Place of writing: Macclesfield, Cheshire
This February, I had just returned from the area of Italy first hit by coronavirus, and having so recently stood in the squares shown shut and empty on the television made the pandemic real to me even before it reached Britain. I remember the suspense as cases mounted here, while our government seemed confident that we were too different from other counties to need to take action. The lockdown was a relief to me – but after the first month, time took on a strange dimension.
Travel is what drives my writing, and it feels strange to have reached the end of the year without having bodily been anywhere unfamiliar, even though the outside world is gradually de-familiarising around me. Lockdown gives everything the sense of a dream in which you suspect that you are dreaming … existing somewhere strange … while knowing that, in fact, your body is asleep in bed.
For me writing is always partly about going places and experiencing things I never could in the flesh, and this aspect of it has been accentuated. I need the freedom of my imagination now more than ever.
Sometimes I wonder whether a collective attempt to imagine what we have never yet experienced would help us deal with events like this on a national level.
* * *
Deaths in Wuhan on the computer screen
were one tab among many,
stars light-years away
with cold needle-tips that did not pierce.
Calmly I recalled
China is not Britain.
In January I stood in a bright piazza
Where with flying of shadows and sounding of hearts
A city once gathered and throbbed
To a bell with the voice of a cow
Lowing all to the silence of knowing
Its call was their call, many in one –
Sharing one leader’s breath of hope
and the shade of one preacher’s nightmare
of a sword hung over a city.
Each citizen a mother cherishing
the tender republic
like the nape of her toddling child.
Back home the piazza flashed brief
and empty on my screen, drained of its people.
They went inside and left only campanile
and palazzo tower to speak for them
telling stories of a shut city to an empty sky.
In a shaky video they sang in Siena
into the night I half could smell,
words half-drowned by the dogs’ familiar chorus.
Viva la nostra Siena…
Singing of their small square
curved like a shell
to cup them.
I cried for Siena and for Italy and all though
everyone was saying
Italy is not Britain,
I stockpiled tears for us.
I cannot feel us,
only my family of seven
and a population of 67,834,511
all staying at home.
I listen for a bell and a chorus
and hear babble placeless echoing hollow –
of a gaping world
lacking boundary or connection.
Who did they sing for
Siena or themselves?
Who was it I cried for,
or every person?
I know only my house and a web
tangled, easily shattered
* * *
This time of the year,
I go always to some bare shore.
My heart, either clock or compass,
wants mountains to tear open winged skies,
and hungers for horizons. Every place there is
to tremble a hair’s breadth
bright between sea and sky,
now and then.
This time the trees closed over us, mimicking time
by budding and breaking into leaf,
to turn yellow any day.
Time and the garden coiled round the house,
a sleeping snake
head and tail the same, narrowing to nothing,
black beads closed by green lids.
What has and what will
shut up together in memory
like a dark locked house.
But then I found I still had words
breaking warm from the tongue like waves
rippling wide on a shore paper white.
I saw the places
rolled into my first line like the rim of the horizon.
To write, then, of a voyage taken
not for its end or its beginning
but for the strong song of wind in rigging and
sails wings shaking wide as wings
and the white wake over forbidden seas.
Wooden eyes of a figurehead opening wide,
to brave the biggest blue.
* * *
History seen from the distance
Is an exclamation mark.
When the sentence sped and fell over itself in panic we waited for it to
a wave over our heads declaring
This is History!
Foaming white with the relief
of having announced itself.
A pause before it broke I expected –
We all held our breaths and went on holding them
and found ourselves curled within a comma
I am curled in
curled in a garden,
Is no more than a shade of the actors
Playing across rising shoots
And the swift dazzle
Of sunned copper beech leaves blinking to a new colour –
Wine-dark storm-tossed in a shower of light.
History the change
in a few faces well known
and a few leaves that would always have changed.
I have never before so noticed
the decadence, the slow night-sweetness
of wisteria dripping heavy heavy
from the windows
When I was in Venice before lockdown, we spent lots of time during the freezing winter nights in traditional wine-bars called bacari. The name comes from the Venetian dialect expression “far bacara”, to make a noise. They are tiny, ancient (some dating from the 1300s), and really crowded, serving cheap little glasses of local wine, ‘ombre’, and snacks – ‘cichetti’ – often seafood fresh from the lagoon. The bacari have come to symbolise for me the antithesis of lockdown; but my memory of them, on the one hand investing all of missing physical social intercourse with a warm glow, has also taken on a strange edge since Venice was one of the first places in Europe I heard of the virus spreading.
We were drawn to the windows’ warm honey,
moths to a lantern or a night-musk flower,
but so much heavier,
tired of catching iced breath, faces aching
to be touched by the dawn of sudden heat.
Feet throbbing with plodding calle of frozen shadow
and pathless warrens of sotoporteghi threaded
only by fog to find
The little door clicked shut against wan mist behind,
and we drowned in the rippling warmth –
ducking low beams and laughter
copper pans blinking like bright opened eyes –
and shoulder to shoulder ordered one of everything
as the crowd
bursting from coats like opening buds
pressed loud and snug.
Morsels of fresh cod fished
from chill quicksilver tide in thin rain,
are whipped into a cream
and the squid, stewed in its own subterfuge
sails in tiny gondole of corn.
Ombre, little glasses of sparkling red,
bubbles rising as in the wave
of warmer, stranger seas,
tingling down my throat and filling inner cold
with a slow sweet rush.
Knowing little more than ‘Grazie!’, its exchange
was deeply satisfying, full
of the companionship of being out of the cold.
When we turn to go, the moment
trembles like a weighing-anchor
and the doors close like time behind us.
Doubling houses foam-frail in the fog
Canals of spilt ink open to a dream silence
louder than laughter.
Standing at this cross-roads of water
I feel the surface tension of the city of masks
mirror-image of a city
blown from sand and sea like a bubble of glass
frosted by history’s tide of plagues and fear,
But Serene still.
There seems a facelessness behind the mask,
a cruelty in such serenity.
Over the bridge there rises moon pale
a young Madonna,
sleeves falling like water at slack-tide,
pressing her child’s cheek to hers,
eyes seas wide.
Ide Crawford is a 2019 winner of The Young Walter Scott Prize
All writing, all images © The Imagining History Programme UK