Smugglers In The UnderGround Hug Trade
Poetry (Doire Press, Galway, 2021)
Click on the image to be taken to the publisher’s page or to buy the book.
“No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague.” William Wall quotes astutely from Camus in his contemporaneous journal of the pandemic. Set between Cork and Camogli, these poems record 2020’s horrors, governmental failings and unexpected kindnesses. Nature becomes compromised – at one outdoor birthday gathering, we “turn away / in case the spring breeze / carries contagion” – though we are reminded also of how “people sang opera / balcony to balcony”. The titular phrase is taken from Wall’s poignant vision of a world where “no one will ever be isolated / in our intensive care”. For those struggling to process the last year, this journal is testament to human connection through generosity and shared experience, as well as through the virus. Tanvi Roberts
Read a poem from the collection
In time of quarantine
and some of us will be smugglers
in the underground hug trade
black market kissers
purveyors of under-the-counter embraces
solicitors of indulgence
intimacy pushers on the bright side of the street
our only law will be affection
our currency will be love
from which there is no default
you will find us in the missing places
in the spaces between stony stares
in hospitable infirmaries
loitering by the private doors of public houses
holding hands like young lovers on a first night out
transported by proximity
no one will ever be isolated
in our intensive care
Read a poem from the collection
In the declining evening I swim
in the declining evening I swim
wind over sand erasing the sea’s staves
the ticking tide
in the limestone breakwater
bottles of Pepsi pieces of plastic can-rings net
in his sixty-fifth year my father
was already old
his ruined back
his big rough farmer hands softening to wax
and here I am at the same age
entering the same sea at the same time of evening
gingerly stepping on the thin line of gravel at the edge
a golden sea
the island and its light on the pencil-line of horizon
on either side the villages falling slowly into the sand
in the struggle between land and sea
better to back the water
it wears the world away like time
the swollen belly of a spring tide
brings forth monsters
the eyes of a lonely child
a crippled boy
a drowned sailor
an old man with the big sad eyes of a seal
and swimming in the sloe-blue sea
contained in my own broken breathing
never stirring the surface tension
the spiritous membrane
half sea half bone I am shedding
the shoreline like an old shell
and from here the world
looks like a pleasure ground
for some rapacious species
not recognisably anyone I know
a girl in wheelchair
stares hungrily at the sea
when I pass
at a safe distance
she does not break her gaze
a history of what will never be
there are jellyfish
as clear as water
they wash up at our feet
visible only as a shift of light
and a shape not made of sand
two young girls have
forgotten to rescue their dolls
they float on the evening tide
their long hair flowing
like plastic Ophelias
once upon a time
the dolls could just be dolls
but in the seas off Lampedusa
and the beaches of Lesbos
our fearful innocence went down
at the water’s edge
two girls dancing a slip jig
their reflection in the wet sand
is two crows fighting
Julian Girdham's review of Smugglers
I really have no enthusiasm for reading a ‘pandemic novel.’ Most of us have had quite enough reading about ‘it’ over the last 18 months, and a pleasure has been to turn off the news and fold the paper, and turn to novels set in early 1930s England, or early 20th century German East Africa, or New Ross in the 1980s, and lose ourselves in other worlds (though Hamnet was a bit too close to the bone).
However, I did find myself buying, reading and enjoying William Wall’s Smugglers in the Underground Hug Trade: a journal of the plague year (attractively produced by Doire Press). It is a sequence of poems set in 2020, describing and reflecting on the author’s life in the first year of the pandemic. Each poem is dated (some, like one on Trump visiting the CDC, reminded me a little of Nick Asbury’s poetic responses in his Realtime Notes). The lines are unpunctuated, note-like at times, almost jottings. The range is wide: there is anger here, and anxiety, but also an appreciation of beauty, and the underlying love story of Wall’s companionship with his wife (we survive by loving / one morsel at a time: the ‘we’ of them as a couple sometimes feeling like the ‘we’ of all our experiences). He puts our experience in the context of other plagues, referencing Defoe (as in the sub-title, of course), Camus, Pepys, Thucydides, Manzoni, Dante Alighieri and Boccaccio.
