Patricia McCarthy’s poignantly titled chapbook, written during the first lockdown, invites us to ‘Draw the curtains, light the candle.’ It is ‘Time to sit as the Brontes did,’ she says, ‘Fight off the attacker’ and write. She tells us: ‘Emily will scribble – /with yours – her secrets, fast as she can.’ The predator stalking the Brontes was tuberculosis. For us, Covid 19 has forced us into introspection, to explore the ‘geography of the heart, ‘... deciphering more / about your selves than ever you knew.’ McCarthy asks us to ‘Reflect on those stolen moments / of grace; re-live them despite your skin-hunger,' to ‘think whose hand you would like / to hold one last time, then press softly to your lips.’
A thematic link in this cycle of poems is past epidemics, plagues, and pestilences, a seeking of causes and cures. The poet describes her own experience of polio, an evocative portrayal of a 1950s childhood watched from a sick bed, recalling images of ‘tiny faces peering, as if from Advent calendars, from communal iron lungs.’
The course of the lockdown in these poems is charted in the heavens; in March, Venus is ‘bright as a searchlight / over all our lives.’ In times past three ‘super-moons’ in as many months would be a sure sign of planetary maleficence; 'influenza' comes from medieval Latin, meaning ‘influence of the stars.’ Ancient Native American names for the moon are invoked, the ‘worm moon,’ when the earth is warm enough for worms to become active and begin the growth season, the ‘pink moon’ when wild ground phlox of that colour is in bloom. The poems are woven together with children’s rhymes, old country sayings, and ancient oracles. Natural phenomena are interpreted as auguries – flights of swallows, skeins of geese, oak branches offer portents of the future.
McCarthy writes of a close relationship with horses, observing how they can survive the brutality of humans, and understand death better than us. A deep connectedness to the natural world gives authenticity to the poems in this chapbook; flowers blooming and fading mark the passing of spring into summer, from the primroses and daffodils of March, to June wedding roses ‘with no bride to wander under their perfumed roof,’ through to the first of the Michaelmas daisies.
There is deep sympathy for those denied their solace, ‘Terrible to get the sun only by balancing / an arm or a leg on a window- ledge.’ McCarthy remembers those in care homes, ’The forgotten ones who have forgotten themselves: / see them stare out behind barred windows.’ She writes with tenderness about her mother, 'suddenly I am you, / our bones knit together, wrapped / in all our ages in waiting rooms,' an aunt ‘dialling random numbers like life lines,’ a sister ‘newly widowed’ in France. These are deeply personal poems but they resonate, ignite a shiver of recognition from experience or from stories heard on the radio or television, read in newspapers or on the internet. She writes, too, of domestic abuse, for which lockdown provided perfect conditions. ‘Many tales untold not for the telling / within four walls, no escape ...’ Cases of sibling abuse have escalated; the story of Cinderella is recalled: 'She never reported them, only too aware / they would have the last word ...'
The end of lockdown is tentative, ‘See they return, one and by one they cross Westminster Bridge, not quite yet / undone by death ...’ and then ‘ the criss-cross of pollutant jet-trail tells / of a sky-spoilt world gone back on itself.’ But there is also a sense of comfort; in an earlier poem McCarthy writes of the loss of childhood faith in Easter liturgies, of ‘swapping naves for woodland paths,’ wondering instead if ‘his heart [is] beating in every tree ... his pulse in throats of nightingales.’ Here she writes it is ‘Best to rely on the anima mundi which has / no language, but is Love feathered with Peace.’ Its ‘Grace’ she writes ‘will not let those who died alone seem, / amongst Michaelmas daisies, to leave no trace. / All the farewells that could not be said, / are on the backs of swallows, ...Mine amongst them, for my father, spiral into a chorus of Creation psalms.’
In the final poem we are encouraged to ‘Draw back the curtains, snuff out the candle / and let Rilke’s angels clean misted windows / with their wings.’ But there is a warning – the angels ‘call out / Fear and Fear not. The look on their faces is terrible.’
Covid had not yet finished with us, still hasn’t finished with us. We are back again in March, still hunkering down, drawing strength from writing and from story-telling, as those who wrote the Decameron ‘reeled off tales / to avoid epidemics of fear in a plague.’ In the first lockdown McCarthy expressed what seemed then such a vain hope that a vaccine ‘simple as the one then found’ for polio, ‘dissolved / on a sugar cube,’ would be discovered. Miraculously, her wish has been fulfilled.