4th May 2020
So the Covid19 thing sucks, right? Yes it does – the 27,000 and rising death toll, the glacial government response, the economic panic for so many. It’s an unprecedented frightener for the world and we should all look to the moment when Glinda, the Good Witch of the North sings “Come out, come out wherever you are” and we can embrace in the street again.
Though for a writer, for a poet, for me, there have been titchy benefits. I feel guilty for even saying that because as soon as I do, a vision of a gloved nurse risking their life crashes through my skull like a wrecking ball and I chastise myself for even considering the positive aspects. However, there have been these little bright spots for me and I am lucky, I can work at my day job from home and still be paid. What makes me luckier still is that my greatest means of expression has not been roughly snatched from me; when I am not working I can write, write, write on a daily basis and I don’t have to feel guilty that whilst scribbling away, I am not out chasing the horizon like the normals always told me I should be. The way I am spending my days is finally acceptable.
It was National Poetry Writing Month for the whole of April and for the whole of April, we were in lockdown so I developed a plan. To kick my own arse, to inspire me, I decided to revisit or in some cases discover, the poetry of a different writer on each day of the month. I flatter myself that this was an excellent idea; whilst feeling confined, constricted, imprisoned in the physical way, for me, every wall was demolished to rubble as I found myself wandering on vast plains, tumbling arse-over-head in a cheese-rolling style chase for my favourite lines, the ones that would pull me along a figurative shoreline by the ear lobe and plonk me at my literal desk, shouting “Now. Get. On. With. It.”
That shoreline particularly present for me on Day 6, in the work of Helen Dunmore and her collection “Inside the Wave”, published shortly before her death. This is the poetry that examines what it really means to be alive as Dunmore faces the certainty of the end. Anything but a dark slog, her words are applied to the page with the lightest touch, like a cat when he paws at your lips to wake you for his breakfast (which happens to me regularly). My favourite poems are those that examine the tiny details of life, the experience of simplicity which we so often fail to appreciate and elicit a shudder as those nuances dissolve into a hospital bed. So frequently the water, the sea, the waves and the beach are used as an anchor to the living, breathing world: In “At the Spit,” when Dunmore reminds what lying on the shingle is like, on a curiously weatherless day –
“And then shutting your eyes listen,
You’ll hear the tide swell and the wrack dry
To fool’s balloons, incurably saline
Crackling under the weight of your backpack
As you lie down,”
There is a blurring of the memory with the reality. She is there on beach but she is not. I was there at the beach but I was not, but I still could be and that for me, was the point. Get to the beach while you still can, (once social distancing is over of course, ahem), feel the pebbles, hear the waves and don’t even concern yourself with whether this will be a comfort later. It’s dark in places but only in the same way that my hallway, minus one working light since 2007, is dark; there is light at either end and occasionally a sweet treat. I read “A Loose Curl” and let out a gasp toward the end as the poet declares “I think something is moving slowly”. There is always something moving slowly, sometimes so slowly, it can be completely ignored.
Dunmore was a poet I hadn’t spent a lot of time with before but I also wanted to revisit poets that I had read before and indeed had heard read. Throughout the month, feeling the pang of missing the Live Canon family, I went back and spent some time with the playful, exquisite words of Gillie Robic, the elegant, enlightening words of Sue Burge and the mighty, National Poetry Award-winning words of Susannah Hart; a holy trinity of powerful, magical poetry and I swear each of them gets better every time I read them. I also revisited another Live Canon sibling Andrew George whose collection “Milk Round” does sterling work in lifting the spirits. It’s actually a perfect book for a dark time, funny and fresh without the froth.
George covers some monumental moments but with a sideways glance and often a bit of a giggle, but the poems turn sharp corners and often startled me with their poignancy. My favourite poem in the whole collection is “The Introduction” which begins with the words:
“It’s always the same with valuable people. They bugger
up your schedule”
I won’t spoil it by revealing its punchline, but suffice to say, the surprise is touching and fragile and puts the building hustle of the poem into perspective. For the Fleabag fans among you, this poem asks ‘So who would you run through an airport for?’.
So now I am asking myself whose poetry I shall read next. I am missing the earth and grounding of bookshops, of seeing a delectable title leap out at me from a shelf. I am also trying to swerve away from gin or biscuits by occupying myself with my original passion – poetry. Whilst I have the chance I am going to keep paddling through hotpenning and prompts, reading and re-reading, listening to recordings. It’s definitely an odd, lonely, fattening period we are going through but equally, it’s fertile time for poetry and gorging on it doesn’t make your jeans tighter.
Tessa Foley's debut poetry collection, 'Chalet Between Thick Ears' is available from Live Canon: http://www.livecanon.co.uk/store