And then Cailleach Beara Laughed

…at my last post,which implied Spring was a coming in here in Ireland. And it was, pretty much, until the last few days. Then on Thursday we had the most astonishing sunrise. More astonishing still, I was up and at the digital memorialising of it even though the temperatures were sub-zero. Because you know it’s cold when you have to put a hot water bottle on the (outdoor) calor gas drum to coax it to flow so you can have your breakfast porridge!

Red sky in morning, shepherd’s warning and all that… We woke up to a very different dawn, with a barely there light and snow coming down. Only around two inches like, but that is enough for orange snow and ice warnings for the area from MetEireann. My husband fed the birds and I walked the dog before 9:30 am during a lull in the snowfall. The mountain in the sunrise photo was obliterated between heavy cloud and snowfall. The wind, on a yellow warning, did some damage; between the weight of the snow and the wind, a long tear seared the polytunnel’s skin. (Not to worry, since it was scheduled for a re-skinning this spring.) So it has felt as if the Cailleach Beara, or Mother Winter, really was having a laugh at my precipitous statement.

However, it livens up what I am now terming Pandemic Groundhog Day. For those of us who have really stuck to minimising our essential trips (most to the village that is 3km from home) and taking exercise within 5km, it amounted as a major change of scenery to take the general waste to the tip 20 km away. We also needed the nearest health food store 32 km away, last visited the first week in December after Lockdown 2 lifted, for items unobtainable in the village. It felt like visiting Babylon.

And while I have continued my haiku/senryu/tanka a day journal, I really have felt the flame of inspiration sputtering and guttering. At least I know I am not alone in this. Here is my friend and sometime creative colleague, Morag Donald’s, recent blog. (https://moragdonald.wordpress.com/2021/02/05/creative-spark/?fbclid=IwAR3c4coU7wfTGBzWqrKIvamRWrPNRX2Dn0VKL-yaa3Nf3ZlFaK-WsYgSTuE). Brigid’s Day 2020 saw us co-faciliating a day retreat of craft and poetry. I look forward to days when we can co-create in person.

The sheer grind of keeping the household tidy, supplied, hygienic, fed and watered, as well as taking our prescribed thirty minutes of daily outdoor exercise has been energy sapping. It may, in part, be the toll the January injury took, but I am now coming round to the conclusion that there is a chink in my pandemic stoicism. There has been a death from Covid in the next village over from us, according to the local undertaker’s wife. (The things you learn while doing the weekly shop!) And I posted off two Recuperation CARE parcels in the past ten days. This variant is picking off the younger generations and hitting them hard.

Yes, the Cailleach laughed. Winter is not over yet. Even so, I did a panic online shopping spree last Sunday when I saw a report that Brexit has slowed plant and seed supplies into Northern Ireland, where our nearest garden centre is located. A quick online snoop had me ordering willy nilly from various Republic of Ireland sources, alarmed at all the ‘Out of Stock’ labels. Still need to source spuds and yellow onions.

Meanwhile, my friend Morag’s blog post seems to be pointing me in the right direction for digging myself out of my creative funk. My zoom classes and students probably kept the creative flame kindled in 2020. I need to acknowledge that I receive so much from that contact and be grateful for them. It might be time to make contact with those creative colleagues again to keep inspiration’s flame alive. I am thinking that it might be time to recommence the poetry workshops, starting with a two month dive into a handful of poetry forms.

I do have a poem in the works, but it is not fully ‘cooked.’ In the meantime, I am pointing you towards a video show I participated in last Sunday, hosted by my friend John Wilmott of Carrocrory Cottage and Labyrinths. I read four poems at roughly thirty minutes into the show. One poem is in the archive, but the others are probably new to blog followers. (https://youtu.be/sfIofvscCyY).

The poem that is in the works was ‘sparked’ by the theme of that day’s show. Hope you get some inspiration. Meanwhile, renewal is on its way. The snowdrops are blooming and the daffodil shoots are braving it through the snow. I just need to be more like them.

