‘In the North, we have started to stop sleeping again’

A poetry project in the North is an emotional weather report of where society stands 20 years on from Belfast Agreement

In the North, we have started to stop sleeping again. I notice this in casual conversations, with friends, acquaintances, colleagues, family. The reported ailments are subtle. Sleeplessness. Restlessness. Wakening early. No energy. Bodily pain – somatising.  We have returned to listening to what is happening on the street in the night. We are surfacing from sleep and barely dozing off again.

Moreover, people are mentioning other things too; one man I spoke to recently said that for the first time in his life he was experiencing flashbacks – to having had a loaded gun held to his head when he was rounded on by paramilitaries 37 years ago. We are hard-wired by our lived experiences. The past remains, involuntarily, present.

I shared coffee with a friend and we talked about how trauma is widespread and generalised; how we, collectively have not done our grieving, that our skins are still thin, and our sensibilities bruise easily. We talk of politics, the existential crisis we feel the North is in, because our Assembly is suspended, talks have failed again, Brexit looms and our leaders and politicians are playing roulette, Palace Intrigue, King of the Castle, Hide and Seek.

He asks me, “Is everything we have worked for all these years about to be destroyed? Is the Good Friday agreement, the very best chance we have had in our lifetime for peace, about to be trashed, diminished, destroyed?” And, if it is, where does that leave all of us?


The political impasse has triggered something in us; flashbacks for some, sleeplessness for others, fear and anxiety, but also passivity, a form of cognitive dissonance. This is countered by others who let off steam and rant into the vacuum of political talk shows or social media, engaging in circular arguments cranked up by language of domination; it doesn’t get us anywhere, but deeper into the mire.

Paradoxically, others dig in to “good behaviour” – the stance of “let’s not rock the boat” – it is a silencing of sorts, for we can’t speak our minds for fear of provoking an argument. And we are silenced.

It is as if we are children of warring parents; lying in bed at night, hearing the row going on downstairs, all over again. We want it to stop. We want everyone to be happy and just get along. We want love to win instead – but we have no choice but to lie there, still and quiet, waiting for it all to stop. And tomorrow, we will get up and carry on – get on with the business of not making things worse, knowing all is not well, but still feel unable to do anything about it.

We have much to be unhappy about, and many of us are feeling powerless: we have felt the pain already and we know that our silence does not protect us but we are also struggling to be heard, and to hear what it is that is not being said.

And this is where Poetry Jukebox comes in – a free audio public art installation in the grounds of the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast.

Its aim is to augment public discourse by amplifying quiet voices, to stimulate and articulate other conversations, to report back, to challenge our perceptions of self, and of our city and the places that we live – and through poetry, to create what Audre Lorde describes the poem itself as, a force-field against despair. Further, she states, “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”

In a letter from Tolstoy to his friend Ghandi, he wrote, “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” This incoming curation of Poetry Jukebox is about the “what else…” and responds directly to marking 20 years of the Good Friday agreement.

As poets, we enter this silence articulating disquiet, bearing witness, expressing desire, warnings, aspirations, imperatives, hope. The opening poem of this curation, The Erne Rushes Through Me by Moyra Donaldson, alerts us to the undercurrents of our "dis-ease":
A great clean flood to rinse away
the whole of the tired, wicked world….

And later in the same poem,
it is as if nothing
bad is happening anywhere: as if
everything in the Garden is lovely.

The “as if” is telling.

Damian Gorman alludes directly to the stasis we are in:
Our steps are now, at best, precise and formal
Like dressage horses going nowhere well;
Our peace a thing we part-baked in the 90s
And left to prove, and got used to the smell.

Jean Bleakney in her poem Stranger on the Shore offers insight to how we remain hardwired by our early experiences:
Dear '60s child …..
A whole half century has passed
and beached you here, alert
to life's bass lines, key changes…

Later in the same poem she writes:
You're freefalling through memor
to linoleum, bakelite, tray cloths,
the wireless's Home Service, and loss.
For which there is no remedy.

There are wry glimpses of domesticity which are simultaneously compelling and repelling, for example in Frank Ormsby's Nits:
A fine comb steeped
in oil and drawn through the hair capsized
the nits onto the back page of the 'Irish News'.
More helpless than menacing, they were dead
between two finger-nails before they could right themselves.

A new generation of poets are also having their say. Caitilín Gormley writes:
The love letters from the old regime have gotten buried under years of dispelling autocracy.
For the meantime art has been suspended. Everyone sees the irony
of putting a fence in front of a wall & trying to wipe away the weight
of history.

There are raw poems such as the eye-witness account of nurse and poet, Tina Burke: I have seen “red”./ I have dressed bleeding bullet wounds. / I have gazed into the empty socket, the eye blown away. Or, in Ross Thompson’s Postscripts, a poem about deaths of RUC men: Many met untimely deaths/ in the bleak eighties, silenced by detonator/or armalite,…/. There are reminders that grief, loss, tears and exile have always been with us, such as in Carol Caffrey’s Children of Lir. There are reminders of society’s other unfinished business such as in Milena Williamson’s An Irish Woman Travels to England, but also of how far we have come, in Emma Must’s Belfast Pastoral.

Ultimately, this Poetry Jukebox curation delivers an emotional weather report of where it is we stand as a society, 20 years on from the signing of the Good Friday agreement and serves to remind us that the agreement itself is not what needs to change, rather, it is ourselves, our behaviours, our attitudes, our thoughts and generosity towards each other. The poets are sentinels, reminding us of the psychological contract we have had, and need, with each other. Peace itself is what is at stake and the making of peace, as Damian Gorman writes in If I Was Us, I Wouldn’t Start from Here, is our sacred task.

And we should fly now - frightened for our children -
Kick off the bottom, rush towards the air,
And break the water into different daylight
And gasp, and say what we can see from there.
For especially in a broken home like ours,
Where broken floors and windows feed the cold,
Each generation has a sacred task -
To tell a better story than it was told...

  • Maria McManus's third collection of poetry Available Light (2018) is publisged by Arlen House. This Poetry Jukebox curation, 'What Else…', supported by the British Council, will be available from April 5th until 10th June 2018. Poetry Jukebox is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Lotto Good Causes. Twitter: @poetryjukebox