The visible face of this virus, for most of us, is the ambulances. All else that we see – empty streets, spaced out queues, face masks, rainbows in windows – is secondary. Only the ambulances tell of the disease itself. They are the eerily siren-less blue flashing tips of the iceberg.
So I am surprised that Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Ambulances’ has not, as far as I know, been identified as the text of the moment. I suppose it’s bleaker than one might like – uplifting poems are generally preferred at such a time. In fact I saw that another Larkin poem, ‘The Mower’ has been placed on a list of poems to help us through the crisis, due to its concluding exhortation to be kind to each other ’while there is still time’. Nothing wrong with such a sentiment, but it’s not particularly timely (unless you happen to have killed a hedgehog while on gardening leave).
The poem reflects on people’s reaction to the ambulances suddenly impinging on normal life, bringing the drama of mortality to ordinary streets:
“They come to rest at any kerb:All streets in time are visited.
Visited daily, we might want to add. Bypassers glimpse ‘a wild white face’ being stretchered on, and
“sense the solving emptinessThat lies just under all we do… Poor soul,They whisper at their own distress…
This might be a life’s last scene:
“And what cohered in it acrossThe years, the unique random blendOf families and fashionsAt last begin to loosen.
In typical Larkin fashion, something unutterably huge – the uniqueness of an individual life – is summed up in a surprising little phrase. Yes, that’s one way of putting it, that we are defined by the deep reality of our family bonds, but also by the silly mundanity of the style of stuff we have around us – our ‘carefully chosen junk’, as he puts it in another poem.
There’s no uplifting conclusion, no advice to be kind, no promise that what will survive of us is love – so is this poem too bleak for this time? No, we also need poetry that tries to look as honestly as possible at the facts, which tries a bit harder to get a bit closer to the cold mystery of things.