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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

19 February 2021

One of Malcolm Guite’s poems achieves something that he could not have foreseen

IN SOME ways, being a poet is like being a parent: a new poem is conceived in a moment of insight and excitement; it has its time of gestation, growing secretly in the dark womb of your mind; and, when the time is ripe, you bring it to birth, it stretches the limbs of its lines, and calls back to you from the paper where it’s written, with its own voice, as you see it outside your self for the first time.

But, if that is true for the conception and birth of the poem, then publishing a poem is more like seeing your children grown up, going off into the world, making new friends you never knew, and living an independent life of their own. And, sometimes, a poem goes out into the world and comes into its own strength, finds its own vocation, and achieves something you could not have foreseen.

I had that experience recently when I had an email from the Canon for Mission and Pastoral care at Norwich Cathedral, Andy Bryant. He told me that the final section of my Quarantine Quatrains, which had been written in April as a kind of elegy and prayer for those who had died from Covid (Poet’s Corner, 15 May 2020), “has really resonated with us here at the cathedral”. He asked permission to read the poem as part of a Covid memorial.

He wrote: “Several times a week I am on my knees at the memorial adding crosses as the numbers continue to rise — not knowing the names but remembering that each of these is a beloved individual that someone is mourning. We have just come to a sad milestone as the number in Norfolk rises beyond 1000.”

And so they made a moving little film, and I heard another’s voice reciting my poem as the little crosses were laid out, one for each person. Nationally, the figure had just passed the dreadful 100,000 milestone, and we were all numbed by the numbers, as I had been even last April. In some ways, the thousand in Norfolk was more imaginable than the national figure, and helped with beginning to grasp it. So, it occurred to me that my readers here might also find this elegy helpful.

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 belovèd 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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