Being a witness to things I cannot name
Over 33,000 covid-19 related deaths by 12 May in the UK is a number I struggle to comprehend. The feeling of gradual yet certain devastation that so many families and loved ones have been experiencing is not something numbers can ever convey. Last summer, my wife and I ended up visiting, by accident, the museum and memorial to Linge 1915 up in the Vosges mountains, in the Orbey district, Alsace, along the border between Germany and France, incidentally, a border that has been contested and moved a number of times throughout history. 17,000 young French and German soldiers lost their lives there in a 3-month battle in the summer of 1915. My experience of First World memorials is limited. However, walking through the trenches of both the French and German sides, as you do at the Linge, evoked in me an acute sense of eeriness, awe and, if I admit to it, despair. Young lives lost in such a majestic place in such a short period of time, experiencing the kind of historic event that films, novels, music, and art in general, have time and again tried to capture and translate for future generations since.
The connection between the lives lost in two very different circumstances at two different times, over one hundred years apart, is, of course, entirely arbitrary. But I also think the connection is meaningful. The Linge is not a precedent of covid-19 related deaths. Enemies in both cases have a different substance. The lives lost and the reasons for it differ in very significant ways. Yet the language of ‘frontline’, ‘heroes’, even Captain Moore’s inspiring and extraordinarily successful fundraising campaign, and the important reminders of loss to individuals and families, to organizations, nations and humanity, permeate the key messages that daily government briefings, news, and the visit of memorials like the Linge 1915 inspire in us all.
There is another feeling that my short visit to the Linge and the current pandemic evoke in me: the feeling of being confronted with events, situations, accounts, the reality and effects of which fall outside the things I can name. Poetry can be a faithful companion in helping to recognise the immensity of the task of naming things we’re not always equipped to know nor comprehend. I’m sharing a poem by Norman MacCaig which I’ve been reading and rereading during the past few weeks. It is called ‘Over and over again’:
Tomorrow we’ll meet again
as for the first time, though we’ve not crossed
the river that’s both cruel and kind –
that Lethe the ancients spoke about.
And of the buried suns one will arrive
and make bright the fields
where Persephone must have passed:
so many the flowers.
We’ll not shrink when we skirt
the entrance to the Underworld
nor be blinded by that shell sauntering in
on to the shore of everywhere.
All myths, with the truth of myths.
We’ll do it our way –
with a look, with a touch
and with the space between words
where the truths live
that we can find no words for.
Norman MacCaig, Over and over again, in Voice-Over (London: Chatto & Windus, 1988).
How to acknowledge ‘the space between words where truths live that we can find no words for’ is, perhaps, one of the main challenges ahead of us all when navigating the future, near and far.
Carlos López Galviz
13 May 2020