Home-coming and Home-staying, Poetry in a Pandemic: how poetry brings us home and keeps us there

Ruby Dunn explores how poetry can connect us to our roots

Image(s): Scott Web on unsplash


“I’ll be glad to be home, at least,” I was told about fifty times by various friends as the long and lonely Martinmass semester of 2020 was drawing to a close. As we dragged ourselves through deadlines, revision, exams and long journeys, we were looking forward to our rest away from St Andrews. There seems to be an instinct in each of us, when rattled, stressed or alone, to reach out for the place that made us, formed us, sent us out, a magnetic draw to the place we call “home”. But on arrival, then what?


Ben Norris, in a recitation at Theatre Clwyd, spoke of the “shameful pride” that comes of a return home, in a poem that journeys from “the high of the familiar” to “the guilt at having left”. His work explores the difficult relationship that people of our generation have with leaving, returning, leaving again, yet still calling home “home”. In 1984, Bruce Springsteen lyricised a far clearer attitude to home - that it was somewhere to be left: “Man, I ain’t getting nowhere/just living in a dump like this.”


Stuck at “home” for the foreseeable future, and with a brain turned nearly wholly to mush by coursework and a lack of social contact, I’ve found myself retreating to poetry as a diversion. Navigating the painful transition between “thank goodness I’m finally home!” and “I have to stay here how long?”, I’ve looked to some of my favourite poets to see how they have searched for, discovered, discarded and recreated “home” through their work.


Stepping out of Nottingham train station, a few days before Christmas, breathing in the Midlands air for the first time since September, the words of Ben Norris - a native of my hometown - sprang to mind. “I could close my eyes/you could transport me here from anywhere/on earth. I could breathe in/ and identify it. Notts/I call it by it’s name:/home.” (Forgive me if Norris appears disproportionately in this article - the East Midlands doesn’t have many poets, and when I find one, I grow rather attached). Norris here introduces the tension-point in our relationship with home: that it is no longer a place that we stay, but one that we return to. Norris’ performance verse describes a very complex “home”, one viewed through his relationship with his dying nan, and one that seems extinguished when she passes away.


Laurie Lee, in signature lyricism, brings a more positive tone to bear on the return to a home-country long left behind. In “Home From Abroad”, Lee’s return to his England is described in romantic terms, as the rediscovery of an old love that was once discarded in the throes of youth for an exotic beauty (his debut novel “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” details the attraction of his real-life adventures in the Spanish Civil War). Expecting something rather dull as he returns to England, he “set [his] face in filial smile/to greet the pale, domestic kiss of Kent”, foreseeing a dutiful return to his family home, the alliteration adding to the kitsch this imagined scene brings to mind. Lee is quickly surprised, however, as is his reader, as the poem turns rapidly to a more amorous tone. Kent, thought of “so primly” when he was abroad, suddenly holds an almost sensual charm: her ‘wanted form dilates as it delights//Her rolling tidal landscape floods the eye/And drowns Chianti”.


Whilst Lee’s verse sighs with delight at the bliss ‘home’ holds unexpectedly for him, Norris’ initial joy at having escaped ‘the Big Smoke’ for his home-town quickly sours. The “miniature upheavals” he describes at the start of his poem - new shops, a knocked-down pub, a changed bus route - are dwarfed by the huge changes discovered through the rest of the poem: divorced parents, a dying relative, a home-town with no home left for him to stay in. It is a common symptom of returning home after any absence at all, to find those ‘miniscule upheavals’ he describes. Admittedly, I’ve barely left my house since I got back, but on the few occasions I’ve had to wander around my home-town, I’ve discovered that the tram-fares have gone up, that the taxi-rank near the station has moved, and that my favourite bakery has been closed down (in the Midlands, change rarely happens in a positive direction). What of those bigger upheavals? Trying to find people to go on socially-distanced walks with so that I’m not totally out of practice at conversation by the time society begins to regather, I discovered that I have now but one childhood friend still in the same position as me (stuck at home, for now, that is). My house, which has always been the heart of ‘home’ for me, usually full of life, with doors perpetually open and friends, strangers and family forever crowded around the kitchen, is unusually empty. The streets of Nottingham remain unchanged - taxi-ranks aside - but something home-like has been lost. If home is not just bricks, mortar, one-way systems (looking at you, again, Nottingham), then what is it?


