Reflections from a home front: 6
Several times a day, we hear phrases such as ‘In these extraordinary days’ or ’In these strange times’. Already they are sounding a bit tired, but what else to say? Then there’s the ubiquitous ’Keep safe’ and other duck-billed platitudes. But you do have to say something.
We are at the point where language runs out on us. But from the distance of the screen, we don’t have a lot else. You cannot Zoom a hug; words are all we have. Though, somehow, miraculously, even our bumbling clichés become freighted with recognition of our shared experience and understanding.
Nevertheless, also we need our words to do more. In other words, we need poetry – and we need stories and images and song. Even at a time when attention is on practical action and sacrificial altruism, we need art.
Human beings in extremis have always turned to creative expression through words, notes and marks. And some of the art we need speaks directly of, or out of, the present strictures and suffering – a crucial complement to the multiplying reports and analysis. But it doesn’t have to. Truth about the human condition is really all we need.
We need it, not only as respite from uncomfortable reality, or as a window onto the wider, forbidden world, or simply to make us smile – vital though all those things must be. More urgently, we need it to articulate our feeling in all its complexity, and to tease out meaning. We need it to seed our imaginations so we see how things could be different. We need it to imagine that the world already is different from that constructed by our easy assumptions.
Ultimately, art lifts our eyes and enables us to see our present circumstances, and ourselves, within a bigger picture, a meta-narrative. That may be a faith story or it may be something else.
This week happens to be the week that two major faiths remember and celebrate the stories at their heart – both of which happen to be stories of suffering and death. On the other side of which, is life. Today’s poem might be a Good Friday poem, or it might be a response to the current situation, or it may be something else. It just arrived, and I wouldn’t want to be too prescriptive about it. You can hear me read it by clicking on the play button.
On Friday, as I walked apace,
Taking in the scenery,
The ground my foot found
The world spun round
And I went down,
Traffic, hedges, road – all gone.
Holes in roads are commonplace
And mostly fenced, with signs and cones.
Not always, though. And now below,
Much deeper than you would believe,
I breathe the dark and wait alone.
Wires of ancient roots intrude,
Through earthen walls. And then I glimpse
The splintered bones and glassy flints
And seasoned seeds in ribboned strips –
The secret treasures of the deep.
The stippled strata, neatly pressed
Are ripples of arrested time.
My months and minutes read the same:
Measure makes no meaning here
Where rhythms cease to tune the mind.
Mingled voices, feet and birdsong
Strain from somewhere out of sight
Above the shining mouth. And like
A single sapling, soft and slow,
I’ll grow towards the light.
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