Poems have a way of finding me at the right time. They seem to know what I need to hear, and what I want to say — down to the exact words. This is not unusual, since poetry has been kinder to me than people have. Poetry offers clarity and understanding without asking too many questions. It holds me when I need to mourn.
In the middle of the global panic around Covid-19, the most visible health crisis of our time, I have been struck by the outpouring of poetry from different parts of the world. It is a medium that speaks to me because it appeals to a hunger that is fed by more than fact. Poems welcome uncertainty, make space for rage, and offer solace in moments of despair.
Long Qiaoling, a nurse serving at makeshift hospitals in Wuhan, writes, “Please don’t decorate me in garlands/ Don’t give me applause/ Spare me recognition for work injury, martyrdom, or any other merits/ I didn’t come to Wuhan to admire the cherry blossoms/ And I didn’t come for the scenery, the reception of flattery/ I just want to return home safe when the epidemic ends/ Even if all that remains are my bones/ I must bring myself home to my children and parents”.
These lines, particularly poignant when set against India’s orchestrated applause for health-workers , are from a poem in Chinese that has been translated into English as “Please Don’t Disturb”, and published on the website of Ohio State University. The nurse is usually based in the Gansu province of China but volunteered to be at the frontline of disease prevention and control when Wuhan needed medical professionals. Her pen name is Wei Shuiyin, and her poems are both stark as well as moving.
What makes people so depraved? Why do they prioritise their own safety at the expense of others?
This poem in particular captures the inner world of health workers who put themselves through great risk in order to save lives, and also carry trauma from seeing death at close quarters. They provide essential services but are often unsung because politicians like to take all the credit for crisis management. Knowing that the narrator of the poem is deeply committed to a life of service, and seeks no adulation, gives me gooseflesh.
Anthony Tao, a writer from Beijing, has written a six-part poem called “Coronavirus in China” to depict the multi-layered experience of living through a pandemic. It is far removed from what most human beings might perceive as a state of normalcy, so it brings up intense feelings. On the one hand, they smile through face masks and are surrounded by kindness. On the other hand, they spy on neighbours and report on family.
What makes people so depraved? Why do they prioritise their own safety at the expense of others? What does it mean to live under an authoritarian regime during a pandemic of such proportions? These are the questions that Tao’s poem made me think about. As the poet says, “To survive humans, you have to give up/ humanity — so says the tyrant within”.
Richard Hendrick, a Capuchin Franciscan priest living in Ireland, has an entirely different vantage point. He has written a poem called “Lockdown” that acknowledges the fear, isolation, panic buying, sickness and death but focuses mostly on the unexpected gifts this tragedy has brought forth. He manages to find something to celebrate amidst all the hardships — whether it is people singing to each other across empty squares in Assisi, a clear sky and the chirping of birds in Wuhan, or a hotel in Ireland that is delivering free meals to the housebound, or places of worship tending to the homeless.
This poem invites readers to think about the ways in which capitalism has disconnected us from ourselves, and invokes imagery from traditional healing practices.
Hendrick writes, “All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting/ All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way/ All over the world people are waking up to a new reality/ To how big we really are./ To how little control we really have./ To what really matters./ To Love”. This is the kind of language that gives strength to people who are facing debilitating anxiety about lost income, forced proximity with abusive family members, and the prospect of being laid off in case the economy crashes.
Ow Yeong Wai Kit, a teacher of literature based in Singapore, has written a poem called “Gone Viral” that presents a dialogue between opposing perspectives on the pandemic. The words are placed in two columns that stand right next to each other but the meaning changes based on how the reader chooses to read the text — vertically or horizontally. This visual arrangement dramatises the real-world choices that individuals make. The poet makes us think about “media sources that paint/ visitors and immigrants as/ virus spreaders”, and xenophobes who are “walking pathogens/ plagues of terror/ with their nauseating habits”. He says, “All this paranoia is as lethal as any other pandemic.”
I feel concerned about the language of war that is entering everyday conversation about the coronavirus. Language shapes consciousness and vice versa, so I wish there was more tenderness around. Sickness, old age, death are, after all, part of the human experience. Unfortunately, a lot of people are reluctant to seek medical support because of social stigma. The hate being directed at those who did not “come out” earlier is shocking. Anyone can fall ill. They need our good wishes, not our scorn. My personal favourite is a poem titled “Wash your hands” by Massachusetts-based Kohenet Dori Midnight, who writes, “In the middle of the night/ when you wake up with terror in your belly/ it is time to think about stardust and geological time/ redwoods and dance parties and mushrooms remediating toxic soil/ it is time/ to care for one another”.
This poem invites readers to think about the ways in which capitalism has disconnected us from ourselves, and invokes imagery from traditional healing practices. The poet is a spiritual counsellor and herbalist who works on disability justice and queer liberation, apart from being closely associated with Jewish Voice for Peace, a Palestinian solidarity organisation. I like her advice: “If your heart tightens,/ contract/ and expand./ science says: compassion strengthens the immune system”.