I still believe my eyes
can hold a solar system, catch all the lights
In so many ways, this year has been an eye opener. But how good to look outwards and upwards again with poets. The theme for #NationalPoetryDay 2020 is Vision and that encompasses a world of feeling.
Confession. I’ve been finding it hard to see the light these last few weeks. In search of inspiration – as so often before – I turn to the Scottish Poetry Library and discover Eye Chart by Nuala Watt.
That leads to a heart-lifting trip of chance discoveries on and off the trail of National Poetry Day. Chance can indeed be a fine thing and so it shapes this month’s selection of eye-opening poetry to share with you.
Eye Chart – Nuala Watt
He says the map
marks how far vision goes.
Nuala Watt beguiles the eye and ear. The written poem is cleverly designed like the Snellen eye chart many of us recognise from trips to the optician. The poet tracks a journey through shrinking symbols to arrive at a paradox.
In low mood, I find the last line ‘where letters are illegible as stars’ mysteriously uplifting. Partly because in reading it my mind’s eye, unbidden, conjures up a glittering map of the night sky. Partly because it’s a shared experience.
The youthful, Glasgow-born and bred, Nuala Watt has been partially sighted all her life as a result of cerebral palsy. But older folks of a certain age will also know how it feels to fumble our way down the chart. Crystal clear letters become increasingly blurred as years advance. That squiggle in the middle of a lower line, you hazard … it’s a C? Hmmm, maybe a G, a Q?
‘No way’ Nualla Watt’s face is disarmingly, ruefully honest as she reads her poem in the video made for the Poems for Doctors project. And it leads to another stirring discovery.
Tools of the trade
Eye Chart is one of the poems in the Third Edition of a wonderful collaboration between Scottish Poetry Library and the School of Medicine at the University of St Andrews. The Poems for Doctors project grew out of the Tools of the Trade for young doctors: a pocket sized anthology of poems by SPL produced as a gift to graduating doctors. Aiming to provide comfort, inspiration or guidance, it’s a resource to turn to during or at the end of a working day, a tool for a trade which can test emotional and physical endurance to the limit.
The ‘bottom line’ is simply but movingly described on St Andrews medical school website:
‘Although Poems for Doctors uses poetry to facilitate a conversation, it is not a project with a literary focus, at heart its subject is something else. It’s about humanity.’
Love in the time of coronavirus – Nikita Gill
My uncle went on his first walk in the woods
He heard a bird sing for the first time since he went to war.
Nikita Gill’s poem counts our blessings, the messages of love we send each other through social distancing, the blue sky we discovered in lockdown. The title catches my eye on the National Poetry Day website selection, and there’s alluring charm in the short video made with artist and poet Chris Gill. The eye follows the draughtsman’s hand (he’s political cartoonist for The Observer) as he deftly creates the poet’s image.
Visual impact is a tool of the trade for this ambassador of NPD – Nikita Gill works through Instagram and Twitter to reach a growing audience. But words work their own peculiar magic for each individual listener. Who knows why, but what touches me in this poem is the uncle’s first walk in the woods, his first sound of bird song since he went to war. Which war? It doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning, even in sickness we are ‘allowed’ (an interesting word in a time of restriction) to love its beauty. The poet sends ‘the moon as a poem’ with a prayer and a wish for our speedy recovery. And “if nothing else” she concludes “…there will always be poetry”.
But there is something else. The poem’s title has prompted an online search and it produces another discovery
Love in the time of coronavirus – Dr Iona Heath
Perching like puffins on the edge is the historically normal life for humanity. But we had forgotten.
Iona Heath is not a poet. But her words move as deeply and lyrically as poetry. The retired GP who worked in an inner London practice for 35 years, was president of the Royal College of General Practitioners from 2009 to 2012 and wrote a regular column for The BMJ until 2013. In May this year she wrote about love in a pandemic – love’s labour of all who work in health care (from cleaners to consultants), love and old age, love and dying. [Read the full essay here]
She begins by quoting from John Berger’s novel of 1995, To the Wedding, with the sharp observation that we have forgotten what everyone used to know – rich and poor, young and old – that ‘Life was painful and precarious. Chance was cruel’. Now we know it, again, but Covid exploits every disadvantage, ‘picking on people who are poor, old, or imprisoned, who live in overcrowded conditions or are from black and minority ethnic communities’.
Dr Heath’s essay ends with a deeply moving observation of the particular cruelty of death and bereavement in 2020. I know I’m not alone in finding myself weeping at news of the deaths of people I have never known. Dr Heath makes an impassioned plea that we do not replace love with death, we must not ‘sacrifice our humanity’ in the face of infection. Her words ring with importance as we now grapple with fears of the winter ahead.
“No one should be forced to die alone, and no one should have to shoulder the burden of knowing that they left someone they loved to die alone.”
Quick there is a poem – Tony Walsh
Woah! There is a poem in a midnight sky
Pause for breath and a change of mood. There are so many poems to explore – a starlight infinity – but for now it feels right to end with Tony Walsh, the Manchester poet who caught the mood and met the emotional need of a terrible moment with ‘This is The Place’ after the arena bombing in 2017. Like the other writers in this selection, ‘Longfella’ has the gift of capturing complex feelings with simple clarity.
Song-like rhythm charges the lines of this poem, as easy to chant as nursery rhymes, with sudden vivid images to brighten the view: a shaft of light, a sun-kissed mountain, a frozen fountain…
By happy chance, courtesy of the poet’s Twitter feed there is this closing vision: a classroom of young primary school children reading his poem aloud on National Poetry Day. Listen to the gleeful whoop on the last line:
‘Wow! There is a poem and it’s inside ME!’
How good to see, hear and feel alive with poets. It’s about humanity.
Featured image: Trees, stars, night sky. Wiki Commons