Khadija Rouf reviews My Name is Mercy by Martin Figura (Fair Acre, 2021), Hilary Menos reviews Nina Simone is Singing by Leontia Flynn (Mariscat, 2021) and Mat Riches reviews Litanies by Naush Sabah (Guillemot, 2021)
My Name is Mercy by Martin Figura
In 2021, the poet Martin Figura became Poet-in-Residence for Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust. He was commissioned to write poems based on staff experiences of working through the pandemic. He spoke to staff and volunteers in their workspaces, and he prefaces this collection by saying that the impact of the pandemic was “lasting”, “palpable and deeply affecting”.
The impact of Figura’s resulting pamphlet is, in turn, lasting, palpable and deeply affecting. My Name is Mercy was published in December 2021 and is an astonishing and moving insight into the unmapped experiences of staff and patients across an intensely traumatic time. The poems reflect a range of staff experiences including ICU nurses, clinical psychology, pathology, hospital chaplains, the End of Life Team and, of course, the patients. The poems chart this time in a variety of poetic forms which give a variety of rhythm and pace in the collection, drawing the reader along through an emotional journey of highs and lows.
My Name is Mercy is peppered with the indelible symbols of the pandemic: masks, space, screens and PPE. It also charts the disturbance of normal relational life and the difficulties of giving healthcare within that. Some of the poems are clearly anchored in the words of staff before launching into the poetic and lifting the reader into liminal spaces. A habitual commute to work is eerily unfamiliar in locked-down Salisbury in ‘Morning’. Another poem, ‘Space’, captures the alienation which ICU staff felt, particularly during the second wave, when civil society was returning to some sort of normality yet clinicians in intensive care were still working with those stricken by coronavirus. The disconnection and sense of being left behind by our elected leaders is captured in ‘Success in the Time of COVID-19’.
An adviser embraced her minister
in delight at the thought of Freedom Day.
We, or most of us, rolled up our sleeves
and waited: what else could we do?
The themes of enforced social distance and space move into the realm of the planetary at several points in the collection – some poems refer to constellations, orbits and gravity. It reflects how many of our landscapes changed beyond recognition. The efforts to care for very sick and dying patients was accompanied by some of the most acute experiences of stress and loneliness. The poem ‘Nightshift’ captures this loneliness of the clinician as an “untethered astronaut” outside oneself, reaching across time. The poem is haunting, and beautifully expressed in this reading by Olivia Colman.
My Name is Mercy … is an astonishing and moving insight into the unmapped experiences of staff and patients across an intensely traumatic time
There is deep gratitude for those who kept things running in the brimming prose poem, ‘Praises and a Curse’. Here, porters, chefs, delivery drivers are celebrated, and there is prayer-like thanks for small, usually-taken-for-granted blessings.
Figura also picks up the themes of home and belonging, the impacts of the corrosion of physical closeness within relationships and also how resourceful people were amidst this. The search for connection, kindness and comradeship is evident in ‘Notes Left Behind for a Newbie’.
Remember we are a raft.
At any moment you can reach out
for the hand of someone else reaching out.
And of course, staff also became sick at times, with colleagues themselves needing the care of the NHS. In ‘Mother’s Day’, there is a deep sense of this connectedness:
The boundless gratitude for kindness, luck:
This family, these friends, this work.
Other poems note how much dedicated service is given by individual staff across their careers, but also from entire families, such as the pride expressed in ‘A Sonnet for Blood’ and ‘Here’. I am pleased that Figura also recognises the unacceptable everyday racism which many NHS staff have faced, despite being a deep part of the fabric of the NHS, in the poem ‘Here’. Many of NHS and social care staff who died from Covid were from ethnic minority backgrounds.
As well as charting deeply serious themes, there are also moments of lightness, showing the necessity of playfulness and loving humour – the chaplain who thankfully leaves his bagpipes at home in ‘The Parish of Odstock’, the line-dancing in purple crocs in ‘On Being Interviewed by a Poet’.
But inevitably, the collection visits places of grief and the sacrifice of working through a traumatic time. Figura employs the strangeness of Wallace Steven’s highly original ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ to foreground the many ways of looking at Covid. He takes us somewhere with a medieval ‘end of days’ feel. Throughout, snatches of the mundane are transposed against ghosts, and the seemingly apocalyptic (‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at Covid’).
