needed now; also the utter sadness of perhaps never seeing again those you have loved in life, as well as wondering about chances not taken.
I find it difficult to write about my own poetry, because all I want to say/sing is in the poems, so I will leave the rest to the blurbs on the back cover and hope the little book will find its way into some hearts and minds.
A friend’s photograph of a fragment of a medieval Doom window in a church in East Sussex seemed perfect for the front cover image.
(N.B. Patricia’s chapbook (46 pages) will be published later this year by Agenda Editions. £5. Further details will be found here. Ed.)
Patricia McCarthy: Five Poems from Whose hand would you like to hold …
VIII: A DIFFERENT EPIDEMIC
By 1910, frequent epidemics became regular events throughout the developed world primarily in cities during the summer months. At its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, polio would paralyse or kill over half a million people worldwide every year.
A different epidemic: polio, nineteen fifties.
From Fawley Refinery with its torch-flare
to Lyndhurst where verderers brand wild ponies –
children, the victims of this spike, call for witches
to sweep the disease away with brooms,
imagining it a usual forest fire. Doors bang
to shut village schools, dropped pigtail-ribbons
flutter in playgrounds where skipping rhymes sang
to the sky. A small girl is lying by a window
on a narrow bed, a tartan rug thrown over her –
days and nights twilit as, pulse racing, then slow
she fights for her life. On guard, like an angel,
her mother lays ice-cold cloths over her forehead
to bring down the fever. On the wireless, Listen
with Mother distracts from news of those paralysed,
of numbers of casualties, and tiny coffins that glisten
in the sun, ready, it seems, to put on merrygorounds,
not to sink into the soil; calipers, crutches, wheelchairs
in short supply. Everywhere is out of bounds –
tiny faces peering, as if from Advent calendars,
from communal iron lungs. My sisters make funny faces
against the glass pane. For I am that critically ill small girl.
My semi-formed scribble leaves wide, paper spaces
in the squares of every fragile day when I try to keep up
with Bushy Squirrel’s Diary. Pictured in the margin:
the shy red squirrel seeing off the rat-like grey.
When I am too weak, my mother fills in
the doctor’s visits, the doses of M&B, the moments
I collapse and they think they have lost me.…
‘Toreador’ blasts from the gramophone’s trumpet.
Outside, playmates hide behind a wall of sweet peas.
The cricket field’s three-legged races, the arrows
chalked on winding lanes where we play Tracking,
old Will’s pigs, the lily ponds… are still there.
So is the polio. It contaminates the rigging
of oil tankers and tar brought in by tides on Lepe Beach.
There we used to watch ocean-going liners pass
through The Solent: the two Queens, the green Caronia.
Luckier than most, I am left with horn-rimmed glasses,
a patch over a lazy eye and weekly appointments
in a hospital where I have slides: parrots to place
in cages, elephants in compounds… No graphs, like now,
of peaks, plateaus and R rates, yet the same race –
beyond horizons that tie themselves in knots – for a cure.
Let us hope magi, priestesses and witch doctors agree
on a vaccine simple as the one soon found: dissolved
in a sugar cube. Meanwhile verderers round up the ponies,
birchwood brooms, in a gorse-glow, fight the forest fires.
Think, now, whose hand you would like to hold:
for the last time: that of a secret or lost lover,
maybe, whom you always believed you would see
again one day. But now ‘one day’ has arrived.
And ask yourself why, O why – with roads closed,
planes parked and passenger ships in dock –
you deliberately locked yourself down out of fear,
respect or shyness; why you were not wilder – as loss
upon loss piles up in a makeshift mass grave dug
by your spade over the years, finality the dreaded find.
Think, now, of the faces you cherish – those
that shadow-gatherers have half-stolen – and recall
the arias in your soul when you topped yourself up
with them, the illuminated initials of each word
of theirs, the cobalts, coppers, golden centres
in their eyes that enchanted yours, the touching often
without touch. Reflect on those stolen moments
of grace; re-live them despite your skin-hunger.
No longer can you be resigned to carving them into
the ghosts you dwell with. For what of the endearments
not uttered, the lifetimes missed, choices
not taken in countries you could have named
while composing cantos for rivers, new summits
for mountains. Remember, the heart
never ages, even in rags; silences speak in colour.
