Opinion: can Conleth Ellis' interpretation of nuclear disaster help us to understand our current Covid anxieties?

After Doomsday, a remarkable long poem by Irish poet Conleth Ellis, describes the aftermath of a hypothetical nuclear attack on Ireland from the perspective of one of the survivors. This poem was published in 1982, and reflects upon a period of severe nuclear anxiety. But how can this poet’s interpretation of nuclear disaster help us to understand our current Covid-19 anxieties?

The poet paints a grim picture of a post-nuclear Ireland, in which survivors retreat indoors, listening to government broadcasts, in fear of the invisible radioactive fallout surrounding them. The poem opens with an official message of impending nuclear disaster. The advice is to stay inside, to listen for government directive, and to read the official booklet provided:

Remember,
the radio voice intoned,
you will not see it.
You will not feel it.
We have instruments that tell us where it is.


[…]

We repeat,
this is a NATIONAL ALERT.
Keep your radio switched on
and tuned to this station
all times day and night.
Follow the instructions
you will be given.
Read your booklet carefully.

Ellis based this poem on an Irish government publication, Survival in a Nuclear War – Advice on protection in the home and on the farm, distributed to Irish households in 1968. Readers might be reminded of the various yellow booklets such as COVID-19 Self-isolation and restricted movement leaflet and COVID-19: Staying well this winter pushed through letterboxes since the pandemic began.

The authoritative voice of the radio permeates through the poem, underlining the restrictions of the survivors’ lives in the midst of the nuclear fallout:

Do everything you are told
by the authorities.
This will be your greatest safeguard.


[…]

The danger will not be apparent
to you and will be all
the greater for that reason.

But is there a connection between radiation and Covid? They can be linked together by the concept of anthropological shock, a term coined by German sociologist Ulrich Beck. Primitive and tangible dangers, such as predators, fire, enemies, or rotten food, can usually be sensed by us, and acted upon. What Beck meant by anthropological shock is that certain dangers of the modern world, such as radiation, global pandemics, and pollution, cannot be detected by unaided human senses.

The shock of both radiation and Covid viruses is that we cannot usually detect their presence around us, and therefore cannot directly alleviate danger. This is the source of anxiety described in the poem, and one many of us may have also experienced in recent times.

The poem’s survivor, and we ourselves, must now rely on specialized information, scientific detection, and government mandates to understand a very real danger. In the poem, the government speaker broadcasts with authority, telling the nuclear survivor what to do:

When you hear the ADVANCE WARNING
You will have one hour
before it starts.
Check food and water stocks.
You will need enough for
fourteen days.
Shield your windows and
doors of your refuge room.
Complete your preparations.

The preparations for nuclear fallout are reminiscent of details of Covid-19 self-isolation protocols, and the uncertainty of the first lockdown of March 2020. As the poem progresses, the survivor and his partner venture from their home into the post-nuclear landscape. The new world is completely silent:

Even here there was no stir of wind or songs

Of birds or traffic noises on the lower road
Or dogs calling and answering across the dead
Vacancy of gardens, hazel glen and wood.

Since evening we have sat in the darkened house
Drowned in the radio’s static…

The radiation danger is apparent in the silence that the disaster has left behind. The alarmist language of the radio is the only way for survivors to perceive danger, and has faltered into static, implying perhaps the fall of the government itself – the survivor’s only security.

The verse’s images may remind readers of the silence of pandemic lockdowns, during which traffic, commerce, and industry faltered. The descriptions of drowning in static are also reminiscent of evenings spent in front of the television or social media, watching the inevitable nightly uptick of Covid-19 cases. Many turned to nature, to a time apart from clocks, watches and media alerts, for a sense of normality, as the nuclear survivor does here:

We climb out of habit now to where water smoothing rock
Affords some comfort in its certainty and in the song
it repeats and in the way its welling seems to belong
To a present that needs no spun sky’s insistent clock.

The nuclear survivor’s sense of a continuous present, of being stuck in time, is familiar:

Our clock’s intricacy means nothing,
has nothing to monitor its claims.

[…]

The silent clock
chimes always the present.

Days run into one another, months pass, lockdowns extend indefinitely, cases rise and fall; in our age of Covid anxiety, the themes of this obscure poem are remarkably relevant after our own Doomsday of March 12th 2020.

The poet's representation of nuclear anxiety in 1982 chimes with our pandemic experiences and highlights the worth of literature in understanding the unprecedented changes of our existence. This remarkable poem reminds us of the universality of the human experience as we face modernity and all its invisible dangers.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