Figura has crafted a beautiful collection of compassionate and respectful poems. It was a privilege to read it
Amidst this horror, resolute acts of care and kindness are etched out. The title poem of the collection, ‘My Name is Mercy’, is a spare pantoum, capturing simple, compassionate reassurance to try to soothe those amidst the desperation and fear of serious illness. In other poems, the reader is guided through the netherworlds of sedation, delirium and truly heartbreaking moments of tenderness as the dying are helped to say goodbye to loved ones. For me, ‘Life’ and ‘The Fifth Season’ are incredibly powerful. They bear the weight of witnessing final goodbyes with dignity, respect and simplicity. For instance in the searingly sad lines from ‘Life’,
I held the phone for him as he was saying
when to plant the begonias out and
don’t do it too early, and his son said
I’m going to miss you dad
And he said you can do this.
The collection ends somewhere amidst the chaos and exhaustion, with the inevitable jolt of continuing life. A baby is born on Christmas Day, and the infant, Ethan, is unaware
that he alone has set the day back into motion,
with all its tinsel, cracker jokes and joyful noise.
And this is where the collection ends – with a beginning, and a sense of joyful noise. It is a welcome place to rest, reflect and to dare to hope.
Long after the Thursday nights of clapping and cheering for the NHS has finished, this is a special testament to the experiences of NHS staff. It is full of humanity, and I was moved to tears by several of the poems. It will resonate with many and it serves as a powerful testimonial for those who were deeply, personally and occupationally affected by working through pandemic. Figura has crafted a beautiful collection of compassionate and respectful poems. It was a privilege to read it.
Dr Khadija Rouf is a clinical psychologist working in the NHS, and a published poet. She is published in the NHS poetry anthology These are The Hands edited by Deborah Alma and Dr Katie Amiel (Fair Acre Press, 2020). Her poem about working during the pandemic, Tacet, is published in the Hippocrates Prize anthology, 2021. She has previously written for The Friday Poem, on the potential healing capacities of poetry and the Arts.
Nina Simone is Singing by Leontia Flynn
In the title poem of this natty yellow pamphlet Nina Simone is Singing, Leontia Flynn quotes and then repeats the opening line of the eponymous song, with increasing emphasis on the length of the last sung note. “In my soli – tuuuude” she says. “In my soli – tuuuuuude” … “In my soli – tuuuuuuude”.
Flynn does not continue to quote the rest of the first verse, which is sung so mournfully by Simone, and is so expressive of bitter loneliness and fond remembrance, but it is implied: “In my solitude … you haunt me / with reveries / of days gone by // In my solitude / you taunt me / with memories / that never die”.
The sound of Simone’s singing, “pinching its finger and thumb”, extrudes all along Leith Walk, down to the harbour and back in time to 1999, to a time and a place where a younger Flynn sits, “playing at solitude”. Flynn understands solitude better now, the poem seems to be saying, as she gently admonishes her younger self – “for all that talk / of solitude’s hot flame / don’t you actually have / both a boyfriend and a girlfriend?” The older, wiser Flynn knows what is in store for the younger Flynn – the lovers, the children, and the need for letting go. It’s a poignant moment, contemplative and wistful but unpinned with wisdom. The poem ends with ten short lines, perhaps ascribing knowledge to Nina Simone herself, or perhaps as a rhetorical question addressed to the poet and to the reader:
Who knew in the triumph
of exiled self-possession
with its broken mirrors,
with the fallen towers
of the mind,
how raw is the sunlight
what an awful thing
is a rose
in the singular world
that is untransfigured by love.
This is what seems to me to haunt, if not taunt, this collection – the pain, and the cost, of having chosen to be alone, to which the memories of days gone by act as counterpoint. In ‘Now that the verdict’s in’ there are references to “the voices raised, the arguments advanced / and assets tabled / for a split”, and gulls wheeling upwards in a reversal of a ticker tape celebration, and while there is little else in the pamphlet that explicitly references separation or divorce, there is generally a sense of fragmentation, impending doom, or incongruity, such as the “louring plane, // hung low and large, / between the hills and the gantries / … like the stop-motion harpy / in Jason and the Argonauts.”
Flynn uses the notion of sound moving like a physical thing again in ‘In public squares on cobbled streets’, where a siren blares, “harsh and mechanical” and hangs “like a comic POW!” before threading
through the tall Romantic houses,
scrolling and cresting,
from the mansard roofs
and wrought-iron balconies
across cream-clad brickwork
– its nasal dyad
a ribbon of fear
It’s almost as if the sound is gripping us by the hand and taking us with it, where Flynn wants us to go. And where does it take us? Along Parisian boulevards, past limestone walls into a dark backstreet so narrow one can hardly walk along it “where I stand culpable”. Here’s the real POW! But Flynn doesn’t labour the point – she’s up and off and out of the poem with a smart reference to Roland Barthes who was run over, at that spot, by a laundry truck (true story!).
