Analysis: while pandemic-era poetry uncovers the vulnerabilities of humanity, it also reminds us that disasters do end
Indian poet and essayist Arvind Krishna Mehrotra describes his experience of living in the pandemic era as follows. "My sense of mortality is keener than ever. In my garden, I look at an unfamiliar sapling and wonder if I would ever find out its name." Mehrotra's keen sense of mortality and heightened attention to his surroundings also acts as the driving force behind for how many poets are addressing these times.
Recent writing from Irish poets has especially focused on the collective experience of the altered reality around us. While sensory information has been an essential source of inspiration for several generations of poets, pandemic-era poets portray the sensory with an exceptional vigilance.
In Air, Corporeal, Seán Hewitt relates the fears that the sight of a whitethorn evokes. He relates the myth that "a touch of the hand" on the plant "might/ bring a blight". The ill-fortune associated with the plant reminds Hewitt of "some wrecking fibre/ in the air" which might "open us to some/ invisible fracture".
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From West Cork Literary Festival, Seán Hewitt reads from his work
It is a time when even the simplest act of breathing is pervaded with fear. Jean O'Brien in Still Here identifies the overpowering and unforgettable scent of death in common things: "the sweet-grass smell of tarragon/ mixed with the pungency of lemon thyme."
Grass is growing on Grafton Street.
Plague notices are yellowing the grass.
A lone walker wearing her covid dress—
Runners, gym-pants, anxiety, mask.
The isolation that poets are subject to mandates that they write about their surroundings such as household interiors, gardens and what strikes their senses. But at the same time, apprehensions and fears connected with the virus lurk around them. By observing the effect of Covid-19 in the most mundane experiences, poets manage to show how the fear of the virus permeates all aspects of living in the present circumstances.
From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry show, performance poet Felicia Olusanya on the importance of poetry
The everyday reality of the pandemic in the poems is not only marked by fears but also by affection, love and care for others, heightened by the separation imposed by pandemic induced spatial distancing and isolation. In Ovid-19, Tara Bergin re-writes Ovid’s exile poem to speak of her own separation from her loved one. She reiterates Ovid’s cry when he was 1,000 kms from home: ‘I want to be with you any way I can’.
In a rather playful poem Lockdown Boogie, Audrey Molloy urges her lover to "go dancing" with her but only in their "heads". Despite the fact that the outing is in the lovers’ imagination, they decide not to kiss and wade through "discarded masks/ like leaf litter in the alley", reminding the readers about the pandemic. Bergin and Molloy uphold the compulsion to love which define their altered normalcy.
Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe in Hymn to the Twins of Nyx and Erebus decides to address death in a playful way. She evokes mythology around death from Hesiod’s Theogony, where child gods of death and sleep are banished from society. She relates her desire of a visit from those gods:
that calm and gentle god would find me
kiss my eyes
shut with his hands
cover me with poppies
Aria Eipe's response to the pandemic embraces her mortality and imagines death without the horror and phobia attached to it.
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From RTÉ Radio 1's Poetry Programme, how the pandemic has inspired new poetry
Although death, fears, apprehensions, and lovers’ pining colour poets’ experiences in the pandemic, the poetry is not devoid of moments of joy and discovery. Haverty’s The Siege of Corona presents some cheering images: ‘the sun is bright, the roses burgeon’ and O’Brien’s Still Here observes the indomitability of nature and people’s resilience:
...We must hold on,
with the stalking fox, the howling
wolf, the swimming fish, the birds
wheeling in the air and us, holding on
all here. All still here.
In the same vein as O’Brein, Aifric Mac Aodha in her Irish language poem, Athoscailt (Reopening) presents the euphoria which comes with easing of restrictions and how one "slip[s] off the bridle" as soon as possible.
Pandemic era poetry has honestly responded to the reality of our times. In one of his final poems A Fox in Grafton Street, Derek Mahon speaks of a fox video-graphed running in Grafton Street which reminds him of resilience of nature and he assures us that this pandemic is a mere "enforced parenthesis". While pandemic era poetry astutely uncovers the vulnerabilities and desires of humanity, it also reflects upon the larger historic picture which remind us that disasters end.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