Lock-Down Poetry: Poems in a Time of Covid-19

A Contribution to our poetry series on the Sarum College Blog, by Rachel Mann

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I suspect none of us should be surprised that there has been a genuine uptick in interest in writing and reading poems during the coronavirus pandemic. A friend of mine, usually an avid reader of novels and long-form books, has found that lyric poetry has become her go-to form.

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Poetry has a discipline, intensity and – this is not to be dismissed! – a brevity which meets our restless hearts with balm.

As a poet, I’ve often struggled to settle to the hard craft of either working-up or writing new work. I think this partly reflects the pressing, if curious demands of my responsibilities as a parish priest and area dean. I’ve had little energy for creativity. Equally, I’ve found living a constrained, disrupted life quite exhausting.

Arguably, as someone with underlying health conditions, I was in some ways better prepared for lockdown than most. It was not, after all, the first time in my life I had learned ‘limit’. However, this time of coronavirus has taught me new things, not least just how much I value touch and physical contact. Living alone can be gift. It can also be costly. These past few months have generated a huge cost.

The poems I share here reflect an emergent response to the ever-unfolding demands of living well in a time of coronavirus. The first poem was sketched during my last proper trip away from home before lockdown, to a beautiful and amazing house on the Fylde Coast. If the worked-up version reflects on the power of solitude it also notes how quickly that can turn into loneliness and separation.

The second poem was written during the Octave of Easter. What a strange Holy Week and Easter it was! As I look out of the rectory window at a church building from which I remain separated and cannot enter, I seek to capture some of the necessary strangeness of resurrection.

Finally, I share a freshly minted poem. It is a response to my first trip outside after over ninety solitary days. It is addressed to the God-Who-Sees/ El Roi. This name, of course, is the name given to God by Hagar in the Book of Genesis. I hope my words capture something of the oddness, wonder and, indeed, terror I felt as I entered alien space – the outdoors – for the first time in months.

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Fylde Coast Apocalyptic

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Of all ends (fire, ice, pale horse), none of the predicted.
Rather: a house, seashore, three-stories
Sealed by brick and glass, glazed and glazed, mirror-dim.

A house, warm and bright, hydrangea-paper walls, acres of
White and powder-blue, and out beyond, a view –
Beach at low-tide, sea sucked out, grey as dead whale.

Out beyond, banks of sand and pools cling, no sound,
Further still, surely, surely raw waves crash,
And rain’s venom. Maybe, it may be, but here –

A nursing-home apocalyptic (attendants gone,
Tea stains and cake crumbles, silent TV), and beyond window,
A partial witness: man with rod, he runs towards the swell,

Casts and waits, he’s no fisher of men. No need
Of me. And me of him? Earth curves beyond sight
And close to edge, venom rain, how many miles?

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Day of Resurrection

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Beyond window, all as it should be: Behold! a church rises
Above garden and fence, Behold! a theatre of brick and sacrifice,
Work of pulley and hand, Love of centuries made tall.

But I must not cling, noli me tangere… eye and ear enough,
And I can hear bird – whistle and whoop, mating call as alleluia –
I can hear song above technology (headphones, Zoom, cue in 3,2 …).

If I must leave Church locked, I shall be Study, piles of books,
Words and words, and Word: He is Risen! supposedly, He is, He IS.
Can I believe without sight of candle, feast, of flame?

I shall find Table where I can, gather fragments of bread, a splash
Of wine, all the sureties He left behind, and the fateful words:
This is my body, this is my blood. I need no witness, none seen,

Though grant me sparrow and blackbird, magpie and wren,
A single car, a hush as it passes the front door; grant me
Men and women – somewhere – who still run away in wonder, awe.

(Originally published on The Manchester Writing School website, as part of its ‘Write Where We Are Now’ Project)

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To El Roi

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Tonight, no other way shall serve:
I shall tell all, how outside became mine,
Mine again,
How glass of my eyes misted
And I learned breath anew, with covering,

Layers, as if I had surgery to perform.
I shall tell all – of colour
Of newly-laid roads, bluebottle dancing,
Gleam of rain, who knew pavement 
Gave back such resistance to shoe?

I shall tell all – How I touched neighbour’s wall, tip 
Of finger tap, felt first things, not me
Or of me or of my house,
And how I thought I must have run away
(Not all buildings are homes).

I did not know the mere sight of trees
And fields could be sacred bread, 
(Such terror, do not touch my lips);
Is this how he felt, he who Christ
Unlocked in dirt and spit?

Tonight, no other way shall serve:
I shall speak tears, of a sky
that weeps. Tonight
No words, and all words. Tonight,
Tonight, I shall not tell.

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