From desolation to hope

Casual browsers happening on this site will notice a distinct time lag since my last post. Yes, gentle reader, like so many others in this benighted country I have been in a not very good place. The obvious explanation is the after-effect of lockdown, which proved to be more traumatic than many of us realised at the time. I have been intrigued by the number of people who have emerged damaged in one way or another.

Oblivious to what was happening on a subconscious level, my husband and I unwittingly added to the stress by moving house at the end of June 2021. Moving house, it is said, is more stressful as you get older. In our case we compounded the problem by buying a house that needs total renovation, so that we are in temporary accommodation in the interim.

I shall spare you the details of these woes, since the purpose of the present piece is to speak of a curious side-effect, in the form of a total loss of interest and inspiration regarding things poetic. This had never happened to me before, so I persisted in attempts to write, but what emerged was lifeless, still-born.

What was almost more disturbing was a feeling of disillusionment with poetry in general. I read the poems in magazines to which I subscribe with an increasing feeling of boredom and weariness. Unfortunately the vast majority of my books are sitting in boxes in a warehouse so I had no recourse to my usual go-to sources of comfort, such as Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon.

Perhaps, I thought, this is how it will now be. I have run out of ideas, exhausted my experience.

But there was another internal voice that objected to this conclusion. I found it difficult to believe that, overnight, I had lost what I felt was part of my identity. I recalled Sharon Olds saying, in an interview, that she could go through months of not writing and then would pour out a spate of poems, as if they had quietly been accumulating in the interim.

So I waited.

It may seem to you that the word “desolation” in the title above is overdramatic. I use it in the way a landscape is sometimes described as “desolate” – gloomy, empty. That was certainly how I felt.

Happily, after a few months there was a shift in mood. It is easy for me to think of reasons for this: settlement in our new accommodation, the establishment of new routines. It is difficult, with matters psychological, to identify causes. But there were two books that helped return me to a more normal frame of mind.

First came Vanessa Lampert’s pamphlet “On Long Loan”, published by Live Canon. Being a Live Canon groupie as well as a poet in their stable, I knew Vanessa’s name and was delighted when her poem “Sand” was commended in the 2020 National Poetry Competition. But I was late coming to her pamphlet, which contains 24 poems that are individually and collectively a total delight. She is capable of humour (“Candyfloss” describes a mother getting carried away with a candyfloss machine at the primary school summer fair, and indulging her children after years of heeding a dentist’s advice to the contrary), a gentle dig at the poetry world (“Woodland” describes a poetry festival where “gorgeous boy poets” read poems about gay sex in the woods to girl poets who would prefer something with them in), and a moving description of a session with a marriage guidance counsellor (“Therapy”, in which “the bruised animal of our couple” has its potential considered by the three parties present). There are a number of poems about her children which are achingly beautiful. But overall the impression is one of intense humanity and a poet assured of her craft. I can safely say this was exactly what the doctor should have/would have ordered for me in my desolate mood.

Close on the heels of Vanessa’s pamphlet came my second quiet saviour, in the form of Eavan Boland’s final collection “The Historians”, published posthumously by Carcanet. Eavan Boland is an old favourite of mine, with her superb evocations of Ireland past and present. Plentiful white space gives her quiet verses the room in which they breathe and resonate.

“Repeat the word sainthood and we are

in an old Ireland,

in a time warp of tallow—


candle smoke rising towards

the porcelain

yellow faces of the sanctified.”

(from “The Light We Lost”.)

Boland has a delicacy and precision that results in very moving verse, and I found myself thinking “Yes, this is what I have been missing”.

“For a Poet who Died Young” contains lines that sum up my own feelings for her:

“Your words disturbed my earth. They changed my mind.

Whatever a dead poet could have I wish for you.

But a living woman

is what you should have been. So many years later

forgive the fact my words unlike yours

offer little comfort and less peace”.

So it was that recovery began, and with the help of these two poets I have found my way back, out of the desolate landscape and into a more hopeful place.

Over the Christmas period I met an artist friend who was going through a similar experience of aridity. By this stage I was emerging, and told him that it struck me that creativity is like a bucket that was sometimes empty, and you simply had to wait for it to refill. If you are creative, you don’t suddenly stop being creative – but you may have exhausted your creative energy for reasons that are not clear to you. In those circumstances, I have learnt that you have to be patient, and wait for the bucket to fill.

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8 Comments

  1. Another moving and eloquent post, Antony. Could you add a ‘like’ button to your posts so it would be possible to show appreciation without having to put one’s own thoughts above the parapet? It’s not easy to comment usefully if you don’t already know the books.

    1. Thanks, Sue. Having done a quick recce on “like” buttons it looks as if I shall have to investigate the plugins or speak to my techie guru. Watch this space!

  2. Another eloquent and absorbing post, Antony. Could you add a ‘like’ button to your posts ? This would make it possible to show appreciation without having to put one’s own thoughts above the parapet. It’s not easy to have interesting things to say before you have read the books.

  3. For me, Thom Gunn says it in: A Sketch of the Great Dejection (Poems published in 1993) One of the graffiti on the wall in my painting room is a quote from the last part of this poem
    : ‘ My body insisted on restlessness having been promised love as my mind insisted on words
    having been promised the imagination
    So I remained alert, confused, and uncomforted.
    I fared on and, though the landscape did not change,
    it came to seem after a while like a place of recuperation.

    1. Thanks, Laetitia. Alas my Collected Poems of Thom Gunn is in store, but he is an old favourite of mine, and can do little wrong. I like the idea of the landscape not changing but one’s attitude to it changing.

  4. Dear Antony I am sorry to hear that you have been in such an empty place but so glad that at last your bucket of creativity is filling up. Wishing you every happiness in your new home and buckets full of creativity in the coming months x

  5. Sad, sad for you that you had to struggle through that desolate landscape. I am about to trot down to our library to seek for the two poets you mention. But Texas, with its own proud roster, is not guaranteed to have those works on the shelves!

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