Notes from the Bonfire

When it comes to times of crisis, I have a habit of going to ground.  My coping mechanisms are very predictable – I cancel all but unavoidable obligations, bulk-buy my bodyweight in biscuits and hunker down with any book I can find, definitively denying the things that scare me.  My issues don’t go away, but for a period of time I feel safe, hidden away from the wider world. Whilst this pattern hasn’t evolved significantly since I was a teenager (although in fairness I no longer burn quite so many scented candles) there is one key difference: I no longer write poetry.  As an adolescent my angst-ridden ramblings were a cathartic outpouring of extreme existential crisis (by which I mean “why doesn’t (insert boy’s name) love me?”) but in adulthood I’ve let that habit slip.  So when I was offered a copy of Notes from the Bonfire: Poems in the Age of Coronavirus by Matt Nagin I jumped at the chance to see how an experienced poet has responded to events that have impacted us all on a personal, political and international scale.
 
Don’t let the name mislead you – these are not just poems about the global pandemic, although it is certainly a recurring theme.  Nagin takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions from despair to hope and even apathy, as he tackles head on some of the big existential problems of modern life. Some poems are unflinchingly direct in their emotion (“Death to Matt Jr” is a letter addressed to his soon to be aborted foetus); others a direct insight into the challenges of his chosen path (in “Anyone” Nagin bemoans that “selling poetry / is harder than going door to door / like some Jehovah’s Witness”) but all of them share powerful and unusual imagery. The poet’s words are hard-hitting and evocative, with a recurring theme of identity underpinning the entire collection.  One of my favourite quotes comes from a piece called “Time Left” where we are told “everyone is / swing dancing, man, / pretending the final curtain / isn’t just around the corner”. For me this perfectly encapsulates the climate crisis and the denial so many choose rather than acknowledging that our planet is shifting irrevocably towards impending doom.
 
However, the most powerful work in my opinion is that dedicated to the global pandemic, maybe because this is shared suffering that is still so raw. With lived experience both at the epicentre of the US crisis (in New York when the virus initially took hold) and subsequently contracting Covid himself, Nagin is well placed to reflect on the impact this has had on people’s lives personally and politically. In “Postcard” we are shown the stark contrast between those who initially remained on the outside of the virus (still focused on the latest fad diet and losing weight) with those facing the harsh realities of the new world, something we all experienced in the early days as the enormity of Coronavirus hit some people sooner than others.  Nagin moves on to address the horror of “A Thousand Deaths Per Day” (I think we have all struggled to compute the sheer numbers of dead and can relate) before reflecting on some of the positives it would be easy to overlook.  “Ode to the Virus” asks “will the history books record all your strange gifts?” and “The Pandemic” clearly concludes “the virus proves we need each other”. As a complete collection, Notes from the Bonfire reflects much of my own emotional rollercoaster throughout 2020 in words I would have never thought to use.
 
Having yet to explore any of the other emerging literature centred on Coronavirus, I found this a thought-provoking and sometimes challenging read.  Although short, this book engendered real thought and triggered an array of emotions as I journeyed through each offering. Those of a sensitive nature may choose to look away, but if you are ready to leave your biscuit-lined cocoon of denial (ok, that may just be what mine looks like) this collection is worth a look.

Author: Bookaholicbex

Book-nerd with a passion for all things literary. If only real life would stop getting in the way of reading...

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