Yet, in a blink, a second belongs to the past
which dissolves into a dream, impermanence
all you can cling to. So why not collect horizons
on which to write lines of poetry for recitals
in the ether, away from this clumsy-graceful dance
on earth. And think whose hand you would like
to hold one last time, then press softly to your lips.
XVII: UGLY LOCKDOWN SISTERS
The figures from the Metropolitan police, who are investigating a rise in the number of domestic abuse offences committed by female family members, show that domestic abuse offences committed by sisters have doubled from 641 in 2010 to 1,325 in 2018. The numbers have quadrupled for stepsisters and half-sisters from 33 to 142.
The Guardian, April 14, 2020
Figures uncovered by the London assembly as part of an investigation into abuse
found a 300% increase in half-sisters, grandmothers and stepsisters as offenders.
We never knew what the ugly sisters did
to Cinderella – apart from shoving her
into the fire’s ashes, bossing her to stoop
with a broom and scrubbing brush to all
the menial chores. How carefully they hid
their abuse, treating her as an easy push-over
while they forced her into rags, made her scoop
up their crumbs, and forbade her the ball.
She never reported their abuse, aware
they would have the last word and swear
it was simply acceptable aggression
by siblings, just rough-and-tumble play.
How many Cinderellas are there every day
afraid of retaliation, without a say?
We never know what goes on in tenements
and flats between graffiti-covered walls
where half-sisters and step-sisters rival
each other for favouritism of absent parents.
They steal make-up, jeans, adornments –
wearing jealousy’s green horns – and call
each other names, spit, bite, pinch – primeval
in strength, every kick and hair-pull meant.
How many Cinderellas live in fear
of these Gonerils, Regans, Medusas with hair
that hisses snakes – and never dare
speak up, dreading rows, blackmail,
and punches of prize-fighters who call:
Mirror on the wall, we are the fairest of all.
XXXII: TREAD CAREFULLY
Tread carefully. Decipher the geography
of the heart which will not be registered
on any map. See there its carving
by axe and shovel and spider’s open routes
that tempt with their silverings
yet lead only to cul-de-sacs. Tread softly
as if on butterflies’ wings lest you disturb
their colours and patterns. Too much to lose
in the purified light between dawn and dusk
when seafarers scoop whole oceans
into their holds, Delphic caves are palaces
as well as prisons, and tribes relinquish rituals.
Tread carefully and softly in any easing.
Remember Egyptian, Tibetan, Celtic Books
of the Dead give spells to those interred
in an open grave, no epitaph on a stone,
no relative in sight, nor priest to anoint,
the silence doing its best to cover it in.
Then pause for a lover to do up your shoes,
not near enough to be near. While laces tie
and every creature alive bows down
in a brotherhood on the shifting earth,
the heart whispering its surest ways –
see even the wayward sink into tenderness.
Hear solos of barn-owls accompanying
woods which beat with the communal heart
of those lost, summer leaves the bunting
for a new ‘normal’ beyond non-stop knells.
Despite honeysuckle entwined around regrets –
the criss-cross of pollutant jet trails tells
of a sky-spoilt world gone back on itself.
The moon, in a haze, like a blank traffic-light,
neither red, green nor yellow tests the gulf
between then and now, lockdown and release.
Best to rely on the anima mundi which has
no language, but is Love feathered with Peace.
As lost beliefs stutter into creeds, its Grace
will not let those who died alone seem,
amidst Michaelmas daisies, to leave no trace.
All the farewells that could not be said,
are printing themselves over and over
on backs of swallows, word for shadow-word
flanked by ring-ouzels lest falcons snatch them
mid-flight. Mine amongst them, for my father,
spiral into a chorus of Creation psalms.
Patricia McCarthy is the winner of the National Poetry Competition 2012. She was born in Cornwall, and brought up mainly in Ireland. After studying at Trinity College, Dublin, she lived in Washington D.C., Paris, Bangladesh, Nepal and Mexico. She now lives in East Sussex, where she taught for fifteen years at a famous girls’ school. Her work has won prizes and been widely anthologised. Her recent collections include Rodin’s Shadow (Clutag Press/Agenda Editions, 2012), Horses Between Our Legs (Agenda Editions, 2014 – chosen book of the year in The Independent), Letters to Akhmatova (Agenda Editions, 2016). Rockabye (Worple Press, 2018), Trodden Before (High Window Press, 2018). Shot Silks (Waterloo Press) and Hand in Hand (London Magazine Editions) both due in 2021.