The experience of lockdown that gripped much of the world during the Covid–19 crisis was, for me, a strange period in creative terms. New ministry and family pressures brought on by the existence of the virus meant that much of the mental space I rely on for reading and reflection was gone. In the earliest days of isolating and “social distancing” I felt like I had undergone a power cut in terms of writing.
Into this silence and darkness these three poems nudged at the door, and eventually came in and made themselves at home. They were those happiest of poetry writing experiences—pieces which felt pre-written in the heart before they entered my mind. Occasionally a poem surprises you as a poet, because it lays bare emotions and anxieties which you were only vaguely aware of before you met your own thoughts written down. To read them after they are written is like remembering and recounting a vivid dream. These are those kinds of pieces.
Grace at all times is not something which we rule in or rule out of our way of seeing the world. Instead, it sweetly intrudes into the darkness, and makes a home in the middle of our making the best sense out of the world that we can. Andrew Roycroft
“Selah” was written in mid-April, when the uncertainties of Covid–19 seemed to be most intense globally. The airspace over our home, normally punctuated by the lights of commercial aircraft, were now more deeply dark, with Venus taking full advantage of an empty stage to show its glory. Families were at home, away from the preoccupations of work, focused solely on avoiding the plague that seemed so near to our doors. I wrote this poem in order to make a sound in that hushed moment, and the term “Selah” seemed like a good fit. That mysterious term, which disturbs the flow of the Psalms by saying something silent, seemed so appropriate. The poem seems to insist on looking upwards, and I found that the abandonment of form (apart from meter) provided a way of reflecting the tension I felt between the “fixity” of God’s purpose and the seeming fluidity of circumstance. I also felt that “Selah” gave me room to rehabilitate April from the cruelty so often attributed to it, emphasising the life that follows the pains of the final month that feels a little like winter. The Covid–19 crisis sharpened the focus of those thoughts and feelings, and allowed me to run my eye heavenwards and hope-wards again.
Because the planes no longer fly, I dared tonight to trust the sky, the fixity of stars, the full moon uncrowned by icy light, the true North not now misread as flight, the evening’s settling upwards chill. I would impute good faith to this April, firmly believe in season’s sure ingress, that, in spite of our under-heaven distress, we are in a universe of laws. That— panoplied above all these furloughed cars, populous homes with children’s shadowed dreams— a hand which could constellate such fading lights would wait an age for their sweet demise to give us sight of unfaltering grace. He, from the circle of ravelling earth, soft whispers to our pains, ‘Not death, but birth’.
“Distance” was written to reflect the difficulties presented by Covid–19 in terms of community and cohesion in grief. In my work as a pastor I was confronted with the reality of people who were suffering their final illnesses, but whose bedsides I was unable to visit. This was followed by funerals at which I had to remain distant from families engulfed in grief, and I so missed the efficacy of touch to compensate where words are wanting. I opted for the sonnet form, partly as a means of reflecting the constrictions brought on by the pandemic, and partly because of the sheer relief of writing a final couplet in which Jesus crosses the gap caused by the virus. My prayer with this poem is that it might touch something universal among those who have lost loved ones and friends at a time when the grace of gripping another’s hand, cradling a sorrowing friend’s head, and shouldering grief in touchable tangible ways, have been taken from us.
We will not embrace this day, but maintain our distance, a widening loss marked in time, but not in touch, each moved against the grain as though sorrow would remain in lines and not transgress, nor breach, nor blot, nor blur. These are times of feelings kempt and stayed, of charity retrained to speak that it is there, and reach no hand, but heavenwards to pray. This is charged space, that craves new collision, that would split each atom of exiled grief, bring disordered grace, insist on confusion of homes, and hearts, and limbs, and life. But now, with Mary, Martha, in vacant tears, we eye the gap, for Jesus drawing near.
“Shells” was written as a reflection on the shoreside walks which we have been able to enjoy as a family in the later stages of Covid–19 lockdown—a luxury that vulnerable family health had prohibited for months. We live at the lip of the Irish Sea, and have a tradition of bringing home treasures from the beach each time we visit it. A large vase in our hallway has been gradually filling up over the years, and that image of shells rather than sand being emptied into the hourglass really caught my attention. There is something powerful and providential in the arrival of common place shells on the shore, and something vibrant about bringing their colour into our home as a measure of moments spent together. As a parent, time is visibly outgrowing me all of the time, the height and happy maturing of my daughters marks their progress into the world, and foreshadows my eventual regress out of it. That tidal nature of time, the treasuring of filled up hours with things of no monetary value, but of huge emotional value seemed a fitting way to reflect that. Again, the sonnet form raised its hand for this poem, and I was happy to let in, particularly as it afforded me the opportunity to issue an invitation to others to fill up the hours well.
The vase in the hall holds trophies from all our walks at shore. Shale, fragments of leaden skies, smooth-edged brick ends from Belfast walls, oil painting mussel, canvas of heaven; Dog whelks, tellins, ordinary, like days with the girls, gathered bounty in small hands. Time is a rising tide that we display, in glass, stacked ground in place of sinking sand; Old porcelain with washed out pattern face, a now long-past family’s Sunday best, no more adrift but in our home, the grace of waves turning up lives, from roiling rest. Come then, let’s brim the wide lips of this jar, store up the shells with which we fill these hours.
When all three of these poems were delivered, revised, and refined into a more final shape, what surprised me was that “grace” had unconsciously been mentioned in each of them. This was not by my design, but that seemed so appropriate. Grace at all times is not something which we rule in or rule out of our way of seeing the world. Instead, it sweetly intrudes into the darkness, and makes a home in the middle of our making the best sense out of the world that we can. “A Grace Triptych” seemed like a good way to bind these seemingly disparate pieces together, a three-panelled perspective on God’s movement and mercy in the midst of tough times and public fear. Grace is the theme which binds every part of our creative work together, and at a time when public spirit and public health seemed to be mutually in decline, I was deeply grateful for the cohesive force of God’s faithful disposition towards me. My prayer is that the grace which insisted on a place in these poems, might do the same work in the hearts of those who read, whatever their uncertainty or turmoil.