Pandemic Poems, First Wave: Olive Senior’s fragments of last summer

Our first wave of COVID-19 in Jamaica was the summer of 2020. Almost a year later, we seem to be just creeping out of the second – and fearing a third.

The summer of 2020, at least for me, was a slow recognition – a dawning – that life wasn’t simple any more. It wasn’t a smooth run, despite the cliché of “flattening the curve” and other phrases that are losing their meaning now. We are moving on to other catch phrases, like “vaccine hesitancy.”

Our Poet Laureate Olive Senior’s collection is a reflection of our mood – or rather, our myriad moods – during that period as the first wave slowly gathered momentum way out at sea, and Black Lives Mattered. Then, that wave and everything it brought with it broke on the shore, and Merry Christmas seemed a tawdry dream.

In her introduction, Ms. Senior explains that the poems appear “in the order in which they were written and posted on my Twitter and Facebook pages between May and September – the COVID-19 summer of 2020.” They are also listed alphabetically – the last letter of the alphabet is “Z is for Zoom.” Some are fragments of news reports, tweets, and stories – what Ms. Senior calls a “patchwork” of others’ social media posts. This, she tells us, is called a cento, a poem composed entirely of verses or lines from others, a very old practice. I looked this up and discovered that, indeed, even the ancient Greeks did it (now, please don’t take that the wrong way).

On social media, new words floated in and out, and our poet catches these words, many of which became hashtags. She points out the universality of this language on social media. In 2019, would we have been familiar with expressions like “contact tracing” or “social distancing” or “workplace clusters”? Of course not.

The Pandemic Poems ask questions, perhaps only half-expecting an answer, as many of us on Twitter do as a habit. We are wondering aloud. There doesn’t have to be an answer, and perhaps there isn’t one.

Just as our minds wandered through that summer, the poems confront the loneliness of the pandemic. “O for One” reflects on whether we would just prefer to be alone, really. Perhaps, indeed, that would be the best thing. Many of us still are alone, in our apartments, in lockdown. “E for Empty” is about those empty spaces in our hearts, minds, and perhaps at our dining table, that cannot be filled.

Then there is the raw grief, for many. Last summer, we witnessed it on our TV screens, “G for Goodbye” is about not being able to say that word to the ones we love. “I for ICU” is devastating in its sense of loss.

Eleonora Hulsof, an anesthetist nurse in Pesaro, Italy, at the end of a long work shift with COVID-19 patients in March, 2020. (Photo: Alberto Giuliani/Atlantic Monthly)

The poems reflect compassion for the healthcare workers. In “M for Mask,” the poet reminds us of the nurses, who having removed their masks…

reveal the traces: the daily struggle with Death imprinted on their faces.

There is humor, though. I had a good chuckle at “Q for Quarantine Roots,” having suffered from this myself and covered my hair with a scarf for Zoom meetings. In “H for Hair” we consider the length of hair in others – and should we just cut our own hair (or shave it all off?) For men, it has been sometimes extraordinary beards and Afros, appearing in profile photos. Trevor Noah looks so different, these days.

I have always felt that, as far as we societies of humans are concerned, COVID-19 is not, and never has been “the great equaliser.” It does not affect us all the same, both rich and poor, as I hear people intone solemnly during online discussions. It is obvious – in developed and developing countries – that the “haves” can cope better with disease and sudden affliction than the “have nots.” “U for Underlying Conditions” observes, simply: “Studies show: Disempowerment makes people ill.” The poem “F for Flag” underlines this thought:

The poor have become the standard bearers of a new reality: lockdown only works for those with the means to sustain it.

“L for Locked Out” is based on a true story (a BBC report, with photographs) of a woman and her children with no food to put in the cooking pot. Only stones.

People march near the Minnesota State Capitol to honor George Floyd on March 19, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. Photo: Stephen Maturen / Getty Images file

Amidst all of this, George Floyd was telling a policeman, on May 25, 2020, that he was dying. One of the most hurtful, hurting, angry poems is “B for Breathe,” with his last fragmented words in italics:

Come on, George Floyd, breathe in the timeless rhythm/of Mother Earth waiting for you, for all her lost children/for justice

I’m through

I’m through

There is also the strange (and at the same time, normal and rather amusing) phenomenon of Mother Nature getting a little relief, as we humans shut down our offices and factories, and parked up our motor cars – as in “Green News” and in “E for Ease”:

Mother Earth behaving exactly like an old woman/getting home after spending the day/with her rambunctious grandchildren/taking off her go-to-town shoes/easing out of her tight-fitting underclothes/her Sunday best/and in the welcome quiet, sitting at ease/in her rocking chair/thanking her Maker for (at last!)/a peaceful rest.

Environmental consciousness is delicately revealed in a number of the poems, including “L for Less,” which suggests that this is what our sickly planet needs: less of everything. Put less gently, the World Economic Forum commented last year: “The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of our dysfunctional relationship with nature.

I think my favorite poem – which perhaps sums up my own frame of mind at times, is “W for Waiting.” Although we may pretend we are not waiting – in fact, yes, we are. While our beautiful Earth carries on without us, and cherry blossoms “couldn’t care less” – we are in a state of suspended animation.

Varanasi Junction, from where for some weeks during the first wave, no trains departed, and travelers waited.

This poem tells the story of a group of travelers in India (now ravaged by its third wave), stranded in a waiting room at Varanasi Junction during a lockdown. The stationmaster takes the lost, confused passengers in hand, keeping them calm, quiet, occupied – strangers now talking to each other, as the lockdown is extended and they wait for a train that does not come. The original story appeared in the Washington Post. One woman asks simply:

(Is this life?)

Perhaps it is. Perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad.

Now, we are more resigned.

Now, we try to recognize people from their eyes. Are they smiling?

Now we are half-heartedly bumping elbows, trying to infuse the gesture with a warmth that isn’t there.

Now, we talk a lot about “jabs” – our first, our second, or none at all.

Now, the light at the end of the tunnel is no longer so sharp; it’s wavering.

Now, we wave sadly at the end of Zoom meetings; a wistful, lonely gesture before we disappear.

Now, at offline meetings, we sit on separated chairs, wrapped in invisible cloaks like Harry Potter’s.

Now, we watch with empty eyes as someone sprays the podium.

Now, our time slows down as curfew descends.

Now, we are afraid of that Third Wave.

Now, we tell each other to “stay safe.”

Now, we offer condolences.

How are we, now?

How are you?

No, it’s OK. You don’t need to answer that question.

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