WE HAVE seen with the passing of Eavan Boland this week that poetry can console us in a way that is utterly real.
Words have power, and we have turned to the ones so beautifully crafted by the award-winning poet to compensate for the cruel fact that we cannot pay tribute, visibly and in large numbers, at a public funeral.
Many have returned to her poem Quarantine and quoted its opening lines to describe what we are going through now: “In the worst hour of the worst season/ of the worst year of a whole people”.
However, it is the poem’s description of the final moments of a couple who died during the far greater calamity of the Great Famine that chill: “… her feet were held against his breastbone./The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.”
Fellow poet Paula Meehan has suggested we let Eavan Boland’s poems be our salve, and it seems we have done just that.
For instance, it was a Boland poem that came to mind as a response to Ruth Medjber’s extraordinary project Grá sa Bhaile (Love at Home) this week. The Dublin-based photographer slipped out at twilight to photograph friends and neighbours within a 2km radius to capture their lives in lockdown.
When she shared the results on social media, people recognised the imagery of Eavan Boland’s This Moment within her photograph, which opens with the lines: “A neighbourhood./At dusk./Things are getting ready/to happen/out of sight.”
It goes on to describe one window “yellow as butter” and then: “A woman leans down to catch a child/ who has run into her arms/ this moment.”
(On an aside: Ruth’s surname Medjber is pronounced “Medj” as in hedge and “ber” as in teddy. We need to talk about her and the many others who have responded to this crisis with flair and creativity because they are the ones who will help us redraw a post-Covid-19 world.)
Back to the consolations of poetry, several others recalled Night Feed, one of the many Eavan Boland poems to articulate a female experience not expressed elsewhere.
A friend, also a gifted poet, taped it into her diary to remind her every single day of the privilege that is parenthood.
“It was Eavan Boland’s gift to reveal the beauty in the ordinary,” President Michael D Higgins, also a poet, said. And here’s one short example from Night Feed of how she did that.
“I tiptoe in./ I lift you up/ Wriggling/In your rosy,/ zipped sleeper./ Yes this is the hour/ For the early bird and me/ When finder is keeper.”
Somehow, it offers a shred of comfort that the woman variously remembered as a “pathfinder” and “a great transforming spirit” died in the same week as national Poetry Day. The annual celebration of words fell last Thursday and it was dedicated to her.
Ironically, this year’s theme “there will be time” was imagined long before coronavirus restrictions turned the world on its head. It’s been heartening to see how we have used some of that time to draw on the underrated consolations of poetry.
Seamus Heaney’s words have become something of a rallying cry to remind us of the long-term benefits of social distancing: “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere”.
We have been returning to John O’Donohue, too, to be reminded that, “This is the time to be slow,/ Lie low to the wall/ Until the bitter weather passes.”
Time will come good, he assures us: “And you will find your feet/ Again on fresh pastures of promise”.
Another poem that has whipped around the world (I have excised the phrase “gone viral” from my vocabulary) is one by American teacher Kitty O’Meara who says she wrote it to try to find grace amid pandemic anxiety.
It reads: “And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.”
Elsewhere, Hugo Williams’s poem The Time of Our Lives provides the backdrop for a wonderful online exhibition run by the fine art gallery in Dublin, the Oliver Sears: “The future, can go and be/ bloody terrifying on its own/ for all I care/ me and my girl/ are stepping out for the past.”
And how comforting to put your best foot backwards rather than peer into the maw of an uncertain future. Then again, as Myra Schneider reminded us, she was going to climb back to strength on her “rope of words”.
If it were up to me, I’d make sure everyone in every community in Ireland had their own “rope of words”. Even though Poetry Day has passed, I’d set up poetry hubs which you could visit, virtually of course, to say what ails you and be offered a poetry “treatment” afterwards.
The idea of a poetry remedy is not new. Poets Julia Darling and Cynthia Fuller gathered a wonderful selection of poems in The Poetry Cure in 2005, offering words to describe, understand, and ultimately “cure” illness.
The book’s editors also reminded us that poetry is neither a frill nor a nicety. It is essential, even though we forget that. Poetry also stays with you, often recasting the world in unexpected ways. A feeble example: I can’t look at a gas cooker without thinking of Eavan Boland’s line: “The gas ring burned blue flowers”.
Every time I hear disembodied footsteps in the night, I recall Liam S Gogan’s poem Na Coisithe, which lyrically wonders about the walkers he hears after dark; Who they are? How they are? Where they are going?
Emily Dickinson is also a constant companion. I keep this on my phone and send it out when it’s needed. So here it is again: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – /That perches in the soul – /And sings the tune without the words – /And never stops – at all –
There’s more. Look it up or find another one to send to a friend. Tell them it’s the poetry cure.