By Daniel Hinds
On the first day of lockdown, I stopped my watch
And hung it on my writing desk.
To slip beneath the wrinkles of Time’s face
And sleep within the sandy trench.
I hope I will wake.
I hope I will wake, clamber from my tired bezel,
My sagging gilded case, rise
Like Arthur and sweep the rheumy mist
Of Camlann from my new ancient eyes.
Feel the tickle of my leafy crown, unwilted
By still and silent revolutions.
Touch my startled hand to the thick brush
That covers my face, verdant as the kingdom
My pupils paint, and see the shadow of my graveside
Sundial dialled down to a thin line, hard discerned on stone.
I hope I will wake and find my hands transcribed my dreams
While I slept, my words caught in a willow hoop of ink.
Wake to a collection, two pamphlets and a fat memoir.
On the first day, I stopped my watch
And hung it on my writing desk.
At permanent twelve.
This poem was first published in York Literary Review.
The Corona Prince
By now, you must have heard his legends.
You abide in his empire.
In the kingdom of the rising star
He rose from a small bowl of hot bat soup
Pausing long enough for sunken eyes,
Slimed in matted hair, to glare like an alligator
Surfacing to see the prey come to drink.
He stood full height, small feet in the primordial,
A hungry ghost in black scaled armour.
Skin the colour of hardened phlegm.
Consistency of a patagium wing.
The old man’s whistle cut short
Before it could cool the broth on his upraised spoon.
With the red light behind him,
The West saw only a body, a thin line of shadow:
A judgment of God over Egypt.
And turned aside their gaze.
On the other side of the sun they say
He fell from the stars with the ink black space
Poured onto the armaments of men
Under the shadow of an eagle’s wing.
In truth, his womb is the mucus
Of your lungs the red crown points pierce
As they breach and spit the flesh
As he flails and splutters from the eldritch.
He is born a thousand times each day.
The thin golden string of your life
Is his cut umbilic cord.
His ritual ointments are soap and wine
Darkened water. Courtiers, wring your hands.
His long fingers will squeeze the drops
From your neck, like a tight mink scarf.
For libations, he sups the sweat of his subjects.
Like Stoker’s creature he hovers by the bedside
And runs a cracked tongue; stokes flames.
His palaces are spotless white.
With the pomp of pale robes and gurney carriages
He leads procession after procession
Down the scrubbed and stretching corridors.
A pied piper with a liking for liver spots
And time folded into wrinkles.
His subjects shuffle behind.
He lives on breath and air
And the liquid libations, the flecks that cross
The vermillion border.
He does not survive long on paper.
Smiths and scientists labour
To construct the spear
To spike his groin.
Their designs drawn like a meal made
From a cook book covered in spewed up slops.
The ingredients expert eyes discern
In the detritus at the bottom of your bowl:
A thin and silver shard of his crown
And a scraping of his phlegmatic skin.
A king caught in his coronet.
Count to twenty
And you will name his successor.
This poem was first published in The Mechanics’ Institute Review.
The first poem, ‘Keeping Watch’, deals with the relationship of the pandemic to the poetic vocation, through the figuring of lockdown as a kind of hibernation, a slower, sleepier time, albeit not without its ‘still and silent revolutions’; references to societal changes and mortality shadow the speaker’s sleep. Like many, I have gained a lot more time to focus on my writing during successive lockdowns, free from the daily commute and a social life; though, of course, for others it has been entirely the opposite scenario. Many formerly full-time writers have taken on the role of teacher as well as parent during this period.
I am sure we all remember the innumerable comment pieces on Shakespeare’s writerly achievements during his plague years. It is to this writerly ambition that the poem responds; the dreamy, slightly old-fashioned verse moves sharply to the abrupt wakeful ambition of ‘Wake to a collection, two pamphlets and a fat memoir’, the last of this trio signalling the heightened concern for mortality in this time (perhaps gesturing also to the relationship of weight and Covid mortality rates, as well as the weight most of us have gained huddling in our houses for so long).
The poem was also inspired by a prompt from Jackie Kay for the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts Inside Writing Festival, to write about your writing talisman. In my case, this is the stoppered silver clock that has hung on my desk in my room all through this pandemic, locked at high noon, the time when shepherds converse in verse in the ancient pastoral, the time gunfighters spill their pistol smoke, a time for the music and signalling of bells and clocks, the time of doomsday, and the supernatural; in short, the time of poetry.
The poem is one of three that I have written since the pandemic began that are set in, or somehow allude to, the bedroom in which I have spent so much of my time working from home for my day job (The Bedroom Triptych?). Clearly, while I have gained more time to write and submit poetry, my poetic imagination has ceased to range quite so far as it used to!
The second poem, ‘The Corona Prince’ is a horror poem that creates a supernatural figure from the virus. It was written earlier, very near to the beginning of the pandemic (with the exception of ‘like a tight mink scarf’, which was added later, an irresistible reference to the Covid zombie mink bursting, rotten, from their mass graves in the state of Denmark, with the added benefit of nicely rounding out a line that had previously seemed to curtail too early – as detailed in the first poem all horror and tragedy are just ink for the poet’s pen and its ruthless ambition).
Much as Dracula acted as a shadow in which to cast concerns about sexuality, gender, and the fear of the other, the poem explores how the coronavirus has acted as a cypher for some of humanity’s worst neuroses, our petty nationalisms, racializing, and isolationism (by which I mean in national terms, not in terms of self-isolating following the Covid app’s canary chirp). The poem shows how across nations we have been guilty of this; the most obvious examples from life being President Trump’s constant strangely pronounced shouts about ‘the China virus’, and our quick identification of variants with nationalities. The poem’s most obscure lines depict just such an identification: ‘Poured onto the armaments of men / Under the shadow of an eagle’s wing’; this is a reference to a rumour from the early days of the pandemic that circulated in China, claiming that American military forces were responsible for the spread of the illness. However, for all their demonisations of each other, all of these nations co-exist in this demon’s empire, and send shadows to shuffle in his procession.