Flynn is a master of bringing the subterranean currents of domestic life up, just, to the surface
In ‘All night on the high bed’ a couple lie in a B&B in St John’s, Newfoundland, at pretty much the easternmost point of Northern America. The foghorns of fishing boats sounding in the bay “threaded and rethreaded” – Flynn uses the word “threaded” a lot! – her dreams and the lighthouse beams interrupt the dark. The sound and light make it hard to settle.
From Cape Spear
a thin diagonal line
stretched blindly East
to Ireland’s answering coast.
It is an exercise in subtlety and allusion, but its effects are nonetheless weighty. So little is said, but so much is conveyed. In ‘It is solstice in the city’, the first five or so stands are calm, lulling, reflective. Gulls fly, dusk falls, the sky changes colour, and a kind of inventory is made “of my Gross Domestic Product”. The poem ends:
One sock. A half-read book.
This child’s plastic volcano –
its small dome cooling
after the explosion.
Flynn is a master of bringing the subterranean currents of domestic life up, just, to the surface. She explores the provisional nature of things, “The plan uncertain / the children crying”, and the possibilities of life taking off in unexpected, unpredictable directions, such that “near the wandering / mid-point / a reader re-finds her page / in the story of life”. Occasionally she seems to arrogate a bit too much poetic ballast – I’m unsure about “Fire’s poetry tore / through the building’s prose / like time / through eternity // Or love / through life” but it the main she’s on point and pitch perfect.
Hilary Menos is editor of The Friday Poem. She won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010 with Berg (Seren, 2009). Her second collection is Red Devon (Seren, 2013). Her pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith|Doorstop, 2020), won The Poetry Business International Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019. Her newest pamphlet is Fear of Forks (HappenStance, 2022)
Litanies by Naush Sabah
Litanies comes relatively hot on the heels of Naush Sabah’s Legitimate Snack special limited edition double micro-pamphlet box set, Heredity / ASTYNOME, from Broken Sleep Books. ‘Heredity’ is a long three-part poem exploring intergenerational change and exchange; ’ASTYNOME’ is a sequence of seven poems voiced as a contemporary re-imagining of the character Cressida. It’s a beautifully presented pair of micro-pamphlets, printed on high quality paper, which sold out immediately.
Litanies is also a quality artefact – the paper weight isn’t mentioned, but you know you are going to be holding a beautiful thing in your hands from the moment you first lay eyes on Rachid Koraïchi’s cover design. Of course, all of the presentation comes to nothing if the stuff between the pages isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. But there are no worries to be had on that score. Litanies feels closer in terms of kinship, narrative structure and trajectory to ASTYNOME, but made up of the more self-contained, shorter poems found in Heredity.
The first words of the first poem, ‘Litany of Dissolution’, are “I dared” and it feels like what follows is indeed the work of someone brave – brave enough to question themselves and the world around them, particular ingrained viewpoints, the life and religion they were brought up in, and the expectations placed on them. The poem, with its long sweeping sentences, feels crammed full of doubt and questions, the barely present punctuation (one em dash and a sprinkling of possessive apostrophes) leading to a great tumbling out of thoughts throughout.
I abandoned the night prayers
for sleep without ritual
ablutions in freshly clean sheets
god watching for the first time
or his judgement
lying heavy on my chest
The first page of the poem is also filled with adjectives, for example the “fathomless black”, the “freshly clean sheets”, “voluptuous low rainclouds” and “encompassing silence”, but this wears off as the poem progresses. The speaker of the poem becomes separate from God and family.
I am lying to my family
avoiding temple visits and funerals
saying amen when they make offerings
and not meaning it
This separation works for a while. “I am thinking all the things / men have told me not to think /and I am not letting them inside / my head / to hear / refusing to / answer their questions”. But by the end of the poem there is a feeling of abandonment, of questioning returning. The speaker asks:
where’s god when I pray
for the faith I need
when i’m desperate and less daring
dissolving into oblivion
‘Litany Of The Lake’ is about the destruction of the towns of Mirpur and Dadyal and almost 300 villages, all flooded for the Mangla Dam, and the subsequent displacement of over 100,000 people, including members of Sabah’s family. The poem refers to Geoff Binnie and Guy Atkinson, telling us to ask them both “about the submerged home / Abdul-Hamid & Fazal could never go back to.” Binnie and Atkinson were the men in charge of the construction of the Dam. By placing their names firmly in the centre of the poem, we can see the blame and recrimination placed on these two men for triggering such destruction: “What difference did the land or water make?”.