Poetry in Pandemics

Some people count the weeks that they have been cocooned, quarantined or locked down. Until this morning I had not. I knew the date that was the last time we had driven outside of our village. We went to the nearest town twelve miles away to carry our some essential life laundry tasks and skittered back home fast. I was gloved up for that outing and have masked and gloved up since, even though Leitrim has the lowest infection rate in the Republic of Ireland. That was 52 days ago. Since then we have stayed within 2 kilometres of our home. Tony, celebrated his 70th birthday in March as cocooning was announced; he has been happily cocooned and busy in the garden. We realise how blessed we are to have it and our rural setting during this pandemic Chastening Time. I shop in the local grocery and post office/hardware for essentials. Anything we cannot get locally we buy online or is shopped for by a young neighbour, who also gloves up and masks, when he goes to the county seat each week. I sanitise like OCD is a fashion and not a mental disorder.

This week the realisation sank in that even as other parts of the world are loosening quarantine, this is now our new normal and will be for a long time to come. Technically, we could invite two non-related friends round for tea outdoors with our chairs spaced six feet from each other. In practice, I don’t think many of us are quite ready for that just yet. A kind of pandemic agoraphobia has set in. So while others may be planning a trip to the garden centre tomorrow, I have been contemplating the logistics of winter in the Chastening Time, which is now my name for this collective pandemic experience. Generally speaking, I am an optimist. But I respect science and historical experience.

I did some Googling around what people were reading during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. According to a YouTube documentary I watched this week it was misnamed. The origins of that virus was in the American rural heartland when it jumped from pigs to humans. Spain got the name because it announced to the world that this killer virus was sweeping the nation. Elsewhere there had been cases but due to media censorship during World War I, the infection was more rumour than public health bulletin. The troop movements exacerbated the virus finding more and more human hosts globally. The last landfall of that particular virus was Australia in 1919.

Of course, the horror of mechanised war was what dominated the poetry publisher lists. Siegfried Sassoon and Rudyard Kipling must have been an interesting juxtopositioning on the Publishers Weekly lists. W. B. Yeats published his Wild Swans at Coole that included his poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Sara Teasdale’s Love Songs was awarded a Pulitzer in 1918. In 1919 Margaret Widdemer’s The Old Road to Paradise shared the poetry Pulitzer with Carl Sandburg’s The Cornhuskers. Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot were just beginning their poetry careers in the UK. They were also mourning poets killed by the war like Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas, who was a close friend of Robert Frost.

Even though the Spanish Flu could strike you stone dead within twelve hours there is not a great deal to hint that this pandemic was killing more than the considerable casualties of the Great War. But, as a friend who studied Public Health Administration told me in a phone conversation, that generation was used to people falling ill and dying. They did it all the time. They did not have antibiotics. Recovery was a miracle; invalid relatives appear in novel’s marginalia all the time in the 19th century. Beth March is probably the most famous example. They all visit the seaside, but linger as shadows and then die. Yellow Fever and cholera epidemics were within living memory. Tuberculosis was rife. So numbed by the sheer scale of military casualties, the Spanish flu barely ripples across the pages of poetry. That people should fall ill and die was in the normal purview of the Grim Reaper. That a generation of men should be gassed, maimed and suffocated in muddy trenches was something new and horrifying.

But here we are a century on, innured to the medical magic bullets of antibiotics and vaccines. Except this particular virus has all the wiliness of a fox and the whole pack of hounds on its heels can simply not run it to earth. Or, at least, in no time in the near future. And for those who object to blood sports, I apologise to the fox in the metaphor above.

All this rumination comes from contemplating how you can be preparing a manuscript to send off to publishers (many of whom may go to the wall in the economic crash) without somehow referencing this collective experience. Or, as same friend in a phone call relates, the only thing that remains the same in one’s life are the seasons.

So for this Sunday’s Weekly poem I concentrated on one of the eternals in life.

Annunciation
 
In the shade of drystone wall
                                                among weeds.
Beside celandine and sedge
                                                two purple
flowering heads announcing that
                                                it’s coming.
All the times I have paced passed
                                                I missed them.
Such is the surprise of joy
                                                in small things –
the cuckoo’s call, smell of earth
                                                after rain,
the hawthorn blossom's sweet scent
                                                of new life
and its promise of decay.
 
 
                                                Do not pick
purple orchid or hawthorn in flower.
                                                Let them be.
Allow them to be released
                                                to surprise
summer after summer, again
                                                and again,
a small ration of joy found.
                                                Not foraged.
 
Copyright © Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved.

By the by, the two of best selling authors whose names still had some recognition a century later were Zane Grey and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Agatha Christie broke out in Publishers Weekly in 1920. So if you can only read light fiction at the moment, you may have something in common with our ancestor’s pandemic reading tastes.