The year that never happened: tackling the Covid era through poetry

William Wall on writing Smugglers In the Underground Hug Trade

When my wife Liz came to photograph the cover image for Smugglers In the Underground Hug Trade we decided it would be a good thing to contact the artist who made the figures, whom we had not met in perhaps 30 years. Her name was Breda Lynch and when we made contact through a mutual acquaintance we were shocked and profoundly moved to hear from her husband that she had died of Covid only a few months before. Somehow, that simple, even brutal fact, came to symbolise the whole project for us.

The book, in fact had been Liz’s idea. We were walking Ardnahinch Strand in east Cork one morning of bitter easterly wind, in the days before the first lockdown, and discussing the fact that we had been able to find so little direct writing on plagues and pandemics. We knew our Boccaccio, of course, and Manzoni’s The Betrothed has a superb description of the plague in Milan. Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (which gives my book its subtitle) is an equally well-researched account, but it must be observed that neither Manzoni nor Defoe actually lived through the events they describe in any meaningful sense – Defoe was five when it broke out and Manzoni was writing hundreds of years after the events described in his book.

Precious little, it seems, is written during human catastrophes. This is not a surprise. I know of only two songs that might be contemporaneous with the Great Famine – The Praties They Grow Small and Na Prátaí Dubha. There are very few substantial direct accounts in English literature of the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 – Virginia Woolf survived the infection and many scholars believe her Mrs Dalloway is a survivor. Then there’s William Maxwell’s beautiful They Came Like Swallows and Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider – Porter herself barely survived the infection and certainly suffered from what we would now call long flu.

It's possible that Yeats's The Second Coming takes its apocalyptic imagery from the pandemic (as eloquently described by Daniel Mulhall in this paper) and there is a sprinkling of poems or parts of poems by various contemporaries, and that's it. Out of the thousands of books in English that were written during and immediately after the epidemic by people who survived it, we have a handful of texts which reference it directly.

Perhaps the enormity of the cataclysm chokes creativity. I have certainly heard many fellow writers complaining that they were unable to write during lockdown.

In my case I can say that Liz urged me to document the experience. At first I tried a prose journal but quickly realised that poetry was the only way I could encapsulate the random and fragmentary experiences – the silence, the news, the rumours, the hopes, the stories of friends and neighbours, the steady stream of reliable science, the charlatans peddling fake cures, the presidents and prime ministers, the bleach, the masks, the hand-washing, the lockdowns and releases and the numbers, always the numbers. I tried to write something every day. Sometimes it was a line or two, sometimes a whole poem. Gradually the poems began to take shape.

Themes began to emerge – silence, birdsong, enclosure and escape, time, history, numbers, mortality on the personal and the statistical scale, hope and despair, love and the importance of family. My reading found its way into what was becoming a collection rather than just a diary – Thucydides who gave us the first account of a plague (in Athens in 430BC), Boccaccio and Defoe and Manzoni and the others, but also Dante (the 700th anniversary of whose death falls this year) and Camus – although Camus’ plague is really fascism – and many others. I decided to limit the journal to that first year, 2020. I don’t think I could have continued anyway – I found the process emotionally exhausting.

My connection with Italy made the situation there particularly affecting for me. Liz and I were in Liguria when the epidemic broke out. We left in a hurry because we could see that it was going to be bad – though we could not have foreseen quite how bad – and we thought it best to be at home. As it happens, not long after we left Italians were literally confined to their homes. The images from Bergamo shocked the world and woke us up to just how terrible a global pandemic is.

But travelling south in an empty train that morning in February, through empty stations and later through an almost empty airport was one of the strangest experiences of our lives. We spent a day in Rome in a friend’s house before catching our flight and I have an acute memory of walking into Piazza di Spagna, normally crowded with tourists, and encountering a handful of people and a couple of policemen. The eeriness of the empty city.

Back in Ireland I found reading about plagues strangely comforting. Boccaccio taught me that we must laugh, Manzoni that we must love, but also that we must ignore the charlatans including those who suggest that prayer is the best prophylactic against Covid. When I hear an American Republican declaring that he will trust in Jesus to protect against the disease, I think of Manzoni and the parades of saint’s relics through the city of Milan that actually spread the disease wherever they went. Florence, as I discovered from a brilliant history of the period, John Henderson’s Florence Under Siege (Yale University Press), took a more scientific approach and suffered a fraction of the casualties. Plagues come and go, the history taught me, and we survive and make a new way of living which becomes normality and which has its compensations and its pleasures.

When I think back over 2020 now, one of the most striking memories is of the prevalence in the media of serious, authoritative scientific voices – the doctors, the virologists, the statisticians, the epidemiologists and the medical historians. Outstanding was our team of public health specialists among whom Dr Tony Holohan has a deservedly heroic status. Then there were the doctors and nurses and medical staff in general whose struggle with the epidemic was seemingly endless and exhausting but who never wavered in our defence.

By contrast, the petty whingeing of the anti-maskers and no-vaxxers seems like the annoying buzz of a bluebottle in a bedroom during a sleepless. night. They talked of liberty as though liberty trumped solidarity. In reality what they were vaunting was selfishness, not freedom.

Ultimately, the raison d’etre of this book is that simple, humble impulse to record, as far as possible what it was like to live through such a period. I’m sure there are thousands, perhaps millions, of diaries and blogs and recordings all over the world with exactly the same motivation to memorialise.

For many it was the year that never happened, largely cut off from the quotidian pleasures, unable to travel or visit or see family, a year barely lived and best forgotten. But for others it was the year of nightmare, of horror, of grief, of loss and separation, a year that was as long as a century. Perhaps, it was also, for many people, a time of reconnecting with friends and family, of solidarity and learning, and for governments of rediscovering the value of the social as opposed to the market.

But for all of us, it was a time we never expected to experience, something our grandparents lived and talked about, a legend, almost a myth. We believed science had conquered nature, at least with regard to plagues; but Nature is not to be conquered, it holds in reserve a battalion or two ready to surprise us at any moment.

We have been prosecuting a scorched earth policy for at least 200 years, poisoning the planet, hollowing it out, choking it; it should be no surprise that our world has dealt us a blow in kind. A respiratory disease is the perfect metaphor for what we are doing to our habitat. Let's hope we – and, more importantly, the great powers of capitalism and government – learn the lesson Nature has taught us with such severity.
William Wall is the author of five collections of poetry of which Smugglers In The Underground Hug Trade (Doire Press, 2021) is the most recent, six novels and three collections of short fiction. His seventh novel will be published first in Italian. His work has won many prizes, most recently the Premio Lerici (2021) in Italy and has been short- and longlisted for many others including the Man Booker Prize. He is Cork's first Poet Laureate. His work has been translated into many languages. He holds a PhD in creative writing from UCC.

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