I was intrigued when I saw on social media that Martin Figura was regularly staying in a haunted inn in Salisbury during lockdown. I used to live there, taught at the boys’ grammar school and gave birth to our first son at what is now Salisbury District Hospital and where my husband was a junior doctor.
I was even more interested when I learnt that Figura had been commissioned to write a sequence of poems about the impact of the pandemic on the hospital and its staff. I sent off for a copy as soon as it was published and read it in one go (pausing only to read the high praise on the cover from The Guardian and BBC Newsnight)
The first poem took me right back with its description of walking to the hospital through ‘a film set for a period drama’. I could have stopped to wave to my old house if it hadn’t been for the body blow of the second poem, My Name is Mercy which takes us straight into ICU where a kind nurse talks to a barely conscious patient.
You’re doing well, you’re safe, you’re really safe,
if you can hear me, squeeze my hand.
To write poetry from the heart of something so terrifying is a real achievement. There have been several anthologies of poems about the pandemic but this collection is unique for its insights into the very heart of the NHS under enormous pressure, for its poetic empathy and the way it succeeds brilliantly in giving a voice to the medical staff simply by observing and listening to them. As Figura says in Notes Left Behind for a Newbie:
Empathy cannot be learned
by rote and is known to sneak home
with you after a shift and catch you
There are poems about PPE and about masks behind which you ‘present the illusion/ of a calm sea’. In Night Shift the viewpoint of the medic is beautifully captured:
if I could be heard above
their vital signs
and respiratory hum,
I would ask me
if the earth is still
as beautiful as they say.
A villanelle (For the Best) proves to be a superb vehicle for expressing the staff’s need to unwind:
How we envy them, our canine illusionists,
their exuberant ignorance, sniffs and licks.
Everyone walks their worries to the forest.
It’s hard to know what’s for the best.
In The Ridge Line a horse-rider finds relief in the chalky landscape of Wiltshire and looks down from the ridge line to where:
The hospital watches over its cathedral city,
her own self a speck at a cottage gate, watching her love
walk to the bluebell woods, a penny whistle in her pocket,
the light rising from her, like a flame.
Martin Figura was an inspired choice for this commission. I particularly admired the poems ‘after’ various other poets (Wallace Stevens, Rilke etc.) and he uses those influences to great effect. In Thirteen Ways of Looking at COVID-19, for example, he borrows the Stevens’ form to give us fractured glimpses of the virus at work affecting every aspect of our lives:
The asset manager surveys
Their windblown banknotes.
A phial of blood carries your barcode.
A carousel of multitudes –
Parameters’ quickening pluck of claws.
The fake news.
The leader’s insouciant handshakes.
The next slide please.
In the prose poem, What is This Place and is it Home? he captures the surreality of that time:
During shifts, I ask those who’ve been here all their lives/what this place is normally like and with each passing day/ they seem less sure.
We have the patient’s experience too. in Fever there is a superb evocation of the confusion and disorientation:
Who are all those squeaking
creatures: their phosphorescent eyes
flashing out from the curtains’ bloom?
Vaccination in the Cathedral gets a look in:
The Magna Carta and St Osmund look on
as volunteers marshal multitudes into the flow.
Vaccine needles break skin to the tick
of the world’s oldest clock.
We hear from the chaplain about his work among all the horror and are moved by his calmness and strength, humour and humanity:
There are cards to read out loud
and patient listening as someone summons breath
to tell you slowly, they know they’re dying.
I sometimes have to say, you might be right.
We revisit lockdown :
Thursday evenings we stood together
but apart, clapping and banging with all our hearts.
and the Great British Christmas that never came and the government boasts of success. Rereading the pamphlet at a time when the Prime Minister faces calls to resign for partying while we all obeyed the rules, is an interesting experience!
We face again the reality the nurses faced in ICU ‘Cardiac arrest is common in critical Covid patients’ (‘Stayin’ Alive’) and the indignity and often the pointlessness of resuscitation attempts. Also the kindness shown to the dying:
The privilege falls to us, to give them time for their goodbyes
and then hold their hand as they let go.
and in the extraordinarily moving poem, Life, a weary account of ‘acute grief after acute grief’ the simple words of a member of the End of Life team made lyrical by skilled editing and by interspersing with the more poetic observations of the poet:
I held the phone for him as he was saying
when to plant the begonias out and
don’t do it too early, and his son said
I’m going to miss you, dad
and he said you can do this.
and they could and they did and they still do though beyond exhausted now. Throughout the collection there is a strong feeling of community, of being in this together. It is the poetry of the everyday made extraordinary. I think it is a massive achievement and a book which will last long after the pandemic has passed. We end on Christmas Day with the hopeful birth of a baby
he alone has set the day back into motion,
with all its tinsel, cracker jokes and joyful noise.
Carole Bromley writes for both adults and children. Her children’s collection, Blast Off, is available from Smith/Doorstop and her most recent adult collection, The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster, from Valley Press, www.carolebromleypoetry.co.uk
My Name is Mercy by Martin Figura is published by Fair Acre Press, and available here: fairacrepress.co.uk/shop/by-martin-figura/