‘Only Connect’ – An Anthology of Poetry Written During the Pandemic
This week on Trasna we feature a new publication by Beir Bua Press, ‘Only Connect,’ an anthology of poetry and prose written during the pandemic and shared weekly with a group of writers on Zoom sessions led by Margaret O’Brien. Featured here is the introduction to ‘Only Connect’ and four poems from its collection.
Introduction to Only Connect by Margaret O’Brien
The open mic, Poetry Plus, has been meeting monthly in Brewery Lane Theatre, Carrick-on-Suir for almost ten years. Month after month, from September through June, writers and readers from across the region came down the lane, entered through the kiln area and into the tearoom at the back of the little theatre. This room was transformed into a café-like atmosphere for the night, with small tables, lamps in bottles, strings of fairy lights. Everyone sat at the small tables as they arrived, chatted and caught up with each other’s happenings month on month, as I went around taking down names for reading. Regulars were a very friendly bunch and newcomers were always especially welcomed and supported. At half time we shared tea and biscuits, sometimes cake, but always the chat and the craic. I’ve often thought that this was the most important part of the night. Every April, during the annual Brewery Lane Writers’ Weekend, Poetry Plus expanded beyond the region and we welcomed visiting writers from all around Ireland and overseas for even more chat and craic.
For a long time I believed that my thought-up in haste name for this open mic, Poetry Plus, meant that I welcomed readings of short prose as well as poetry. It did, of course, mean that but in more recent times I’ve come to understand the ‘Plus’ to mean friendship, because so many friendships took root and blossomed in the tearoom over the years. This event was never supported by funding from any public body, everyone who came contributed a few Euro towards the refreshments and for heating and lighting. The support came from the committee of Brewery Lane Theatre and from everyone who participated. For that I am always grateful.
Then in March 2020 everything changed, COVID-19 had arrived. I deferred the 2020 April Writers’ Weekend and migrated the scheduled Poetry Plus for 20th March onto the Zoom virtual platform, unsure if anyone would follow me there. Would technology be a barrier? Was I ever in for a surprise. On the first night the joke was on me. For some reason my mic wouldn’t work (until the final minutes) and Linda Fahy capably took over as host. Despite that glitch the first night was such a great experience I wondered about doing it every Friday night, just for a few weeks, to get us over the initial hump of getting used to this strange new world of lockdown.
I would never have predicted that each week, from Friday March 20th to Friday, 26th June I would be joined by about twenty writers, yes 20, who all contributed their words, their mutual support, their joy and laughter. Yes, every single Friday! It became for me, and I am sure for others, an important marker in each week, when there was a real danger of losing track of time. At the beginning of the lockdown we were confined to within a 2km distance of our homes, which meant for many of us isolation from families, friends, our usual support structures. Some people lived on their own, with the extra difficulties that presented, others not. There were challenges either way. Everything was new and nerve-wracking. Stepping outside our own front doors became a fraught experience, being inside meant listening anxiously to updates on news bulletins. Gardens became very important, we appreciated the boon of sunshine and good weather, we went for walks. Although we lost touch, in the sense of being free to touch another, in this period I think we gained something too. The knowledge that we were resilient, that we could be there for each other, that our words matter, that our courage matters.This anthology, Only Connect, will be a tangible link to a very special few months of Friday nights spent together virtually, if apart physically. Despite all my preconceptions of technology the screen did not form a barrier, or if it might have, the warm smiling faces that appeared each Friday circumvented it. Incredibly the level of trust seemed to deepen each passing week. We heard each other, we saw each other, we connected.
On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.
Why I chose this poem: When the whole world shifts on its axis, as it did with Covid-19, we crave the feel of solid ground. When all that was the essential ‘normal’ came undone, we were flung, unceremoniously, into unprecedented turmoil.
Through these weeks, nature has unceasingly been my solace. We were blessed to be in the time of unfurling Spring, stretching days and industrious birds. The greening of the world was a constant comfort in the ever changing, an encouragement to trust and breathe and be. Such stark and welcome contrast to the constriction, dread and fear that Covid engendered. I chose to read this blessing for our last evening because it beautifully conveys the succour and healing that nature offers. It is a blessing I would wish for each companion of this Zoom Poetry Plus experience. C.S.
by Patricia Bender
Lockdown is a field of daisies after the deer have abandoned it. There are remnants of white petals and bits of green leaves. The field looks familiar but not whole, not inviting.
Lockdown is the black and white coat that Kathleen handed down to me. She loved it. I wanted my own new coat. I still have the horn buttons. They are smooth and cool to the touch. I should give them back to her.
Lockdown is a platypus. Seems like fun. The word platypus is even fun. But the animal is antisocial.