Perhaps, as Springsteen sang, it is somewhere to leave. William Barnes, in “The Gate A’vallon to” - a poem infused with the landscape and dialect of his native Somerset - describes what it is to see the adventurer leave “vor long, perhaps vor ay”. The gate which “a’vallon to” upon harvests, the arrival of guests and return of labourers throughout the poem, now must swing ‘behind his last farewell’. There is the fear that this departure may not result in a happy reunion. Norris would agree - his own inclusion of the Nottingham dialectic “ayup” in his poem self-describes as “a bit token”, leaving home changes one. And yet it is necessary - Norris has to “unchild himself”. The issue, of course, is that one departure precipitates another. Returning to his home, Norris is stifled by the city in which he is “forever fifteen, forever brother,/ forever son,/forever ‘him that mucked about in school’,/ forever chav, forever fool”. And so he leaves again, stifled by his shadow because he says “I need people who know my life”, a life that is lived elsewhere. Over the last few years, our homes have become less and less full of us, and more and more museums of what-once-was. Is it really my distance from Fife that troubles me at the moment? Is it not, rather, my separation from the people who know me as I am now and the suffocating feeling of being stuck in a town that’s known me since I was a babe in arms, but not since I became an adult, that’s driving my somewhat desperate checking of the travel restrictions to see when I might be allowed back to ‘my’ flat?


This raises another question - another identity crisis of sorts. If our home-towns are places to be left, is it possible for us to find true “home” elsewhere? Wendy Cope (I couldn’t get through an article on poetry without mentioning her), draws an attractive portrait of a home created, in her latest collection, “Anecdotal Evidence”. In “The Tree”, she describes forging a new home from the memories locked in her Christmas ornaments: “Every trinket tells a story/A memoir of the life we had before./We got through the disruption and the pain,/the tree is telling us we’re home again”. The Christmas tree is the symbol of all those things that ‘home’ means - celebration, tradition, the years gone by and the tree moved from place to place in its pot - rooting the celebrants not just to itself, but to a semblance of home-soil. Is it possible, then, to create or take our home wherever we go? Perhaps. It seems an essential part of the student nomad life to have a box of photographs, postcards, trinkets gathered along your way that are spread out and added to in each new year, each new flat.


So then, if home-places bear us such discomfort, if we yearn to leave them, and upon a later return find their homeliness has dissipated - if “home” is, after all, malleable, transportable, creatable, why do we still return (speaking outside of lockdown situations, of course) to our original “homes”?


Poets have offered their answers to this, old and recent alike. Rachel Boast, born who was a student in Fife and now splits her living between Suffolk and Scotland, has written extensively about her connection to her Scottish “home”. In “Tentsmuir XI” she describes how her adult presence feels disjointed in the forest refuge of her younger self .“This would be a slow world/of slow measures,” she writes, “but I move too rapidly.” Nonetheless, she knows the woods and knows her memories, which coil about her like “rich green scarves of memory”. Though the woods may not grasp her, she recognises them. Norris may leave Nottingham, aware that there is little for him there anymore, but he does not discard it; he is “happy to be Nottingham’s expert - elsewhere”. Spot me around St Andrews with my East Midlands tote bag and my “Ay’up mi duck” poster and you’ll see the same applies to me.


Perhaps then, it is the knowledge we have of our home-towns, knowledge stored in memorabilia; whether that be tote bags or Christmas tree ornaments, dialects or “rich green ropes of memory” - that draws us back. Perhaps it is the unequal burden that we see oh-so-clearly the changes in our homes whilst they refuse to acknowledge any differences in us. Perhaps it is because of this that we return to the places that formed us, however desperate we may be to escape each time we realise how unbalanced that weight of nostalgia is.


Perhaps Mary Oliver puts it best when she sees in “home” “a world that cannot cherish us,/but which we cherish”.