Friday Finds: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 killed more people than the First World War – about 3 to 6 % of the entire human race died from the disease.

When Emma Donoghue began writing a novel about this pandemic in 2018, inspired by its 100-year anniversary, she didn’t have any clue that, in just a few years time, a modern pandemic of our own would hit. How could she have known that another disease would similarly cripple the world’s health systems, bring economies to their knees and rapidly change the world? So it really was quite spooky that the year her book – The Pull of the Stars – came out, in 2020, we were in the midst of a health crisis of our own! And while I do think that there are some striking parallels between then and now in the novel, in terms of the uncertainties and fear associated with pandemics, the strongest part of the book is actually not its depiction of flu but of birth and birthing practices. It’s set in an early 20th century maternity ward in Dublin, a dangerous and precarious place where, even at the best of times, life and health are fragile things.

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‘Nothing of Floods’: A Poem

I felt compelled to share a poem with you today.

I recently received the sad news that my grandmother in Texas – who I was very close with – died of Covid, so I wanted to post a poem that I wrote several years ago about her.

Like many poems, it’s a blend of fiction and fact. In many ways it’s about the stories that we tell ourselves to understand the world and each other. My grandma and I didn’t see the world in exactly the same way. She was very religious, a Southern Baptist, specifically, and this brought her a lot of peace and comfort. I’m not religious at all. As I grew up, there were times when this caused some friction and I was really forced to reckon with how I could love and respect someone so much, who saw the world so differently? Who I disagreed with in so many fundamental ways? Of course, I don’t have any ‘answers’ to those questions. But I suppose poems are more about asking questions than they are about offering answers.

I wrote this poem in early 2018. It was commended in the British Army’s Poetry competition on the theme of ‘Armistice’ (to commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the armistice which ended WWI) and first published in their prizewinners anthology, Writing Armistice. I really liked responding to this theme. For me, it was interesting that an ‘armistice’ doesn’t mean necessarily the end of a war, but instead it’s a formal agreement to stop fighting and to work towards peace.

I loved my grandmother. And love isn’t always smooth or simple, as you know. Sometimes divides cannot be crossed. But sometimes, they can be. I am thinking of her today, and I’m thinking of all of you, hopeful that you haven’t lost someone during this time. But if you have, I’m so very sorry and you’re not alone. I’m doubly sorry if you’re apart from your family and friends as well, which makes these things extra hard to endure.

I’ll be back next week with more historical and literary explorations for you. (I’m excited about this upcoming ‘Madeira Mondays’ in particular, which is about a great historical novel that explores disease in early America). Until then, thank you so much for reading, it means a lot, and I hope you like the poem.

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Nothing of Floods

Grandma, when I pinched the skin
on the back of your hand
it made mountains, slow to sink
back to land.

We watched movies with kids singing
Jonah and the Whale –
I imagined bone rafters,
swamps of grey stomach sludge,

and Noah’s Ark –
horse eyes through wooden slats,
sea spray in a man’s beard
like dew on grass.

I said, ‘I prefer Tolkien
or Grimm’s’ –
dwarves in damp caverns,
talking trees,
Elf writings on rock.

You screamed, ‘This is not a fairy tale.’

But not as much as you screamed
when I asked why God
was not a woman?

You said
I would go to hell.

I called you naïve,
for believing those things,

as rain clattered down
on your tin trailer roof.

We didn’t speak for a while.

When we talked again
it was about jewelry,
traffic, butter in mash potatoes.
Nothing of floods, sons of God,
vengeful Pharaohs.

Sometimes I dream of a manger –
crisp straw poking holes
in our cotton dresses,
heavy barnyard smell
draped over our shoulders,
slick newborn with fat cheeks
sobbing.

Outside, the moon tugs at water.
I pull up loose skin on the back
of your hand. You kiss my forehead
as stars whir with delight
because they are memories
flung through time,

whether or not
you believe it’s magic.