I thought that for this 1st anniversary of lockdown I would repost the complete set of my Quarantine Quatrains, the first of several literary projects I have undertaken during the course of this lockdown year. It traces the progress of that first lockdown and concludes, fittingly for today, with an elegy for those whom we have lost over the course of this year.
I have recently posted one or two sections of a longer poem called The Quarantine Quatrains, written in a kind of loose conversation with Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and employing his same quatrain stanza form. The poem began in the same laconic, wistful, urbane manner as Fitzgerald’s original, and continued its theme of savouring and cherishing each moment of our brief lives, but, in these extraordinary times, my poem moved naturally towards something more meditative, and ends in elegy and prayer for those who have lost their lives.
The word Quarantine, of course contains the word 40, because 40 days was the original period of quarantine. I fear our lockdown will last much longer than that, but by my reckoning, today is our 40th day: a good day to publish these 40 Quarantine Quatrains, arranged in seven episodes. I will continue to post and comment separately on some of the individual sections, but here, for those who would like to read or hear it whole, are all seven sections of the complete poem. As always you can hear me read each section of the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the Roman numeral.
The Quarantine Quatrains: a new Rubaiyat
Awake to what was once a busy day
When you would rush and hurry on your way
Snatch at your breakfast, start the grim commute
But time and tide have turned another way.
For now, like you, the day is yawning wide
And all its old events are set aside
It opens gently for you, takes its time
And holds for you -whatever you decide.
This morning’s light is brighter than it seems
Your room is raftered with its golden beams
The bowl of night was richly filled with sleep
And dawn’s left hand is holding all your dreams
Your mantle clock still sounds its silver chime
The empty page invites an idle rhyme
This quarantine has taken many things
But left you with the precious gift of time
Your time is all your own – yet not your own
The rose may open, or be overblown
So breathe in this day’s fragrance whilst you may
To each of us the date of death’s unknown.
Then settle at your desk, uncap your pen
And open the old manuscript again
The empty hours may tease you out of thought
Yet leave you with a poem now and then
I think of old Khayyam who ‘stood before
The tavern shouting open up the door’
And wish I might carouse the night with him
Alas that such carousals are no more
I’ll keep the rules my country has imposed
My life, like my small garden, is enclosed,
But still I’ll raise a glass and pledge my friends
Although, for us, the tavern door is closed
For in my cellar, ranged in dusty rows,
Are sleeping poets waiting to disclose
Deep memories of St. Emillion
Whose vineyards reach to where the Dordogne flows
And with these wines I travel where I please
From Rhineland to the lofty Pyrenees,
I saunter though the chateaus of the loire,
Drawing the cork on any one of these.
So with the poets let me praise the vine
And pledge my absent friends in vintage wine
Sensing, sometimes, the savour at my lips
Speaks of a love both human and divine.
And when I come to taste my life’s last drop,
When all that flowed in me comes to a stop,
Then let me see my saviour pledge his love,
Come close to me, and help me drink the cup.
Some days I am diverted by a call:
The soft computer chime that summons all
To show a face to faces that we meet
Mirages, empty mirrors on the wall.
Alas that all the friends we ever knew
Whose lives were fragrant and whose touch was true
Can only meet us on some little screen
Then zoom away with scarcely an adieu.
We share with them the little that we know
These galleries of ghosts set in a row
They flicker on the screen of life awhile
But some have left the meeting long ago.
We used to stroll together on the green
Who now divide the squares upon the screen,
The faces of our friends, so far apart
Tease us with tenderness that might have been
Some day we’ll break the bread, we’ll pour the wine
And meet and kiss and feast beneath the vine,
Till then we’ll sweeten solitude with verse
And yearn through pain, and watch each day decline.
Here in my garden hut, just on the brink
Of making some new song of all I think,
A sudden thrill and ripple of true song
Makes mockery of my poor pen and ink.
Beyond my hut a vivid glimpse of red:
A bright-eyed robin by the garden bed
Sings his mellifluous and liquid notes,
That utter more than all I’ve ever said.
Three busy sparrows soon take up the song,
Chaffinches and blue tits join the throng,
A pattern of bright music nets the air
And catches me off guard and makes me long,
Long for the joys that I have yet to sing
Long for the sudden flight, the lifting wing,
Long for the songs of summers yet to come
Long for the freedom future days may bring.
Though sorrow runs so deep, and our brief songs
Are burdened still with all the ills and wrongs
Of this sad exile, something in us sings,
Sings from that garden where the soul belongs.
On Sunday morning, standing on my lawn
I bless the kindling of this Sabbath dawn
And do not seek withdrawal from the world
Since all the world itself is now withdrawn.
In Piccadilly Circus, still as stone,
Its central hub become a quiet zone,
Eros may loose his arrow as he will
The little love-god languishes alone.
From Marble Arch and all along The Mall
Only the pigeons still stand sentinel
And all the streets that thronged with rush and fret
Are soaked in silence almost magical.
No need to find the Isle of Innisfree,
Or seek with Brendan islands in the sea
For now the town and countryside alike
Partake the Sabbath rest of Galilee
And all that smudge of noise, the muffled roar
Of distant rush hour traffic is no more
The ‘roadway and the pavement grey’ both keep
A greater silence in the deep hearts core.
They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshýd gloried and drank deep:
But now in every corner of the world
The wild things flourish whilst the cities sleep
For when they see our influence abate
The banished creatures soon resume their state:
Blithe dolphins sport along the grand canal,
Coyotes call across the golden gate.
The grass grows green in every city square,
The little foxes, once so shy and rare,
Saunter our streets and boulevards by day
Whilst birds and insects throng the cleaner air
How soon the tide of nature has returned
How soon renew the forests that we burned
How soon they seed and repossess our streets
Those precious plants and animals we spurned.
Perhaps in all this crisis, all this pain,
This reassessment of our loss and gain
Nature rebukes our brief authority
Yet offers us the chance to start again
And this time with a new humility,
With chastened awe, and mutual courtesy;
To re-accept the unearned gift of life
With gratitude, with joy and charity.
Perhaps we’ll learn to live without so much
To nurture and to cherish, not to clutch,
And, if I’m spared, I’ll hold the years I’m given
With gentler tenure and a lighter touch.
At close of day I hear the gentle rain
Whilst experts on the radio explain
Mind-numbing numbers, rising by the day,
Cyphers of unimaginable pain
Each evening they announce the deadly toll
And patient voices calmly call the roll
I hear the numbers, cannot know the names
Behind each number, mind and heart and soul
Behind each number one beloved face
A light in life whom no-one can replace,
Leaves on this world a signature, a trace,
A gleaning and a memory of grace
All loved and loving, carried to the grave
The ones whom every effort could not save
Amongst them all those carers whose strong love
Bought life for others with the lives they gave.
The sun sets and I find myself in prayer
Lifting aloft the sorrow that we share
Feeling for words of hope amidst despair
I voice my vespers through the quiet air:
O Christ who suffers with us, hold us close,
Deep in the secret garden of the rose,
Raise over us the banner of your love
And raise us up beyond our last repose.
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