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Spring Journal: Canto III

By: Jonathan Gibbs

About The Poem

This ‘canto’ is an extract from my book-length poem ‘Spring Journal’, which I originally wrote on Twitter between Match and August 2020, and was published in full by CB Editions in December 2020. It was intended as an in-the-moment response to the coronavirus pandemic, and modelled on Louis MacNeice’s long poem ‘Autumn Journal’, which he wrote in late 1938 in response to the impending world war. He described it as “not strictly a journal but giving the tenor of my emotional experiences during that period. It is about everything which from first-hand experience I consider important.”

I took the poem as a loose model: sometimes working out from specific lines, sometimes engaging more broadly with the themes of individual cantos, sometimes ignoring the original as I responded to world events. The final canto was performed as part of a complete readthrough of all 24 cantos on the online salon ‘Leap in the Dark’, curated by David Collard, on Friday 28th August.

The Poem

March is nearly over, the people
Back not from holiday, but from planned
Work trips, are relieved to be home. There is no joie de vivre,
None at all. It is absolutely banned.
Then it’s back to the working week, with a non-ergonomic
Desk chair, email, and Zoom.
And the tidied shelves behind where you sit in your office-
Cum-bedroom-or-living room
And the student’s lecture in bed that they’re somehow all the same late for,
And the pupil’s virtual lesson,
And the Catholic sinner’s suddenly authorized
Straight-to-the-Big Man confession,
And the poolhalls standing empty, the squash courts, saunas and lidos,
And the barbers and bowling alleys,
And the beauty parlours, the nail salons and wine bars,
And the chapels in the valleys,
Which means where are all the people? They are at home, of course
And the main distinction now
Is not between the jobless and those with jobs
But in whether or not you have to leave the house.
And another distinction: not the skilled vs unskilled workers
Of last year’s vicious points-based system
But the starker split between essential and inessential workers,
And therein lies true ‘social distance’.
The distance now is between those who hold society together, ventilate it,
Underpin and help it grow,
And those who harvest its pollen, siphon off profits
To lay down like last year’s Bordeaux.
And we live in an inside-and-outside world, our doorstep
Is a kind of Rubicon
Crossed only to fetch in the carefully set-down deliveries
Or for our daily walk or run.
Let the doorstep be a place of communication!
Let us stand there and clap!
Let us look up and down the road and see where
Our lives converge, connect and overlap!
And the garden centres ditching thousands of plants unplanted
And the fruit that will rot on the bough
And the bankers forgoing their annual bonus
And the goats running wild in Llandudno town,
And we know the government has acted, but that thousands
Of small businesses will go to the wall,
Which leads one to ask, what are jobs, businesses and bankers,
What are governments even for?
What will there be when we emerge from this crisis
And its developing adversities?
Will there still be theatres, cinemas, bookshops, galleries?
Will there still be universities?
Will the standard of intellectual and cultural living find its level?
For though it’s easy to say
There will be singing about the dark times, the singers
Need somewhere to play.
And morning brings birdsong in the garden,
And the gleam of frost on the lawn –
The silence this spring is that of the traffic
That we used to hear in our sleep, that ushered in the dawn –
And the rising death toll on the radio, for the strange tenor
Of this new crisis is the fact
Of its invisibility; it cannot be seen from the window,
Or on the TV, its only point of contact
Is in posts and reposts on Facebook and Twitter,
To say that somebody’s loved one has died,
And we count the steps that join us to that person
And so it spreads through our lives,
There are no corpses in the streets, no body bags, no visible sign
That might help to diminish
The disconnect of the fact that right now, in Britain, someone dies
Every two-and-a-half minutes,
And when this is all over, how easy it will be to forget what it was like,
For it was like nothing at all, a weightless dream,
It’s the nurses and doctors who’ll be like soldiers back from the trenches,
Unable to talk of what they have seen,
For we wouldn’t believe them if they did try to tell us, we’d be too busy
Turning our face to the wall
Or trying out our brand-new get-up
For the upcoming governor’s ball,
And April is upon us now, and most of us are still to find out
If we will rise to the challenge it holds, or become unstuck,
We who have been lucky so far, but cannot be sure if we’ve laid up
Enough time, and luck.

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