Spring Journal is my third published book and my first work of poetry. From the publisher’s website:
Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, written August to December 1938, was an immediate personal response to the public events of those months and the mood on the streets. ‘It is the nature of this poem,’ a prefatory note declared, ‘to be neither final nor balanced.’
In Spring Journal, written between March and late August 2020, the novelist Jonathan Gibbs replies to MacNeice and redeploys his form in an urgent, fluent act of witness to the events of this Covid year. Angry, desperately sad, self-aware, sceptical about what writing is for, the book is both a week-by-week record and something ‘carved from chaos’.
‘Jonathan Gibbs has done an extraordinary thing with his response to Autumn Journal. He has created a restless, questing, witty, urgent piece of journalist-poetry (to use MacNeice’s own phrase), so particularly of the surreal and helter-skelter times we’ve recently lived through it seems both to chronicle and to make sense of them in real time.’
– Lucy Caldwell, author of Multitudes
‘It’s a triumph. I’ll be buying copies for all my friends because this is going to be my bible and companion in the dark months to come. Line after line sings with truth.’
– Linda Grant, author of When I Lived in Modern Times and A Stranger City
Huge thanks to Charles Boyle at CB Editions for this mark of confidence in offering to publish the book, and his acumen in turning it around ‘on a sixpence’ so that the book was in the shops within months of its completion. You can buy it direct from the publisher here.
Spring Journal: what it is and how it came to pass
On the evening of Thursday 19th March 2020 I had the idea of tweeting about the coronavirus epidemic in short poetic bursts, inspired by Louis MacNeice’s long poem Autumn Journal, which he wrote in late 1938 in response to the impending world war, and described as “Not strictly a journal but giving the tenor of my emotional experiences during that period. It is about everything which from first-hand experience I consider important.”
I created a new Twitter account, @SpringJournal, and wrote two tweets that evening, and six more the following day, each tweet containing four lines of poetry in MacNeice’s “elastic kind of quatrain”. By the end of March I had written a little over 40 tweets, the equivalent of two of MacNeice’s ‘cantos’, most of which ran to 80 lines of poetry. I took the poem as a very loose model: sometimes working out from specific lines, sometimes engaging more broadly with the themes of individual cantos (childhood, school, work, nation), sometimes ignoring the original as I responded to the changing world around me, as the country went into social distancing, and then lockdown, and then other global events emerged.
Around this time David Collard asked if I would be interested in having Spring Journal feature in a series of online salons he was organising called ‘A Leap in the Dark’, where they would be read by novelist and actor Michael Hughes (like MacNeice, Michael is from Northern Ireland).
Michael read the first two Cantos on Friday 4th April, and from that point on I wrote a canto a week, sending it to Michael and David to be read out on the Friday evening. The final canto was performed as part of a complete readthrough of all 24 cantos on a special ‘Leap in the Dark’ on Friday 28th August, with Michael joined by guest readers including Marie-Elsa Bragg, Rónán Hession, J.O. Morgan and Eley Williams.
For anyone interested in MacNeice’s poem, I would strongly recommend the Backlisted podcast dedicated to it, which you can listen to here.
You can also hear Samuel West, who guests on that podcast episode, reading selected Cantos of ‘Autumn Journal’, brilliantly, as part of his extensive and generous #PandemicPoems project. So far he’s read Canto 1, Canto 4, Canto 5 and Canto XIX.
Below is the text of selected cantos of the poem.
Close and slow, spring is starting in London,
Creeping up through the thickset lawns that, though too wet to cut,
Still taunt the retired accountants and asset managers
Who would have been out there by now for certain but
Strange thoughts stay their hands from the Barbour
In the hallway, and the lead and poop-bags by the door,
For this spring brings headlines from Italy and China,
And nobody knows what they’re allowed to do any more.
And it’s March coming in as the last daffs are fading,
And the first nasturtiums coming, ignorant of the farce,
And the mother popping out to Tesco despite her daughter’s warnings,
Raising her eyes to the few remaining planes that pass
Westwards from Heathrow, which is no longer owed an extra runway.
