The Coronavirus Diaries, 10th November 2021

Big news: I am plaster cast free. Oh the joy. My wrist is stiff and a bit sore, I have to make sure I don’t lift heavy objects, I have a splint to wear when I am not exercising or engaged in an undemanding activity, and my sling is still a good idea when I am out and about.

I had been trying not have my hopes too high before attending fracture clinic this morning. Obviously I wanted the X-rays to show everything was healing well, but I didn’t want to pre-empt anything and come crashing down in disappointment. The waiting area is airy and light. We are all spaced out, or rather the seats are. Some patients might have been actually spaced out, I shouldn’t like to say. Michèle had been there yesterday. I don’t think there’s a way we can make our appointments chime, though it would be nice. Instead I wondered if I were sitting where she had sat yesterday (no, she was in the area reserved for wheelchair users), and that made me wonder about a series of narratives, tales of different people sitting in the same spot throughout the day.

I settled down to read more of The Sun is Open by Gail McConnell. Two weeks ago I became suddenly a fan, having previously been entirely ignorant of her work. It was while I was in Northern Ireland. Two days after Uncle Bill’s 100th, there were the annual John Hewitt Birthday Readings. For a while I have thought I’d like to attend, and that thought was cemented last year when Roger Robinson and Sinead Morrissey did the readings and had a discussion online. So Fiona and I had tickets. Only Fiona was not well, so I attended alone.

What a friendly welcoming bunch the John Hewitt lot are. A lovely man, very dapper and with silver hair took my name and made me welcome. I didn’t recognise his name, but it turns out he’s a literary agent and an actor. We were chatting, and he told me Tome French, one of the poets, was already inside ( I was the first member of the audience to arrive having allowed myself lots of time as I didn’t know where the venue was and thought it more than likely I should get lost). I picked up a book of poems by another of the poets Siobhan Campbell and was immediately taken by her work. Lucky perhaps, as she arrived while I was reading it. I bought two books of her poems as gifts, and decided to leave it there. The third poet arrived, Gail McConnell, dressed in black but with a bright yellow checked jacket.

I recognised some members of the audience from other literary events I have enjoyed down the years. People were talking to each other and it would have been easy to have felt excluded, but somehow I didn’t. It was as though I was included, though silently in the warm embrace of the John Hewitt Society.

It was a small audience, an intimate audience. I settled down in my seat. As it was in a lecture theatre at the university there was a comfortable ledge to rest my beslinged arm and throw my coat. I didn’t take notes. The lights dimmed. The evening began. The poets read in alphabetical order, so Siobhan was up first, then Tom, then Gail. I am not actually on first name terms with the poets, but I think if I were to move to Belfast I might be soon.

Each opened with a poem by Hewitt. Siobhan likes cows. I like cows. She has written poems about cows, poems I enjoyed, and I discovered afterwards loves The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young. A promising bond was beginning. She also knows Michèle, who was the recipient of one of the books of her poems I bought.

Tom French has published several volumes of poems. Fortunately for my purse, the poem he read that grabbed me most, based on his experiences looking into family history, is going to be in his next collection. I spoke with him and his wife after the readings. It was all very relaxed. There were no tables with queues of people standing waiting for their books to be signed. The poets were in the foyer mingling, borrowing pens, leaning on convenient surfaces to inscribe their names on fly leaves.

Gail McConnell was introduced. Her book was one poem long. I am not generally a fan of book long poems so I wasn’t expecting to be that enthused. Wrong. She explained how the central theme was something she has written about before and will doubtless write about again: her father’s murder when she was just three-years-old. He was deputy governor of the Maze Prison, killed outside their house in front of his wife and daughter. The audience had been quiet during Siobhan and Tom’s readings, but during Gail’s you could have heard a pin drop. I don’t think anyone even moved. She is an extraordinary writer, and extraordinary reader. The poem is in scraps, memories, quotations from newspaper accounts, witness statements, extracts from her father’s diaries when he was a student at Queen’s. Sometime the voice is that of the child, sometimes the adult. It’s intense. It’s moving. It’s incredibly powerful. Fiona sent me a link to this article in the Dublin Review of Books yesterday.

I had to buy it. And since hearing her read I have been looking online for podcasts, recordings so I can hear more of this extraordinary writer. And with each one, I am more and more convinced she is one of the most important poets of her generation. I feel almost like her stalker, though I managed to miss the one Zoom event I found. Here is how the poem opens:

“On the morning of March 6,

1984, Mr. William McConnell,

assistant governor of the Maze Prison, |

was outside his home, checking

underneath his car for explosive devices,

when he was shot dead in front of

his wife and three-year-old daughter.”

I thought I might give the copy I bought as a present, but read it carefully first. It didn’t take many pages to know this is a book that will remain with me.

Stay safe. Keep well. Rejoice in the poetry of rokenyour wrists.

6 thoughts on “The Coronavirus Diaries, 10th November 2021

  1. That’s a rocking lot of poetry there. I may have to engage further with these writers.

    But seriously Isobel? Now you’ve got a plate – not just screws – and a scar notably longer than the one on the right. I sincerely hope the Right doesn’t feel the need to respond to the Left’s achievements. I’m sure the physio will be long and hard and worthwhile. I recommend the hydrotherapy – nice soak in hot water would be welcome to most body parts this time of year.

    • If you look up Penned in the Margins (the publishers) you’ll be able to hear a recording of Gail McConnell reading the opening pages of the poem. Not sure if you can access Radio 4 Sounds app.
      I think my scars are the same length. Trying to recall if I already have a plate in the right wrist. I know there’s a lot of metal in there. As I haven’t spent so long with the wrist immobilised I am hoping rehab will be quicker. The initial signs are promising.

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