Luz Mar González-Arias
University of Oviedo, Spain | Published: 17 March, 2024
ISSUE 19 | Pages: 25-38 | PDF | DOAJ |

Creative Commons 4.0 2024 by Luz Mar González-Arias | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

This article looks critically at Celia de Fréine’s Léaslíne a Lorg / In Search of a Horizon (2022), a poetry collection entirely devoted to the lockdown experienced during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic by an Irish woman – easily identified with the poet herself – from her house in Dublin. In the 18 poems that make up the collection, published in bilingual format (English and Irish), de Fréine addresses issues as relevant as the supposed objectivity of the scientific discourse around the virus, the human-nonhuman connection, environmental damage and the historical links of the COVID-19 pandemic with previous health crises lived through in Ireland, specifically the Hepatitis C Scandal. My analysis will close-read the poems, adopting both a national and a transnational perspective. The ultimate aim of this essay is to look at the virus in its socio-cultural dimension in order to complement the biomedical narratives around it.

Este artículo analiza el poemario Léaslíne a Lorg / In Search of a Horizon (2022), de la irlandesa Celia de Fréine, enteramente dedicado al confinamiento resultante de la pandemia de la COVID-19 tal como fue vivido por la voz poética – fácilmente identificable con la propia autora – desde su hogar en Dublín. En los 18 poemas que conforman el volumen, publicado en formato bilingüe (inglés e irlandés), de Fréine reflexiona sobre aspectos tan relevantes como la supuesta objetividad del discurso científico sobre el virus, las relaciones entre el mundo humano y el no-humano, la degradación medioambiental y la relación histórica de la pandemia de la COVID-19 con previas crisis sanitarias en Irlanda, particularmente el escándalo de la hepatitis C. Mi análisis llevará a cabo una lectura profunda de los textos, y adoptará una perspectiva tanto nacional como transnacional. El objetivo último de este trabajo es reflexionar sobre el virus en sus dimensiones socio-culturales con el fin de complementar el discurso biomédico en torno al mismo.

Poesía del confinamiento; pandemia COVID-19; Celia de Fréine; In Search of a Horizon.

In the face of a catastrophe of great magnitude the first literary genre to bear witness is often poetry, for the obvious reasons of its linguistic economy, aided by rapid publication on online platforms. And so, when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the WHO on 11 March 2020, and as it started to severely hit one country after another, numerous poetry initiatives were launched to record how that precise historical moment was being experienced by diverse communities and individuals. Former British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Manchester Metropolitan University, for example, set in motion Write Where We Are Now, a project that brought together poets from all over the world to reflect directly on their lives during lockdown and features poems written from the earliest moments of the pandemic up until 30 June 2020. As can be read on their website, their aim was to create “a living record of what [was] happening as seen through poets’ eyes” (Write). In 2020 several poetry anthologies were published in book format, some of them amplifying the global character of the pandemic by including poets from across geographies (Cotter 2020; Stavans 2020), and some limiting their selection to a specific national context (Quinn 2020). The pandemic was also the focus of entire collections by individual poets. In the UK, for example, Lesley Saunders published Days of Wonder (2021) and in Spain Begoña M. Rueda’s Servicio de lavandería (2021), a poetic diary of lockdown, was awarded the prestigious Hiperión Poetry Award. The value of artistic records such as these should not be underestimated: on the one hand, the voices of poets articulate an alternative perspective – sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary – to that offered by the official – be it scientific or political – history of a given community; on the other, they prevent the erasure of events that may be too painful or too shameful to remember in the future.

In Ireland several schemes were also initiated to create an archive of the pandemic. University College Dublin Library, for instance, launched its “Poetry in Lockdown Project”, a call for poems written between May 2020 and October 2021 by any member of the UCD community (students, staff, alumni) about the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic (Poetry in Lockdown);[1] on 1 June 2020 RTÉ Radio 1 dedicated The Poetry Programme to Poems in a Pandemic, which brought to the audience a selection of texts responding to lockdown, social distancing and self-isolation by Irish poets like Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Jane Clarke, Keith Payne and Jessica Traynor, to mention but a few; and The Arts Council launched its “COVID-19 Crisis Response Award” to fund writers and artists across disciplines to produce “new and original work during the period of COVID-19 isolation” (2020).[2] Celia de Fréine was one of the poets awarded funding by The Arts Council, which allowed her to complete the sequence of poems Léaslíne a Lorg / In Search of a Horizon, published by Arlen House as an individual collection in 2022 in bilingual format (English and Irish). Although de Fréine has written in every genre (from poetry to plays, short and long fiction, opera libretti and scripts for television), in dealing with the pandemic, poetry “seemed the natural way to go”, more so than memoir or diary-keeping, as she explained in an interview following the publication of In Search of a Horizon (González-Arias 2022: 3:00-4:46). While it is important to differentiate the poetic persona in a poem from the poet who wrote it, the 18 poems that make up the collection do invite an autobiographical reading as they come out of the direct experience of de Fréine during the lockdown of 2020. As such, they function as a poetic archive of the time as lived by the protagonist-narrator-poet. To enhance the autobiographical nature of the book, de Fréine includes in it 12 photographs depicting personal objects (clothes, hat, shoes, pens and candles), family members, her own foot stepping out the door on the first day after lockdown (Figure 1) and parts of her house, including the locked back gate as a symbol of seclusion (Figure 2).