For so it is we learn to live in air that’s good to breathe,
And the canals in Venice running clear, with little fishes swimming
And the tourists at the airport asking when they’ll get to leave.
And it’s Friday night in London where the pubs are all still open
For the blessed who think it’s fine to drink then loll home in an Uber.
Do they raise a glass to those still stuck onboard the MS Braemar
Turned away from every port till they were taken in by Cuba?
And all the inherited worries, the social anxieties and taxes,
And whether Stella will marry and what to do with Dick
And the great-uncle who lost his savings to a fraudster,
And is this tightness in the chest merely asthmatic?
And the growth of vulgarity, electric scooters on the pavement
And the rising tide of plastic on the beach
And the hiking LGBTQ+ lovers with thoughts directed
Neither to God nor Sovereign Nation but each to each.
And the queue for Sainsbury’s this morning was impressive,
The hundreds of shoppers with their trolleys –
At ten to seven! On a weekend!” –
Is just the highest tide mark of our ongoing infinite follies.
So I’m Tweeting this from the till queue trailing up aisle 27
(There’s plenty of shampoo and hair spray),
And there’s eggs and bread and bleach and chips and lasagne,
But even those might be gone by now I dare say.
And the question of privilege raises its head,
As of course it does,
In every aspect of the current situation,
And what each one of us does
And can possibly do is permanently affected:
The tins I’ll decant
Into the food bank by the exit
Are, let’s face it, scant
Atonement for my middle-class security,
And the gofundme
Donations for artists and writers
Faced with shock redundancy.
So let’s hear it for Picturehouse cinemas, sacking
Staff as a matter of course,
And let’s hear it for the Coylumbridge Hotel in Aviemore,
Which “Apologised for any upset caused”
After laying off a dozen workers in what they called
An “administrative error”,
God knows what goes through these people’s heads as they write these letters,
If they understand the terror.
The terror? Is it terror? This fluctuating fear, anxiety and worry
All laid one over the other like card laid over card,
And everyone I speak to seems broadly fine, but there are others
Online that this crisis is hitting more squarely and hard.
And I am in the car now and the sun is out as we are heading east
Bound for the Essex coast, and the shuck of wave on shingle,
The visit to my wife’s parents, to deliver essential items and offer solace
But not to hug or kiss or even mingle.
And so we sit in our parked cars and eat fish and chips from cardboard boxes
Watching the too many people on the esplanade, and the not-enough sky
For we cannot eat in the flat, and the communal room is closed,
And this is the English way.
And the drive back, yawning, with the sun low in the windscreen,
Though it’s now that it gives its most singular light,
Painting the winter wheat a rich green-gold and dotting the turned brown clay
With Canaletto white.
And as I stand pissing against the hedge, I notice the first hawthorn blossoms,
Simple specks in a complex pattern,
Like you might find printed on wallpaper,
Or on a cushion or curtain.
And so back to London, its own uncertainties evolving:
The density of population, the space and air we share,
Where the warm spring wind blows us dangerously together
And infects our complexes and cares.
Written 19 March to early April
April has come and I wake
But I cannot think with joy of the future,
For something there is abroad that can take
That future away; it does so in silence,
And it’s coming closer, not yet in my street,
But in my timeline:
The retweet of the desolate tweet
That a partner, a parent, a cousin has died.
And if MacNeice wonders
Whether “the conditions of love will be changed” and “affection not lapse to narrow possessiveness”
Then as for me I’m under
No illusion regarding that particular manoeuvre.
And yes, alright, Louis: April has come, it is hers,
Whose blood lifts a notch in the springtime,
But whose nature prefers
The more rigorous glories of summer,
The pure straight hit of sun and heat,
Not for the leaves stunned to life on the branches
But for the joy of sandals on feet
And sunglasses tangled in hair,
And so I give her this month and the next… and the next…
Though they are likely to be ours regardless,
As we face the new and strange context,
She with even temper and hopes, and projects, even.
So I am glad
That my life is circumscribed by hers, with her ambitions
Reaching farther than any I can claim I’ve had,
Who is more ready to rhyme beauty with duty;
Whose mind is like a shuttle on a loom,
Weaving threads the rest of us don’t notice,
Whose eyes glint like irony in the gloom,
Whose laugh is a field-full of birds taking all at once to the heavens.
