One of the roles of poetry is to rush into the gap left by the inadequacy of our own words, lending colour, texture and sound to unruly or elusive emotions. Lately, I have been reflecting on Larkin’s ‘Aubade’, a tour de force of existential despair whose chilling descriptions of the “soundless dark”, “time / torn off unused” and “the dread / of dying” seem entirely apropos for this period of lockdown. Yes, Larkin’s poem is typically introspective and maudlin yet its depiction of dislocation feels painfully in tune with what all of us have been enduring during recent months. The coronavirus pandemic has been by turns dreamlike and terrifying, bewildering and exhausting. A lethargic day inevitably follows a productive one. Sleep does not arrive when it should. Tears flow more often than they should. There are concerns over financial security, the education of our children, our country’s infrastructure… the tickertape of anxieties extends into the distance until it vanishes. This free jazz rhythm is unpredictable and unsettling. But still we must press on. We must, to quote Sheenagh Pugh, “climb without knowing / what’s on the other side.”
Initially, I did not intend to write about Covid-19. To be frank, I did not believe that I had anything perceptive or helpful to say about a crisis that, lest we forget, has claimed lives and continues to do so. In fact, I wrestled with the nagging doubt of whether poetry should respond to current events or whether time and intellectual distance is required to develop a wiser and clearer perspective. However, a conversation with my wife caused me to think again about how to best vocalise the strange situation into which we have been propelled. We chatted about the impact of wartime upon our relatives, notably my parents, and how there are distinct parallels with the impact of Covid-19: rationing, fear, blackout, invasion… I began thinking about war poetry as a prism through which the global crisis could be viewed. This led me to revisit Sassoon, Owen, Brooke and tangentially Thomas, and this in turn inspired me to write an interconnected sequence of poems called A Silent War.
Once that vault had been unlocked, the ideas flowed fairly freely and an intensive fortnight of writing began. Not being in work, and being gifted with a family who are supportive of the Arts, I was able to devote time and mental energy to the process. Coincidentally, before the coronavirus arrived, I was engaged in planning a second collection of poetry whose central themes include the meaning of loneliness and the negative impact of technology so I was already in an appropriate mind-set for parsing the jumbled ball of feelings brought on by Covid-19. The idea was to create a suite of poems that moved from a mood of fear and isolation to one of tentative optimism and looking forward. I wanted to pay tribute to those who have suffered and indeed died while trying to create writing that is positive – even celebratory. This prompted me to ask other poets to record audio of the individual poems that I could post online. I initially worried that this was little more than a jumped-up ego trip, but I was galvanised when people agreed to take part: they understood that the intention was to create a varied tapestry of voices to affirm that this terrifying virus affects all and each of us. A curious quality of lockdown is that we are at once separated and connected by the sharing of this separation. To that end I invited, and would have included more if I could, emergent and established writers from different corners of this island. Crucial to the mapping out of the project was an evenly split involvement of male and female voices. I am deeply grateful that they all gave so freely of their time and talents to help this project become a reality.
During the writing process, twelve poems became fourteen which in turn became sixteen. I asked each poet to pick a piece to read: the one that resonated most deeply. However, I had specific people in mind for a few of the poems. Firstly, I wrote ‘Homefront Prayer’, an expression of gratitude for all of those who keep society afloat during these troubled times, for Cathy Carson, an acclaimed performance poet and an emotional powerhouse whose profession as a cancer nurse adds another level of sincerity. This much longer piece is full of internal rhyme and tricky run-on lines in the vein of Allen Ginsberg:
Thank God for nurses weeping in break rooms:
almost broken after a double shift,
cheeks striped red from elasticated strips
on masks designed to minimise the risk
of this deadly disease yet still in fear
that this thin armour is not sufficient
to safeguard the health of their families
yet with no hesitation delivering
priceless sympathy and medication
to their patients in the direst of straits.
Cathy delivers a remarkable reading: she captures the intercessory timbre that the title might suggest – the repeated refrain “Thank God for…” is meant entirely literally. Secondly, I chose ‘Raised’ for Gaynor Kane, hoping that its narrative about baking and family would chime with her warm and generous personality. Lastly, I reserved ‘Lullaby’ for my own young daughter Anna: I hoped that her childlike naivety would counterbalance the anxiety and distress that characterise the beginning of the sequence:
Tomorrow, we will wake to a green light
Pouring out like wine from a cracked ewer
The influence of war poetry can be keenly felt throughout the project. ‘Blackout’ and ‘Blitzkrieg’, read by Ray Givans and Amy Louise Wyatt respectively, are the most obvious in this regard as they feature military imagery and allusions to the Blitz:
Fetching necessary groceries involved a sortie
Of precision planning: a trench run through starless quarries
Other poems veer off into more surreal territory. Glen Wilson delivers a haunting rendition of ‘Storm Of The Century’, which connects the pandemic to the deep chill of 2010:
In years to come, when someone asks me for the facts,
I will say: waiting for the virus felt like that.
‘Lacunae’, voiced by Linda McKenna, employs the real life theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 as an extended metaphor for social separation. ‘Reclaimed’, read with real gravitas by Keith Payne, was inspired by news stories of wild animals sneaking into deserted cities at night:
Cobbled streets echoed with wild boar and mountain
goats. Pumas lay on park benches like discarded coats.
I love this idea of urban rejuvenation, of societal healing in the ‘Asclepeion’ mentioned in Mel McMahon’s poem, of recalibrating and hopefully re-emerging with more compassion and at the very least a desire to take better care of each other and ourselves. As Pat Boran puts it so musically in the opening poem ‘Lull’:
with perfect hindsight and the clearest of glass,
we see each day,
less blurry now, as it slowly edges past.
However, the real purpose of A Silent War is to raise funds for Cruse Bereavement Care – a charity that leant me invaluable guidance and the tools to navigate a time of painful grieving. Not only is this organisation of great personal significance but also one whose services will be much needed when the pandemic eventually subsides. Cruse offers counselling, largely by volunteers, to children, young people and adults who are struggling to cope with their grief, and all money raised by the project will go towards helping them in their mission.
PLEASE SUPPORT THIS PROJECT AND IN DOING SO, SUPPORT CRUSE AND THE PEOPLE WHO SO BADLY NEED THEIR SERVICES.
A Silent War’s donation page is HERE
And you can learn more about the A Silent War Project HERE
Ross Thompson is an award-winning writer and English teacher from Bangor, County Down. His poetry has featured on television, radio and in an extensive selection of international journals and publications. He continues to read at arts festivals and literary events across the country, and he has also collaborated on several multimedia commissions.