Things Italian appear throughout the sequence. In the second poem, ‘Porto Corsini’, Wall is in pre-panic Liguria:
from the pier at Porto Corsini
we leave the open sea
a voyage to the interior
that weaves a gleaming
basketwork of memory
But by February 24th (‘La Quarantena’) the virus has come uncomfortably close, and he thinks of Florence in 1630:
they traced the chicken vendor
and his family
they traced his contacts
they closed the border
and still it came
the plague is out
no holding it now
By February 26th in ‘Flight to Ireland’ we are fleeing the epidemic via a deserted Fiumicino Airport in Rome, and the rest of the book is set in County Cork. Like everyone else in those early months, Wall takes consolation from small things, especially the natural world. The sea (and the local beach) is a strong, and comforting, presence throughout (‘The Receiver of Wreck’, ‘In the Declining Evening I Swim’, ‘You Walk Away – on the lifting of lockdown’, ‘We read The Inferno at the Beach’, ‘Even the Orcas’ among other poems), though there are darker connotations of water too (the successive waves in the strangest year we have lived; his body being the shipwreck of bones; the virus being a floating mine /drifting among shipwrecked souls).
By December 2020, and the final pages of the book, Wall has been through the ups and downs everyone else experienced. On December 5th there is a lovely poem called ‘The Jewish Cemetery’ about the late David Marcus, who I once spent time with at the Irish Press offices in Burgh Quay (he was kind and perceptive about a story written by a callow young man). In ‘Christmas’ the day
all the open doors
memory in the mist
over the valley
here’s to absent friends
There is ease and libation as four glasses of wine are poured. And now here we are, at the end of 2021, facing another uncertain Christmas, and we will treasure simple things, and family, and friends, and libation.
On December 31st he ends with ‘O You Who Come to This House of Pain’, with its refrain watch whom you trust and how you go / these are the dark days. But there is a final hopeful note, quoting Camus:
Finally, in the depth of winter I learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
and in the final sentence of the Notes which follow the poems he writes that hope for the future lies in the vaccine.
As we now know, there was much more to come, but his book is done. It would be hard to imagine a 2021 version: is there more to say? For how long can poetry respond directly to this event without burning out?
On December 5th, in the poignant ‘In Memoriam’ he thinks of the death of a middle-aged hairdresser:
but you went to get your hair cut
and his daughter told you the news
he used to say your hair was beautiful
he understood its fall
at the scale of the everyday
these things are colossal.
Just so: what we have experienced has felt colossal at the scale of the everyday, and Wall has given us a memorable record of just what that has been like.
The Year That Never Happened – My essay about writing Smugglers
When my wife Liz came to photograph the cover image for Smugglers In the Underground Hug Trade we decided it would be a good thing to contact the artist who made the figures, whom we had not met in perhaps 30 years. Her name was Breda Lynch and when we made contact through a mutual acquaintance we were shocked and profoundly moved to hear from her husband that she had died of Covid only a few months before. Somehow, that simple, even brutal fact, came to symbolise the whole project for us.
The book, in fact had been Liz’s idea. We were walking Ardnahinch Strand in east Cork one morning of bitter easterly wind, in the days before the first lockdown, and discussing the fact that we had been able to find so little direct writing on plagues and pandemics. We knew our Boccaccio, of course, and Manzoni’s The Betrothed has a superb description of the plague in Milan. Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (which gives my book its subtitle) is an equally well-researched account, but it must be observed that neither Manzoni nor Defoe actually lived through the events they describe in any meaningful sense – Defoe was five when it broke out and Manzoni was writing hundreds of years after the events described in his book.
Precious little, it seems, is written during human catastrophes. This is not a surprise. I know of only two songs that might be contemporaneous with the Great Famine – The Praties They Grow Small and Na Prátaí Dubha. There are very few substantial direct accounts in English literature of the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 – Virginia Woolf survived the infection and many scholars believe her Mrs Dalloway is a survivor. Then there’s William Maxwell’s beautiful They Came Like Swallows and Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider – Porter herself barely survived the infection and certainly suffered from what we would now call long flu.
It’s possible that Yeats’s The Second Coming takes its apocalyptic imagery from the pandemic (as eloquently described by Daniel Mulhall in this paper) and there is a sprinkling of poems or parts of poems by various contemporaries, and that’s it. Out of the thousands of books in English that were written during and immediately after the epidemic by people who survived it, we have a handful of texts which reference it directly.
Perhaps the enormity of the cataclysm chokes creativity. I have certainly heard many fellow writers complaining that they were unable to write during lockdown.
In my case I can say that Liz urged me to document the experience. At first I tried a prose journal but quickly realised that poetry was the only way I could encapsulate the random and fragmentary experiences – the silence, the news, the rumours, the hopes, the stories of friends and neighbours, the steady stream of reliable science, the charlatans peddling fake cures, the presidents and prime ministers, the bleach, the masks, the hand-washing, the lockdowns and releases and the numbers, always the numbers. I tried to write something every day. Sometimes it was a line or two, sometimes a whole poem. Gradually the poems began to take shape.
