Prompted by Louis Macneice's Autumn Journal (1939), Jonathan's work-in-progress is a poetic response to the coronavirus crisis and, like the original, combines private and public themes in a humane, generous and intensely moving way. This is poetry as social commentary, urgent and necessary, and it's an uncanny experience for the reader to be living within the events navigated by Jonathan in this work - one feels part of it, and somehow accountable. Nothing in my reading life quite matches the sense of engagement I feel with the poem and the world it describes. This is an important work and one that future readers will turn to if they want to know how things were for us, here, now.
You can read the first four cantos here and below, with Jonathan's kind permission, is Canto V. Join us on Friday 24th April for Canto VI. Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs (after Louis MacNeice)
Easter weekend was beautiful, the sky a warm considerate
Blue, the best for weeks and weeks,
And though there were egg hunts in the gardens there were no
Family visits, no trips or excursions; our techniques
For living have turned inwards, now we try our hand
At sourdough starters, high-impact online workouts
And improvised obstacle courses for the kids,
And all this frantic activity just to crowd out the doubts.
For the question on everyone’s tongue is:
Will life ever be the same again?
Or no: not everyone’s tongue, because for some life is already
No longer the same: it is utterly changed,
And in no cases for the better. My sourdough starter
Is your food bank voucher. My obstacle course
Is your daily navigation round a partner with quick fists.
Life will not change itself; it will only change through force.
And in the park for my morning run the cherry blossoms
Cheer me on, pink as pompoms, and the parakeets,
And the posters reminding us to keep our distance
And on the radio Trump speaks, Trump speaks
From the Rose Garden, and if you can bear his voice you’ll hear
The US has pulled its funding for the WHO,
And in Ukraine the forest fires are closing in on Chernobyl
And in Indonesia lava spews from Krakatoa.
And if this seems like proof that nature continues despite the virus
Then let that be a corrective
To the videos of goats in Llandudno, and boars in Barcelona.
Nature’s operations are not so interconnected
That wildfires will stop, and floods cease, just because
We’ve got other plates to juggle, other issues to arrange,
The drop in air pollution is a blip; we have not
Flattened the curve of climate change.
And we laugh it off and meet for Zoom drinks in the evening,
And this, we say, is on me;
Something out of the usual, a store cupboard cocktail, or a new local craft ale —
But did you see
The latest? You mean whether Dylan’s dropped another new track
Or that old lad’s hundred laps of his garden on his zimmer frame
Or d’you mean so-and-so’s face mask post on Instagram—
No, we don’t mean anything like that again.
No, what we mean is Covid, Contact Tracing, CFR,
The heavy panic that cramps the lungs and
Twists the spine into the spleen.
And when we wake in the morning and reach for our phones
The feeds are the same as the day before,
And we compare the national data sets, and we compare the graphs,
And for all this wealth of information we cannot be sure
What it all means for us; as individuals we are used to choice,
But the choice here is no game-changer:
The choice is simply to stay at home or, for those that can,
Go out to work, and ever-present, grossly unintelligible danger.
The newspapers and websites are racing to deliver what news there is,
And hoping to get paid,
The Bank has extended the Government’s overdraft
And you and I are afraid.
And perhaps it is that fatigue has set in, as they said it would. For what can we do?
We cannot march in the streets, as for Brexit, and Iraq,
We can email our MP, clap the NHS,
And go for our daily run in the park.
But there are cretins setting fire to telephone masts,
And politicians repeating their dull refrain on PPE,
And the bloody, bloodless frontier is always converging
But never arriving; the future state of the economy
Is a problem for better minds than ours,
We only ask that the old order be overturned
And things remade in a fairer, nobler fashion, and this new more thoughtful way of living
Be maintained, and the things I’ve earned
Stay mine. It is no good saying
‘Take away this cup, bring me a new cup, with a handle and a spout’;
Having helped to fill it ourselves it is hardly just
That we should simply get to throw it out.
And we can hide our heads in the sand, Louis, for there is always more
Sand, cascading down,
And it’s no good relying on the woodpigeon for a sure critique
Of the values of the town,
The bins are being collected, the milk delivered,
And yet the crystal ball remains opaque,
And if we are sleeping through the world’s dream of its own death and rebirth, then
Today is not the day when we awake.