Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

The Music Of What Happened: Corona Ceoil - An Anthology By Leeds Irish Health & Homes

Gill Newlyn - Ugandan by birth, reared in Leeds, now a fiddle teacher resident in Kerry - gives a thoroughly engaging, offbeat account of horses, violins and the draw of Irish music in her contribution to Leeds Irish Health and Homes’ timely new anthology. And if you think that her eclectic autobiographical journey is irrelevant to the overwhelming preoccupation of our time, you might want to refocus.

For in Corona Ceoil we have a collection of poetic responses to the experience of living under the yoke of Covid-19, as filtered through the imaginations of members of Leeds’ Irish community. And in a concluding paragraph of Gill Newlyn’s ‘Harrington Steps’, she describes an urge for re-growth in sheer peripatetic joy, as though to celebrate ‘another kind of opening up’ after lockdown:

‘The black plastic bags got binned and the search intensified for that Zen-like state of unity with action, the horse-mad Yeats alluded to when asking: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?'

The urge for freedom, which underpins Newlyn’s search for a kind of home, is shared by many in this fine volume edited by Teresa O’Driscoll and Linda Marshall, and if we were to pinpoint a single, overarching impulse, here, it would be one of hope, even where that condition looks to be collapsing into exasperation or torpor. Belinda Connolly finds a metaphor for re-birth and natural restoration in both the title and detail of ‘After the Rain’, as though Covid was an ironic form of salvation, leaving us free ‘To focus on our breathing and the common heartbeat’. And Chris Corkhill’s complex enactment of anxiety, of ‘Doubled up, doubled down’ mixed messaging, and of unsolicited restraints, is resolved in a redemptive stream wherein we ‘Emerge refreshed and free to dream’. A thought echoed even in the very young: in the final pages of Corona Ceoil, the stage is taken by some of the younger poets whose contributions add immeasurably to the wider landscape of reflection. The beautifully-named Eimear Rose Langham, who, at ten, exercises a formal skill better than many adults, concludes her fine acrostic for LOCKDOWN with a tender humility which belies her age:

Others are happy now
We can see each other
Never give up hope’ (‘Never Give Up’)

Others, by contrast, struggle to get beyond the turpitude of the seemingly limitless quasi-incarceration of tiers, lockdowns and mental (mal)adjustment. That the sadness which shapes mood in Annie O’Donnell’s three brief quatrains is a prisoner to the holidaying imagination, ‘doubles down’ on the pain of longing in her final line - ‘So for now I can’t go’ (‘Where I Have to Remain’). Whilst Marjorie Robinson replaces her plaintive sense of loss (‘When Will It End?’) with the faux-certainty of routine, in ‘I Live Up High’, Bernard J. Bones’ narrator takes scant comfort in the view from his Burmantofts council flat window, its frame a metaphor for a prison cell, its aspect, a cemetery. The theme of imprisonment continues in Bill Fitzimmons’ artful villanelle, whose circumlocutions yield a landscape of mental despair as inexorable, and inescapable, as a ‘rising sense of doom’ (‘Fear Factor’).

Teresa O'Driscoll
Teresa O'Driscoll
Good humour is a useful placebo: far from being a direct response to a problem which near beggars comprehension, levity may be a form of evasion or retreat. The deadly reality of Covid provokes some not unreasonable lightheartedness in Corona Ceoil: from Barbara Cavell’s jolly rhyming quatrains in ‘May Birthday 2020’ (or how High Street shopping is buggered by lockdown), to Pamela Scobie’s rhythmical rollick through the heartland of sexual desire in her astonishingly witty paean to the sudden upsurge in the visible presence of men owing to furlough schemes and new-found indolence. The poet’s penchant for alliteration reinforces a neat line in self-effacement – ‘locked up, locked in, lucked out, locked out’ – as the be-Lycra’d, ‘well-toned hams’ bound by and out of sight (‘So Near and Yet so Far’). Scobie’s self-deprecating wit is mirrored in Síle Moriarty’s complex response to the new ‘church’ of commercialism, whose secular agenda is ironised by counter-intuitive acts of votive Catholic mimesis in the strangeness of lockdown, a gift for the maker of the oxymoron:

‘We retreat into quarantine
cleanse, cover our faces
sing out loud in enclosed spaces.