Themes began to emerge – silence, birdsong, enclosure and escape, time, history, numbers, mortality on the personal and the statistical scale, hope and despair, love and the importance of family. My reading found its way into what was becoming a collection rather than just a diary – Thucydides who gave us the first account of a plague (in Athens in 430BC), Boccaccio and Defoe and Manzoni and the others, but also Dante (the 700th anniversary of whose death falls this year) and Camus – although Camus’ plague is really fascism – and many others. I decided to limit the journal to that first year, 2020. I don’t think I could have continued anyway – I found the process emotionally exhausting.
My connection with Italy made the situation there particularly affecting for me. Liz and I were in Liguria when the epidemic broke out. We left in a hurry because we could see that it was going to be bad – though we could not have foreseen quite how bad – and we thought it best to be at home. As it happens, not long after we left Italians were literally confined to their homes. The images from Bergamo shocked the world and woke us up to just how terrible a global pandemic is.
But travelling south in an empty train that morning in February, through empty stations and later through an almost empty airport was one of the strangest experiences of our lives. We spent a day in Rome in a friend’s house before catching our flight and I have an acute memory of walking into Piazza di Spagna, normally crowded with tourists, and encountering a handful of people and a couple of policemen. The eeriness of the empty city.
Back in Ireland I found reading about plagues strangely comforting. Boccaccio taught me that we must laugh, Manzoni that we must love, but also that we must ignore the charlatans including those who suggest that prayer is the best prophylactic against Covid. When I hear an American Republican declaring that he will trust in Jesus to protect against the disease, I think of Manzoni and the parades of saint’s relics through the city of Milan that actually spread the disease wherever they went. Florence, as I discovered from a brilliant history of the period, John Henderson’s Florence Under Siege (Yale University Press), took a more scientific approach and suffered a fraction of the casualties. Plagues come and go, the history taught me, and we survive and make a new way of living which becomes normality and which has its compensations and its pleasures.
When I think back over 2020 now, one of the most striking memories is of the prevalence in the media of serious, authoritative scientific voices – the doctors, the virologists, the statisticians, the epidemiologists and the medical historians. Outstanding was our team of public health specialists among whom Dr Tony Holohan has a deservedly heroic status. Then there were the doctors and nurses and medical staff in general whose struggle with the epidemic was seemingly endless and exhausting but who never wavered in our defence.
By contrast, the petty whingeing of the anti-maskers and no-vaxxers seems like the annoying buzz of a bluebottle in a bedroom during a sleepless. night. They talked of liberty as though liberty trumped solidarity. In reality what they were vaunting was selfishness, not freedom.
Ultimately, the raison d’etre of this book is that simple, humble impulse to record, as far as possible what it was like to live through such a period. I’m sure there are thousands, perhaps millions, of diaries and blogs and recordings all over the world with exactly the same motivation to memorialise.
For many it was the year that never happened, largely cut off from the quotidian pleasures, unable to travel or visit or see family, a year barely lived and best forgotten. But for others it was the year of nightmare, of horror, of grief, of loss and separation, a year that was as long as a century. Perhaps, it was also, for many people, a time of reconnecting with friends and family, of solidarity and learning, and for governments of rediscovering the value of the social as opposed to the market.
But for all of us, it was a time we never expected to experience, something our grandparents lived and talked about, a legend, almost a myth. We believed science had conquered nature, at least with regard to plagues; but Nature is not to be conquered, it holds in reserve a battalion or two ready to surprise us at any moment.
We have been prosecuting a scorched earth policy for at least 200 years, poisoning the planet, hollowing it out, choking it; it should be no surprise that our world has dealt us a blow in kind. A respiratory disease is the perfect metaphor for what we are doing to our habitat. Let’s hope we – and, more importantly, the great powers of capitalism and government – learn the lesson Nature has taught us with such severity.
On Punctuation, Politics and Poetics - on the writing style of Smugglers
Recently a friend took me to task for not punctuating a poem of mine that he otherwise liked. He didn’t see the aesthetic or political argument for it, he told me, although, in declaring it ‘a fine poem’ he rather undermined the argument that it needed punctuation in the first place.
In this, first of two essays, I’d like to consider this absence of punctuation and in Part 2 I’ll turn my attention to the question of politics….