I first wrote about 'The Heeding' on July 5th last year (2021) when it was all the talk of 'freedom' day and an end to restrictions. It felt appropriate at the time, 'The Heeding' records Rob Cowen's pandemic year in poetry accompanied by Nick Hayes prints. My copy was a proof of the hardback, now out in paperback, and it told me that the June 17th publication date was chosen to coincide with the end of the first lockdown. Leicester never really came out of lockdown which made that an oddly disconnecting thing to read in what still felt like a disconnected time.
For all that it's only in the last weeks that England has more or less finally abandoned masks, and only now that Scotland is considering it. Currently, there's an average of 160 people a day dying with Covid. The oddness never went, life goes on, but normal is definitely different now. That's underlined by reading last year's review (mildly edited here) and thinking about where we are, or where I am, now.
I was familiar with Rob Cowen's nature writing before 'The Heeding', but not his poetry, and I'll be honest, the vague comparison to 'The Lost Words' on the cover didn't do anything to prepare me for what I'd find inside. I don't think it's a particularly helpful selling point either - these two are worlds apart.
What actually happened is that 'The Heeding' regularly, efficiently, and comprehensively reduced me to tears - which was essentially cathartic. It's been a strange time, and whilst I can honestly say it's not been the worst time for me, I'm not unscathed by it either.
The last year, for someone who lives alone, has a wide circle of friends online, was in a congenial bubble, escaped any major health problems, and who has the sort of hobbies that thrive in relative isolation (knitting and reading do) was often quite pleasant. Which I sometimes feel a bit guilty about. 'The Heeding' shows a different sort of year, and this is where I realise that this time has touched me more than I thought it had; I've missed that sense of being a part of a community, of insight into other people's lives. Reading this shows me, again and again, how limited my world has become, how safe, how circumscribed.
'The Heeding' catches other moments and moods too, things I recognise with an uncomplicated kind of pleasure, but more than anything it feels to me like a record of the strangeness of the times, of briefly silent streets, of noticing the things that had become almost invisible, of memories from this time last year tripping us up just when we thought we were reconciled to the new status quo, and the fears and attempts to comfort shared in phone calls and messages. The bubbling undercurrent of anger and frustration that boiled over into last summer's protests, and has bubbled away ever since is here too, and much more.
Nick Hayes's graphic, sometimes brutal, sometimes gentle, black and white imagery perfectly matches the poems. Together they feel like something elemental. This wasn't quite my pandemic year, but I recognise it, and when I need to remind myself of what this time was like this is where I'll turn.
This collection is still one of the best records of the beginning of the pandemic I've read, still evokes the early unreality of lockdown brilliantly, and as time is passing, memories fading, it's more worthwhile than ever to read and remember.