Lockdown is a pair of snowshoes. You need them to keep from falling in the snow. You have to raise your feet up high with each step to keep from getting buried.
Lockdown is a day that can’t decide. The horizon sits empty, waiting. For the sun? For the moon? Who can say? When will we know?
Lockdown is the old white chair. Paint peeling, hard seat. Put your feet on the rungs, boost yourself up.
Lockdown is an ivy plant spreading tiny spiked leaves everywhere. It can be prickly and sticky. It is always thirsty.
Lockdown is the yellow teapot. It’s big and holds a lot of tea. The swirled design on the bowl of the pot is still trimmed in gold. Unless you look closely at the lid, you mightn’t see where it was broken the night it was shoved hard back on its shelf. The repair we made with crazy glue is very good.
But the crack is still there just the same.
“Lest we forget”
by M.A. McGrath
When all this is over
We should remember
The days when we all complied and stayed inside,
showed us how adaptable we are.
The days when we missed our family and friends,
showed us how loving we are.
The days when we didn’t strangle our kids or parents,
showed us how patient we are.
The days when we could hear the birds and not the traffic,
showed us how disconnected from Nature we are.
The days when we put someone else first through words or deeds,
showed us how compassionate we are.
The days when we were lonely, sad and were afraid,
showed us how human we are.
The days when we invented a new way of making and connecting,
showed us how creative we are.
The days when we listened to music or podcast, read a book, or watched a movie,
showed us how important the Arts are.
The days when we weren’t sure of what tomorrow would bring
but got up anyway,
showed us how resilient we are.
On the days when the world fell apart
but we all stood together in solidarity,
showed us how equal we are.
When these days are over
let us not be the same,
let the world not be the same.
Let us treasure the world and each other, to show,
how truly extraordinary we are.
“A Life” by Walter Dunphy
It’s said, Bob was a wild man in his youth:
pushed a woman roughly at a dance,
brought to court and later on acquitted.
He married well–Cliamhán Isteach
His wife was a feisty little woman
who would do you harm if she could?
In nineteen fifty, the newlyweds wheeled
their bicycles into our yard to let a funeral pass.
Ahead of him lay sixty years
of milking twice a day,
threshing corn and turning up the sod.
Young, strong and argumentative
he had a certainty about the world.
One day returning from the Carrick Fair
when alcohol was coursing through his blood,
Bob staggered drunkenly inside the empty creel,
his horse would bring him safely home.
Mellowing with the years
he worked his farm and raised his family well.
The passions of his youth seemed to recede,
his grandchildren loved to dandle on his knee.
Year on year he cared and fed his cattle,
In the end, he dropped down like a stone.
Resuscitation won’t rewind life’s clock
when hands are still and time has run.
Priest and people at his graveside gathered;
and talked about events that shaped his life.
Three miles away his cows grazed in the sunshine
as they laid him down beside his long-dead wife.
The anthology, Only Connect, is available to purchase directly from the publisher, Beir Bua Press, with all royalties going to the Irish neo-natal and stillbirth charity, Féileacáin.
Margaret O’Brien co-founded The Story House Ireland (2014 – 2018) and formerly lectured at Waterford Institute of Technology. She curates the Brewery Lane Writers’ W/E, the open-mic Poetry Plus, and her own workshops, Writing Changes Lives and is an affiliate of Amherst Writers & Artists. Her writing has been published in a range of publications.
Catherine Swords is a primary school teacher from Wicklow, Ireland and is currently teaching 4th Grade in Al Ain, U.A.E. She is married to Peter and they have two sons, Philip (28) & David (25), both of whom live in London. She is involved with and supporter of a small, Irish charity called KEFA. It funds the education of children in Arusha, Tanzania.
She enjoys reading, writing, travelling, baking, yoga and cycling when she gets the chance!
Patricia Bender’s writing has been published by Beir Bua, Good Foot, LIPS, the Paterson Literary Review, Peregrine, Southword, and THE GREAT FALLS ANTHOLOGY. A National Writing Project Fellow, she serves on the Editorial Board of the New Jersey English Journal, and as a United Nations Volunteer online editor.
Mary McGrath is a third generation Treacy Parker from Carrick-on-Suir, which is widely regarded as one of the best places to be from. One day Mary will find the time to actually really write but for now she scribbles every chance she gets. Mary also likes listening to vinyl, giving out about her kids and the two cats, and cake.
Walter Dunphy has been a long-time member of the Brewery Lane Drama group and has achieved several acting awards, the most recent of which was News and Star best supporting actor in the comedy ‘The Real McCoy’ in 2019. He was a cast member of two plays that won National Titles in Ireland: Sean O’Casey’s ‘Bedtime Story’ and Bryan MacMahon’s ‘Jack Furey’. He was also a cast member of ten plays that reached the All Ireland finals in Athlone.