To whom I send my thanks
That our life as it unfolds offers unexpected vistas ahead and behind,
And if there are blanks
Then those are there for us to fill together,
Walking a beach that seems to roll from Scotland to Cornwall to Essex
And as we walk we’ll stop and count each unnumbered stone
Slipping only the most superb – the most stony – into our pockets.
And perhaps it was easier for MacNeice
To make Canto IV of Autumn Journal a love poem,
For his subject was not there to police
His words – and you are. So here goes:
Frivolous, when you feel like it, early for every flight,
Frowning only at your own thoughts, taking particular notice
Of trainers and handbags, for your work wardrobe is tight-
ly constrained: a carousel of cardigans rich in competence and style,
Rarely untidy, if we overlook the loading of the dishwasher,
Wearing your first grey hairs like a newly awarded degree,
On occasion too easily hurt, though never arrogant,
With your love that can need provoking, which is itself provoking,
For long-term love is a form of knowledge that comes mixed
And how those elements are arrayed is not fixed,
And is itself unknowable, which is part of the pleasure.
Who won’t talk about films you’ve seen, or books you’ve read,
Who presses her feet sole-flat
Against mine to gather warmth in bed.
But now to last night’s news, that the country’s leader
Lies in intensive care,
Which makes a neat thought experiment for anyone who hates his party
And him in particular: does he deserve our ‘thoughts and prayers’?
No, not especially. We can hope he doesn’t die
And still wish he wasn’t in charge at this of all times,
There are others more deserving of our sympathy,
The families of the bus drivers who have died – now nine.
They, like him, deserved better leadership than was on offer,
And the doctors and nurses dead or very ill,
Or still working twelve-hour shifts, sixty-hour weeks,
With missing protective equipment. Mere good will
Is not enough for them; does he want some of it also?
And tonight the full moon fills the street, and no sound
But a Chopin Nocturne sifting faintly from the speakers,
No clapping for Boris, but all around
The silence of houses folding in on themselves for the night.
And you, unloading the dishwasher as I write; I can hear the clink
Of cups and knock of cupboard doors,
This house will fold around us, and I think,
I hope, we’ll live in it until it kicks us out.
Written 3 – 7 April
Which things being so… but then that’s the problem:
For the things that last week seemed ‘so’
Are not so today; the world changes seldom
And when it does it changes slow,
And last week was anger and pain and confusion
As the bad old news from before
Broke into the strange new nowhere we’re living in
And pushed our face to the floor.
And we said hey, we’ve got heads full of graphs and back to school schedules,
Give us time to take stock,
But they went right ahead and tore down a statue and rolled it
Into the dock,
And after Colston, Rhodes and Leopold, and a dozen other statues
To vicious, powerful men,
Are gone or lining up to go, and shitty little Little Britain’s gone, and
Should have been gone way back then,
And Minneapolis stands up and shrugs and says it can function
Just fine without the police,
And our mouths drop open, and the words don’t come, for when we shouted
No justice, no peace
We missed that the answer was there all along: justice
Comes from peace. Let people live
Without fear of the knee on the neck or the battering ram;
Let people conceive
Their own systems of care and support,
Give them power to arrange
The struts and levers and cogs of their world, but my god!
So much has to change!
For systems are not statues, to be torn down in moments
And rolled in the street.
A system like this is a house of many mansions,
And not all of them en suite.
And while I can say I didn’t help build the house that we live in
You could say I inherited it,
Or I inherited my room, which is on quite a nice floor, with quite a nice view,
And no one likes a hypocrite.
For this is the change of the last week: from looking
Out to looking in
And being looked at: not where do you stand on this or that
But where does your work begin?
Stop tweeting your support and signing petitions,
And sewing your heart on your sleeve.
What will happen next in the world will not happen
Just on the strength of what you believe.