In the poem that follows it, Sabah brings the liquid volume down to something a little less enormous but no less powerful than a flood, and talks of a different kind of forced displacement. ‘Lament To The Lost Door’ starts:
I never got to say goodbye to god,
to raise my cupped hands and ask for one last thing
or with a mudd of tears, thank him.
Doubt lapped at me in increments
before it rose, tidal and towering,
my still lake now black sea sucking in its breath.
If you open Litanies expecting answers you will be disappointed. If you are ready to have challenges thrown at you, and to see the workings of a mind reaching for somewhere they may never get to, then you will find this pamphlet immensely rewarding
According to the notes at the back of the book, a mudd is an old Arabic unit of measurement – the volume of two cupped hands, and it’s hard for me not to link that image back to the a sense of something King Cnut-like in the previous poem, of attempting to hold back the rising tides and bailing out a mudd at a time. This poem, like so many of the poems here, leaves me overwhelmed and disoriented by the grief and doubt, by the sheer scale of disruption. We see that:
The earth’s magnetic poles switched suddenly
and I was left a disorientated dervish,
skirts spinning, a performance for tourists.
I’d been anchored, saved by certainties,
grateful I never tripped on treacherous paths,
that fear and boundaries kept me from edges.
This could be said to be the quintessential poem of the book, in part because of its questioning of faith and the protections of god, but also because of the feeling of a conscious decision being made. The speaker is saying goodbye to god, not being abandoned. However, ’Questions of Faith’ is the poem at the physical centre of the collection, perhaps deliberately placed there, and it is crammed full of ideas and themes. It could almost be an ars poetica as well as a dissection of religious intolerance, sexism, sex, the poetry scene, shame, and identity, and it all starts with a “diamond / encrusted crotch”. Do you need more? It is an almighty (no pun intended) lashing out:
will it be a symbol for the patriarchal godhead
we’re compelled to worship get on our knees &
worship push out heads to the ground & worship
god is so big so big the biggest I’ve seen is your
god your god is bigger is greater god is great &
he’s filled havens with hentai virgins & rivers of
milk & wine so we can fuck & drink to our heart’s
content & this poem is about religion is about sex
is about self-consciousness & the fear of god & his
people his men his big brave enforcers …
… and I could go on quoting. As with ‘Litany of Dissolution’ the words pour out onto the page with little punctuation to hold things back. Word repetition acts like an ellipsis to separate the thoughts spilling out onto the page. ”we all / know hijab is a is a is is is I will take my hijab off I / will put my hijab on I will dye my hair & shave it all / off I have taken my hijab off and I have put it back / on & nothing is right for me anymore […]”.
That “nothing is right for me anymore” cuts hard in this collection, and encapsulates so much of the dis-ease at play within. The lack of comfort, the inability to settle, the lack of a constant is, er, constant, and never more so than in closing poem, ’Of Song’.
[…] There always was, wasn’t there – the
meaningless, tuneless sound of my own voice
reciting language that isn’t mine, sense I could
never make? Now I listen as if to a lullaby my past
is singing me. You slept here, it says. Wasn’t it
peaceful and safe, don’t you love your sleep?
The poem (and therefore the book) closes on this unsettling memory of a time when the speaker was comfortable, and felt safe enough to rest. It feels almost like a taunt to themselves, harking back to a place of security, perhaps provided through faith or in not questioning things. It doesn’t give the collection a neat ending, but it absolutely feels like the right place to leave it. If you open Litanies expecting answers you will be disappointed. If you are ready to have challenges thrown at you, and to see the workings of a mind reaching for somewhere they may never get to, then you will find this pamphlet immensely rewarding.
Mat Riches is ITV’s poet-in-residence (they don’t know this). His work’s been in a number of journals and magazines, most recently Wild Court, The High Window and Finished Creatures. He co-runs the Rogue Strands poetry evenings, reviews for SphinxReview, The High Window and London Grip, and has a pamphlet due out from Red Squirrel Press in 2023. Read Mat Riches’ blog Wear The Fox Hat.