The News at Six sounds the Angelus
Big Ben keeps our time
waits for the resurrection vaccine.’ (‘Holy Days’)

Elsewhere, the dissolution of collective experience in the colour of memory is an affirmation both of lyrical heredity, and of the desire for escape. Which is not to bludgeon the notion of ‘Irishness’ into cliché, rather to extrapolate an authentic, because palpable, sense of tristesse about the themes to which some of the poets here recourse. Often directed to a particular place or time, these poems express an abstract longing which defined the expatriate Irish condition long before Covid, and will endure long after it subsides. But Coronavirus seems to compound a more general longing, and to precipitate an impulse for release through escapist reimagining, or commemoration.

The pandemic may have little bearing on Laurence O’Hara’s achingly beautiful elegy for the Northern Ireland of his youth, but the shadow of anxiety hangs over a narrative whose near total emotional immersion is a condition of the desire to return, or to untie the tethers of a cloying present. ‘The Bog Meadows’ captures, and holds, the power of a recalled time as plangently as Edward Thomas. Calling forth a battery of figurative images, O’Hara gives breath and vigour to a landscape, encouraging (at one point, directly) the reader to sense as he senses, to be made privy to a teeming natural feast, and to experience sensory pleasure through the authenticity of the poet's own memory:

‘Here and there, remnants
of blackthorn boundaries chronicled a past
interrupted by sweet-scented fuchsia
that drew the bee: see yellow pea
and water mint in clusters,
keen to add their worth, or the moorhen
break, writing a V across a pond,
to make the sun’s portrait shiver in its wake,
or, if lucky, see the skylark
in songflight.’

Linda Marshall
Linda Marshall
There is no need of a pithy end, or neat closure, to O’Hara’s poems; he is adept at standing back, encouraging the reader to feel the weight of the past as it bears down on the present in luminous detail, without precondition or judgement. Kerry McMullen is a different kind of celebrant; equally at home in the natural world, her interior mental journeying encompasses a parallel ‘elsewhere’, an intransigent but seductive dreamscape which responds to natural rhythms. In ‘Call of the ocean’, she finds an extended metaphor for protean abandonment which may or may not resolve a crisis of yearning, as it cuts the ropes:

‘facing west, the wind has caught me
tethered my hair and tugs me soulward, dreamward
where sea pinks bob their tiny heads in awe of the breeze.’

The languid musicality of McMullen’s verse is vigorously counterpointed by eleven-year-old Eden Wells’ direct, insightful and socially-conscious ‘Rap’ for the age of Covid, and Frances Vevers’ formal hymn to ‘Autumn’, whose sonorous quatrains yield hope in the final promise of Spring. Ian Duhig gave the collection its title, and it is fitting: an alternative definition of Corona might be a circle of light, whilst ‘Ceoil’ is 'music' giving a nod also to the centrality of the form to a culture which effortlessly overlaps song and poetry in silhouette eclipse, as though the two forms were emotionally indivisible.

Amongst this kaleidoscope of responses to the pandemic, I least expected to find a poetics of insouciant acceptance. And, in a counter-intuitive spirit of positivity it is heartening to find a gallic shrug expressed in the form of a poem about a ‘Zoom Meeting’. Linda Marshall’s wonderful piece is a tongue-in-cheek corrective to the growing view that face-to-face digital communication will define our post-pandemic futures. Who, she asks, wants the camera to expose peeling wallpaper and breakfast detritus to the intrusive eye? More still, a revealing of ‘the bigger picture’ to public scrutiny. The bigger picture for Ruth Wynne is a plenitude of peace, silence and goodwill - the unexpected and ironic side-effects of an otherwise untrustworthy government's mandate:

‘After months of Brexit, lies and promises,
political posturing, nature and politicians
deliver the true treasure of peace and tranquillity.’ (‘Isolation Peace’)

Corona Ceoil, Edited by Teresa O'Driscoll and Linda Marshall, is published by Leeds Irish Health & Homes.

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