And if intersectionality has a lesson
It’s not simply that we’ve got to learn
To see in ourselves our constituent elements,
But how to be seen in turn,
And accept that the circles we draw – so carefully – around us,
Might be all one from where you sit,
That from there it looks like I’m in the same circle
As plenty of people I think are just shit.
It’s going to be hard fucking work, long hours and hard labour,
You can’t do it in poem.
You do it in your place of work, in your town, your village,
Anywhere that the system
Benefits you, where the system’s your ally;
It’s not about proclaiming whose back you’ve got,
It’s about looking behind you to see who’s got your back
Whether you like it or not.
So yes, white privilege has got my back, and racism
Has got my back too,
And will go into bat for me each time I walk down the street
Or into an interview room.
And thank god for the streets, because the world online
Appals like an open wound,
And when the discourse turns hateful it’s hard to balance
The need for quiet with the need to be good.
And it’s open the schools, don’t open the schools, open
The zoos instead,
Who can you fuck, can you go the pub, does your two-metre
Bubble begin in your head?
And we want this to be over, so we can start pushing the boulder
Back up the hill to the top,
For Colston, the bastard, is back on his plinth, and needs rolling
Each day back into the dock.
So tell me where to stand, and sorry you have to tell me,
But this shit is never going to stop.
Hold me to my expectations, call me out when I’m weak, and most of all
Tell me when to shut up.
Written 8 – 11 June
Stormzy and dubstep and Tik-Tok and Tinder
And day returns too soon;
We’ll get plastered at the free bar
In the revamped catacombs,
Give me an aphrodisiac, give me a swipe right,
Give me the same again;
Make all the erotic poets of Shoreditch and Streatham
And Peckham and Brixton and Penge
Lend their honied bars to my wicked purpose,
And let us give the DJ thanks
For the warp of the bass and the strobe of the sequins;
Let the old muse get out of her Spanx,
Or give me a new muse, in something from la Perla,
Hair waving like a flag,
With mascara as black as the cosmos, finger-nails of crimson,
Dressed by Valentino, with a Chanel clutch bag.
Let the gamers run riot round Fortnite Island,
Let the graphic cards all glitch,
Flip your gender in Faceapp and see if you fancy
Yourself as a himbo or bitch.
Give us distractions, and then again distractions –
Deep fakes, fireworks, vagina candles, bling,
Spend your bitcoin, share your PayPal and your password,
Let the critical thinking go out and the Twitter pile-ons begin.
Give me a fuckboy, but fuckboys are too easy,
Give me a saint,
We’ll feed him to the trolls, smear him across the meme pool
We won’t countenance complaint.
Bring on the Insta-girls and the influencers,
Let them bow to our conceit,
Bring on the stans and the also-rans,
The end of all this shit will be so sweet.
But look who comes here. I cannot see their faces
Walking slowly, slowly, one by one;
They’re coming from the hospitals and care homes,
Their faces are pale in the late June sun,
Or see-through even. I wonder where they’re going,
Could it be to the golf club,
Or the model village, bingo hall or theme park,
Or just to the pub?
Each has an oxygen mask around their neck. I wonder
Who let them all come back?
Who signed their discharge papers, snipped off their wristbands?
Is someone somewhere keeping track?
And they’re four-deep at the bar, and knocking at my elbow,
When there should surely be no trace
Of any of them anywhere; they should be gone, or invisible,
There is something familiar about this one’s face.
And this one, and this one also,
Where have I seen them before?
They’re crowding the public houses,
And those that can’t get in are banging at the door.
But take no notice; pass the menu,
A drink to start would be nice,
The English must have their pub, it’s their mother’s milk,
So a bottle of fizz, some beers, and a double G&T with ice and a slice.
So how’ve you been? Tell me about it! Look, don’t stop talking,
And yes please show me that highly amusing thing on your phone,
And show me another, and another, and maybe those horrible vacant
People with blank faces will give up and go home.
Just pretend they’re not there, you’ve had plenty of practice,
You’ve been in training since you were small,
And when you look again they’ll have vanished,
What do you mean, they haven’t vanished at all?
This is getting beyond a joke; I didn’t come here for trouble,
And don’t get me wrong,
But they would have died anyway is all I’m saying,
So pass me the mike and give us a song.
