Pandemic Poems: First Wave captures spirit of summer 2020
Last year summer, Olive Senior, Jamaica’s current Poet Laureate, started posting poems on the pandemic on her Facebook and Twitter pages. The poems were mostly generated from words or phrases specific to the pandemic, such as ‘Corona’, ‘Flattening the Curve’ and ‘Quarantine’, for example. One of the earlier poems she posted was ‘Locked Out’, a play on Lockdown. In that poem, she related the story carried by BBC of the poor woman who put stones in a pot of water on the fire and told her six children to wait for soup. In that poem, Senior reminds us of the other pandemic the world has always been experiencing – that of poverty and starvation. That poem, along with perhaps two more of her Pandemic poems, was carried in The Gleaner Arts and Education Meeting Ground: Poems in the Time of COVID-19 edition.
Olive Senior – the same person who, in 1983, gave us the Heineman-published A-Z of Jamaican Heritage, has since put those poems written during the summer of 2020 into a collection titled Pandemic Poems: First Wave.
As Senior puts it in the introduction to the book, “It was the pandemic lexicon – new words and phrases and old words repurposed – that first got me engaged. Each poem is a riff on a word or phrase trending at the period.”
Offering up therefore a pandemic lexicon, the collection is not set out in alphabetical order, though the content page groups the poems in alphabetical order. Instead the poems are presented to us, as a reflection of the sequence of events during last summer and the words that would have risen to the fore, along with those events.
In the introduction, Senior tells us, “I am interested in memorialising the historic moment we are living through, capturing the zeitgeist, literarily ‘the spirit of the time’.” Of the poems, she also says, they “capture the paradox that even as we are forced into consciousness of being a part of this world, we are at the same time forced to be apart”.
As Senior attempts to capture the spirit of the 2020 COVID-19 summer, even the book cover, with the lone person on the abandoned beach at night, with the waves and the accompanying illustrations – some depicting communication in the future and with isolationist themes, support the ethos of the poems, or Senior’s ambition for the book. An ambition which I believe is realised.
As Senior documents for us through poems, the pandemic summer of 2020, we are reminded that the poet, a dweller in the same physical world as everyone else, is often political. Her poem ‘Bees’ reminds how vital they are to our survival, but yet still, how their habitat is being destroyed by our practices. Below is an excerpt.
One-third of the food we eat and most flowering plants are fertilized by bees. Now they are on their knew, their survival threatened by habitat loss, toxic pesticide and disease.
Do your part: respect trees. Plant flowers
To attract honeybees or bumblebees or any other.
The rose knows how to do it, scented handkerchief,
Colour-coded messages, Buzz by Honey and kiss me.
Yes, it’s an obvious environment poem, political in that respect, but notice how the bees having been ill-treated by us humans, are on their knees and how that makes us think of Black Lives Matter? It is also in this collection that the tear-jerking poem B for Breathe is found. Here it is below.
It takes one’s breath away: a man dying during a pandemic
that takes away one’s breath, no ventilator but one brave
his last breath, his need please
taking the knee on the neck from men who from birth
breathed in tainted air, imbibed a foul history, burning
I can’t breathe
like the hot breath of anger consuming the cities
we have breathed this before
this white heat this
burning sensation in the throats of
the numerous ones held down and
Come on George Floyd, breathe in the timeless rhythm
of mother earth waiting for you, for all her lost children,
There are other poems reflecting the dark side of our current existence, such as ‘Domestic Violence’, which speaks of ‘the silent pandemic’. Interestingly, as we see the range of poems, from the darker to the lighter side, we see an author with a curious microscopic eye, viewing all angles: taking the good with the bad and seeking to understand and appreciate it all.
Through the poems collected here, Senior reminds us that the poet has been the historian chronicler and mirror, in the past and still very much is. In her own words she says, “I offer these Pandemic Poems as a small contribution to the work that artists all over the world are making to signal – in the words of the poet Stevie Smith – that we are ‘waving, not drowning’.” And as we wave, not drown, and since more sombre poems, reflecting the deeper lows of last year summer have already been shared, I share one in its totality below, which reminds us that part of living is laughing, even through the rough waves.
Someone had to inject some sense into this:
Under no circumstances should dour disinfectant products
be administered into the human body.
The UK government’s medical advisor:
Nobody should be injecting anything.
A doctor on Twitter:
OFFS don’t do this. I don’t need the extra work.
In ‘Hair’, also, Senior highlights the dark comedy of the lockdown, characterised by fear, which has beauty salons and barbershops out of reach, or avoided. Thus: Canadians with nothing better to do/measuring time passing by, by the growing length of their/leader’s hair when they see him daily on the air. An even more hilarious one is ‘Quarantine Roots’, where Senior shares with us:
HEADLINE April 11: Walmart CEO says we are in the ‘hair
colour’ phase of panic buying.
As the subtitle says, Fist Wave, look out for Pandemic Poems: Second Wave from Olive Senior. I know I am.
Ann-Margaret Lim is a poet. Her two books The Festival of Wild Orchid (Nominee UK Guardian First Book Prize & Honorary Mention Bocas Prize) and Kingston Buttercup (2017 Bocas Prize Poetry Short List) are at Bookophilia. Email her at: email@example.com.
Pandemic Poems : First Wave
Olive Senior: (Toronto, Canada 2021)