What did you do in the lockdown, Mother? by Sandra Horn

So here we are almost three months into lockdown. Strange times. Conspiracy theories abound. It’s 5G, Bill Gates, big Pharma, some other kind of plot I can’t be bothered with, it’s not a virus, etc. I’ve got my head well down, sieving compost, planting beans and tomatoes, re-potting lilies and begonias, baking far too much. Hauled my sewing machine out to make masks, cut out the fabric, that’s as far as it’s got. I lose track of time.

Every week, we have choir via Zoom and wear something silly. It’s an hour of delightful companionship which always leaves me feeling peculiarly flat when it’s over. Writers have also been meeting via Zoom, but this week, weather and the new restrictions permitting, we plan to meet in my garden at suitable distances from each other – just about possible with five of us.

I’m taking an online course on poetic forms, put on by the excellent Live Canon team, which has meant getting to grips with sonnets (Petrarchean and Shakespearean) terza rima, sestinas, villanelles and concrete poetry – so far. It’s a very strange way of working – fitting the ideas to a pre-ordained pattern – a bit like a crossword puzzle. I’m sure it’s good for me, although I haven’t managed to produce anything I’m pleased with yet.

I’ve completed the poetry treasure hunt also laid on by Live Canon, which was excellent fun – every morning a new poet’s work to explore and a new clue.  The clues were simple, just locating a particular word in one of the poems and writing it down, but the final unravelling, in which all 31 words featured, was a real brain-burster. For example, in just one part of it the initial letters of the last nine words formed an anagram of the title of a poem, written by a poet born in 1869. They were p,a,i,p,m,i,l,a, and h. I’ll just leave that with you. It took me a large part of a morning of frantic googling. Then for a bonus prize we were required to fit all 31 words into a single poem. Here’s my take on it, for what it’s worth.

Words: (the) wind, arms, fresh, radioactive, mangrove, no-one, white, iron, occult, obvious, black, away, face, lingered, river, hands, mother, time, clean, love, mouse, pride, audacity, (iron) pleasant, Medusa, innocent, laughter, attended, housewifery

The dear old downstairs clock, wedding gift to my mother,
a source of pride for her. Brought back from the war
in her uncle’s backpack (but we don’t talk about that).
Black Arabic numerals, square brass face,
a double chime to mark the hours, the halves. 
We were always asking, ‘has the clock struck yet?’
So used to its sound, no-one attended to it
except when it needed winding and lingered,
groaning, over long, distorted notes.

I do not love the upstairs clock.
It has no face, no hands, only a row
of stiff green numbers, eerily glowing
(are they radioactive? Right by the bed like that!).
I am awake. Green glowing time is 3 a.m.
Mad time! Bad time! Do I need to pee?
Old age, eh? What a blast.
Get up. Bathroom. Mouse-like creep.
Do NOT think black thoughts, push them away,
concentrate on pleasant things.
Hum a little tune - 
Somewhere, over the – no!
Down the river, over the rainbow,
obvious similes for you-know-what,
typical 3 a.m. doom gloom.
Look – outside the moon is up,
a white half-disc behind the trees –
but caught by the wind, branches are twisting,
writhing demonic arms, Medusa’s snake-locks,
here we go again. Stop. Banish the occult guff,
do not think snakes, think mangrove roots,
tropical beach, fresh coconuts, laughter,
sandcastles, innocent clean fun…
Go back to bed and try to sleep.
No good. Can’t now and can’t keep up
the happy-dippy stuff. Guilt has me in its iron grip;
sins of commission: pride, envy, accidie,
sins of omission: inadequate housewifery,
and all the rest. The downstairs clock strikes four.
The stiff green numbers shift. Outside, the dawn.

Meh. Lovely prizes, though! One for the treasure hunt, one for the poem. Well worth all the sweat and swearing!


It seemed much harder this time and I couldn’t get it any better, although several people made something much more pleasing. I did it for last year’s poetry treasure hunt and came up with a poem I thought was neat enough to include in the first collection. Yes, emboldened by the brilliant Francis Thomas (look out for The Memory Gate! I’ve had a sneak peep and it’s chock-full of delights) I have begun to collate about 60 poems which will then need editing and weeding severely.  It will be called Passing Places and the cover will be a photograph taken across Ullswater by Niall, which means a lot to both of us. I’m putting this down here to try and shame myself into getting it done, you understand – what a total idiot I’ll feel if it gets no further than a photo and a sheaf of paper now!

p.s. One day, I’ll stop blogging about writing poetry, but not yet…


Griselda Heppel said…
Well I'm stumped. It's almost Philomel but not quite. I can't even think of the poet it could be, someone writing 1890s on...Is that Emily Dickinson? Yes, I could google but trying not to yet. I enjoyed your poem - loved the way it starts elegiacally before switching to that instantly recognisable waking in the night and trying desperately to stop your brain working or all hope of sleep is gone... and of course it is.
Wonder which reader will solve the anagram first! Come on, fellow readers and writers.
Sandra Horn said…
It's not Emily Dickinson. I will supply the answer for goodmoney cash, to be paid in crisp green farthings.

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