‘Try Not to Breathe’ by R.E.M., or the Police doing
‘Don’t Stand so Close to Me’.
What this whole country needs is a proper sesh and a nosh-up,
A kebab or a Morley’s, or a Maccy D.
Come on lads, it’s my round, what you having?
Don’t let yourself get put off your stride,
Those aren’t people standing silently at your elbow,
Don’t act like somebody died.
So why do you hold your hands over your eyes like that,
And shake your head in quiet despair?
Pull yourself together, come on mate, why won’t you answer?
I can’t answer because they are still there.
Written 20 – 25 June
Parakeets slice the London air,
The shutters stay down on the chain-store windows,
Colston’s plinth stands void in its square,
Speaking for no one, speaking for no one.
Leicester’s factory workers daren’t stay home,
The microwave pings and dinner is ready,
Some are hungry and others are gone,
A smiling face in a Facebook tribute.
And faceless the Uyghurs in Xinjiang,
Faceless the fascist police in Portland,
Roaming the streets in unmarked vans,
Faceless the troll farms and Russian hackers.
And faceless the nurses in masks and gowns,
Faceless the firms with PPE contracts
Of hundreds of thousands or millions of pounds
Got with no government tender or bidding.
Each day the world is more hard to digest,
It shrinks and grows in a series of circles
That cross and diverge in a fearsome complex;
The decree to think global, act local
Has never been so tough
To follow. What is wrong with the planet
Seems blatant enough
But what do to? How to act? Where to place your first footstep
When the guidance changes from day to day?
And all will be normal by Christmas, no question,
So let the workers spring like a corps de ballet
As they weave their ways down the busying pavement.
Dodging the streetsweepers pushing their carts,
Filled to the brim with our sins of omission,
Let the measure of intimate distances start,
O what a busy morning!
Kids on bikes, trapping or trapped,
And the office workers with nails of coral –
But lashes untinted and faces unwaxed,
And small hope of heading anywhere foreign
This summer, and those on furlough face news
Of their jobs and their futures fading to nothing;
The second wave will claim its dues,
And December will tip as if without warning
Into a new disaster, a new pox, a new blight.
If Covid is the wolf then Brexit is the vulture
That will pick on our corpse till the bones show white,
And still there is no vaccine for political folly.
And here is where the poet turns his well-turned lines
To the woman who’d left him alone and deserted –
The second in a row, poor Louis – yet still he can find
The means to be kind; he embraces his freedom,
And wishes her luck,
While for we two the hypnosis rolls on unabated,
The belief in the bargain we struck
Two decades ago, to be true to each other,
Holds firm; the song that we sing has kept the same tune;
Our job is to endlessly make up new verses – variations
On the theme of a long-gone honeymoon,
When we are so long in love, are we even in it?
And god, Louis, you were thirty-two
When you wrote Autumn Journal,
So young! You burned through
Life like you were chain-smoking summers,
And of course I read your cantos
As the work of a master, a mentor, a teacher,
The statesman in the photo
With thinning hair and a stare like my father’s.
But you couldn’t, it seems, mix sex and art
Successfully; like the blueprint for a cocktail
Overheard at a party, but what part
Gin to what part absinthe would be always beyond you
When you tried to remake it. What makes some love affairs succeed
While others fail and falter?
As well to say it’s in the distant stars’ decree
As fix it down with human logic or earthly reasons.
But the booze can’t have helped; those bright busy mornings
You’d have seen through a blur
Of headache and regret – empty bottles,
And ash-filled ashtrays – but regret is a spur
To art, as poetry is carved from chaos:
You cannot write what you cannot feel,
And it’s one thing to wrestle with a blizzard of emotions
And another to coast on an even keel
Through life. And you, my wife, did not sign up to be a muse,
It was a prose writer you married,
Turning up in poems was not part of our vows.
So I sketch these lines with tact and devotion,
And on this latest busy morning, my dear,
As you cycle off to work I am glad that you are busy,
For busy mornings make survivable years,
And I wish us luck and I pace myself, for the sake of the party.
Written 17 – 23 July