‘Chewing the nails of just one hand, the right
Silence falling back on us
With all its weight of sky and stars.’
Plague Poems, Brian Flaherty, Little island Press, 2022
Fingering the page of statistics in your pocket
You are still trying to find the right words
It’s not a matter of painting a black picture
It’s a matter of taking precautions
Even to express such simple emotions
Costs an enormous effort
Most of all you like a certain bell in the neighbourhood
That rings softly around five in the evening.
Rather than knit or bake sourdough, Brian Flaherty wrote a poem a day after Aotearoa went into its first lockdown, just before midnight on 25 March 2020. The next morning, he took Albert Camus’s The Plague (La Peste). He read five pages each day, and ‘used them to sample and shape a poem’ that echoed our pandemic situation, and that he emailed to a friend. Plague Poems represents the fifty poems he wrote. It is a slender, dark-covered book that sings out of dark and life, the unknown and the recognisable.
A reshaping, a sampling, a translation, a poetic transparency laid over our pandemic time. As I read the book in one slow sitting, entranced, captivated, the poetry forms a transparency over my own lockdown experience. Here and then, the empty city, the empty streets, the hijacked and reinvented daily routines, these poems like those days, offer new and surprising sustenance.
Brian slows down in the empty city, in Camus’s novel, and in his slowness of daily pace, observation is heightened. There are posters demanding hygiene, a droning radio, a glass of warm beer, people on balconies and people walking the boulevards. In the ambulation, whether physical, emotional, cerebral, the poet’s mind is adrift, collating and collecting. The poem is thinking with new eyes. It is contemplating the strange and the estranging. I am personally returned to my own drift through the house, up the country road, without anchor and then again with a different anchor. Reading the collection it feels like the objects on the mantelpiece of the mind were taking time to settle. They still are.
To make the trains run again in our imagination
The only way to escape this unbearable holiday
To speak more particularly at last of lovers
Those one sees wandering at any time of the day
Subservient to the sun and the rain
Handed over to the whims of the heavens
To go back through the story
And examine its imperfections
It must be said that people are drinking a lot
You have the impression that cars
Have started to go round in circles.
Time is elongated, meaningless, endless, meaning rich, meaning astray, meaning hungry, questions compounding.
I adored reading this elegant suite of poems, with its silence, its epiphanies, its unexpected resonance, its sweet craft. I am returned to a time that was body-displacing off-real, like a film noir set, a dystopian novel from past or future, as we grappled to reshape our days, our relationship with today. Two years later, it feels altogether noisier, edgier, more divisive, less connected and less connecting. Brian’s poetry takes me back to a time where, against all odds, life felt precious, when we worked together to make it so. We walked through the empty city, observing, collating, harvesting, recognising, celebrating, and being alive to and for what matters. I love this precious book.
After eleven, plunged into darkness
Under a moonlit sky
The town is like a monument
A necropolis in which disease and stone
Have finally silenced every voice
Night crouching in our hearts
The myths that are passed around
Black shape of a tree, the howl of a dog.
Brian Flaherty is a poet librarian. He is co-founder of the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre with Michele Leggott, and was co-editor of the poetry journal Trout. Poems have appeared in Turbine, Best NZ Poems, Blackmail Press, Ika, Ka Mate Ka Ora, and Trout. Recordings of some of his poetry are at Six Pack Sound.
Little Island Press Plague Poems
Little Island Press Brian Flaherty