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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Robert Sheppard: Yes, like all the other poets, I have an old poem about a virus: Grippe Espagnole (from Empty Diaries)

I didn’t think I had a poem about viruses and plagues. Every poet seems to have found one in their product and rolled it out. Then, while thinking about how ‘Empty Diary 2020’ ought to take on board the unspoken subject of sexual relations (both physical and psychological) in the age of corona, I remembered that one of the earliest poems in the sequence, ‘Empty Diary 1920’, indeed took on board, took for title, the Spanish Flu of that year. (From the numbering alone you can see how the sequence is organised.) Here it is. As usual, the narrator is a woman. The method is collage, but the ‘gentle art of collage’, as I say of Lee Harwood’s work. . The earlier sequence was mainly written from photographs (as I say here: )


Empty Diary 1920

Grippe Espagnole

                    Split in a
mirror, gloves or fingers in
their meadow of scarf lines, with
its censure, like a man’s. I’ve
shelves of those Everyman books,
a chair in front of the fire.
Light up, read Goldman, bloomers
under the wet umbrella.

I’m photographed in front of
my portrait, self-vigilant,
a seismic oscillation 
of bone, cruel beauty dances
for a field of fogged lenses.
Only a master could paint 
the crumple of rich dresses;

                    my nest of
hair for marble eyes to steal
a home, crystal beads trembling
under those hot sick fans. Such
tyranny behind men’s masks
breeds: Poisons sprayed onto bus
seats, nestling between the hard 
joints, sticky with the flu’s beads.

The original publication of Empty Diaries contained the ‘Empty Diaries’ 1901-1990. (Exeter: Stride, 1998). Revised, they reappeared, reprinted in Complete Twentieth Century Blues, Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2008, with additional poems, the ‘Empty Diaries’ 1991-2000, scattered throughout the text, not as a sequence (but as a ‘strand’): see here:

Some of them are now online and may be read if desired. The ‘Empty Diaries’ for 1905, 1936, 1954, 1968 may be read here:

(These ones I read for the Archive of the Now. A link is provided to the sound recordings of them.)

See 'Empty Diary 1956' here.

Empty Diary 1990 may be read here:

And here:

Empty Diary 1993 may be read here:

‘Empty Diary 2000’, the final poem in Twentieth Century Blues, may be read here (and the bottom of the page:

In about 2014, breaking my rule that the ‘strands’ of Twentieth Century Blues should end with that book, I decided to extend the sequence into the current century: ‘Empty Diaries 2001-14’. A corona, note, 14 sonnets. They are egregiously rude, with a lot of Google sculpting for the new century.

The first eight appeared online in The Literateur, now a dead site, unfortunately. But good news: the second six appeared, and still appear, in a wonderful edition of Blackbox Manifold. See here.

Since then I have been writing one a year. Some of them are online. This 2015 one has a touch of the bossa nova about it: Empty Diary 2015

The 2016 Empty Diary was published in the special 50th issue of Erbacce. See here.

On BlazeVOX you may read ‘Empty Diary 2017’ and ‘Empty Diary 2018’ (scroll past the excerpts from ‘Elegiac Sonnets’):

That brings us nearly up to date. 2019’s is unpublished. 2020 remains unwritten. But, as I said at the top of this post, it is not unthought-about in our current preoccupations.