Anchorites

By David Betteridge

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell,
and count myself a king of infinite space….
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
Hamlet

I

Here I stand,
or, more often, sit or lie
or, within a narrow compass,
pace around.

I read, I write, I correspond
with friends, I watch TV
too much, I cook, eat, nod off,
and sometimes exercise.

Kind neighbours bring me groceries
to my door.

Being elderly and frail,
or so I’m judged,
I can do no other;
so here I’ll stay, confined,
until a key that can unlock
this Covid mortise
can be found.

Living this way is now my norm,
as it is for many others,
and as, for centuries,
it has been the lot
of the invalid and prisoner,
the hermit and recluse.

Regarding lockdown, and its history,
today I thought I’d make
a search online.

II

At once, from the deep past,
a small and smiling woman slipped
through the portal of my computer screen.
She stood beside me at my desk.

From her white wimple
and her tunic of the darkest red,
I recognised Dame Julian,
mother of English prose,
the anchoress.

In her hand she held her book,
conceived in the throes
of battling death one night,
when vision after vision came to her,
that gave her cause and substance
for the coming twenty years,
when, having learned to read,
she devotedly set to,
and wrote.

From this book, she chose a passage
for me to hear, one she’d ear-marked
in advance; usefully, it came up
in bold italics on my screen.
Her voice was warm, strong, intense,
full-fed with her text’s significance.

He said not:
Thou shalt not be tempested,
thou shalt not be travailed,
thou shalt not be afflicted;
but He said:
Thou shalt not be overcome.

Of a sudden –
why, I cannot guess –
my screen blanked.
As quickly as she came,
Julian went, leaving me
in a strange state of contentedness.

III

In one short moment,
she had brought me to a deep well
of thought, enough to last
a life of thirst.

From her dire epoch long ago,
from her calamities of plague and war,
from her own pains, speaking to ours,
and to our hungry souls,
she gathered in a harvest of wise words,
a sustaining store.

IV

I learned once,
and from my reading
rediscover now, that Julian had
three windows in her cell.

One opened to an alcove,
for the passing-in of food and other things
the body needs, and for the passing-out
of clothes that she had sewn
for giving to the poor, and slops,
these exchanges being summoned
by the tinkling of a bell.

A second window opened to the body
of the church, for her joining
in its round of sacred rites.

The third opened to a busy street,
for her communing with the folk
who passed, or sought her out,
while she enjoyed perception
of the city’s play of sounds and sights.

She set a good example here
of social distancing: convivial,
while not too near.

V

So here I stand, or sit, or lie,
or pace around, et cetera,
for as long as lockdown rules apply.
It is, I know, a kind of house-arrest,
but intended for the common weal,
as nations fight their pandemic fight,
and still too many people die.

With my kind neighbours
and my several windows on the world,
virtual and real –
and what a brim-full world it is,
as every day reveals! –
for me to grumble or dispute
would be a crime.

From Luther King we learned,
We shall overcome.

Now from Julian I learn,
no matter how afflicted,
We shall not be overcome.

How can I not be patient,
not be hopeful, not fulfilled,
doing time?

I used to work as a teacher and latterly a teacher-trainer. Books and poetry-pamphlets of mine have been published by Smokestack Books, Culture Matters, and Rhizome Press. The pamphlets are distinguished by being designed by a superb visualiser, Tom Malone. One of them, Countervailing was short-listed for the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award.

I suppose the most useful (and unanticipated) side-effect of staying at home more and seeing people less has been to enhance the quality of my looking at things (as through the window) or listening to things (as to the radio) or thinking about things (as everything), because of there being fewer distractions and interruptions than before lockdown.  Pascal’s pensee about our penchant for distractions takes on a renewed force  –  

I have often said that the sole cause of

man’s unhappiness is that he does not know

how to stay quietly in his room  –

although “sole cause” seems a bit sweeping.

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