Monday, July 5, 2021

The Heeding - Rob Cowen and Nick Hayes

I am the kind of tired you get to be when a large, very warm, dog with an injured leg decides at 2am that your bed is the place she wants to sleep, that you will make an excellent prop for her, won't mind that she keeps trampling on you in her many attempts to get comfortable, and who then has bad dreams until 7am when she decided it was time for me to get up, dressed, and be dragged around a field. It's not necessarily the best preparation for thinking about poetry, handling hot drinks (I spilled coffee down the side of my armchair), or crossing the road.

Today, with all the talk of 'freedom' day and an end to restrictions seems like an appropriate time to talk about 'The Heeding' though. It records Rob Cowen's pandemic year in poetry accompanied by Nick Hayes prints. My copy is a proof, and it tells 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 makes that an oddly disconnecting thing to read in what is still a disconnected time.

I was familiar with Rob Cowen's nature writing before this, 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, again and again, me how limited my world has become, how safe, how circumscribed. 

'the Heeding' catches other moments and moods too, things and 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.

'The Lost Words' is a lovely book, but at no point did it ever elicit the range of emotions in me that 'The Heeding' does. 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. 


  1. Of course I really should comment on the book, which sound interesting, but I was distracted by your very first sentence. I do hope the dog will get better soon--both for her sake and yours.

    1. Poor dog, she's really bored with not being able to go out for proper walks - she's finally experiencing lockdown the way humans did.