By Rachel Spence
Scrubbed light, empty streets
We long for silence –
Tremble when it comes
Locked down, we opened up
Windows, eyes, hearts, lives, held close
What once we squandered
Heartbeats in the dark, tonight
I’ll think of you, breathing
Authorial note: The first haiku (which breaks the conventional form in the second line) occurred when I was contacted by an Italian friend who had created an Instagram account called Silent Global Game and was calling for contributions. Haiku seemed the right form for Instagram. Then I joined a Facebook group called The Daily Haiku and wrote them regularly. The second came after a walk when I suddenly noticed an abundance of open windows. The third haiku came partly out of the loneliness of lockdown and partly out of the death of George Floyd.
One of us always crossed the bridge at dusk. How would we bear lockdown?
You wanted me to live with you, but I was scared of lockdown.
How rapidly the walls closed in; solitude became its evil twin.
I longed to cross the bridge at dusk. Did we dare break lockdown?
Ambling under rinsed, ceramic skies, through parks and gardens
marbled with birdsong, what joy it was to see and hear in lockdown.
I screened the news; you martialled every stat. I wanted to block out;
you longed to chat. At times, we struggled to share lockdown.
Slowly the truth seeped out. Covid kills those in margins, faultlines, slipped
through cracks. Equality, justice, honest facts – nowhere in lockdown.
The old, the poor, more black people than white, the women unable to get out.
Our saviours became our drowned yet still gave Boris care in lockdown.
We locked too late, lacked PPE, ignored our finest minds, listened
to opportunist louts. Britain was driven to despair in lockdown.
Don’t speak of Cummings. He. Kept. His. Job.
Britain had bitterness to spare in lockdown.
Tonight, I’ll cross the bridge at dusk, write names in waterlight of those
we’ve lost – so many lives rubbed out. Nothing was fair in lockdown.
Authorial note: I wrote this in late June after Dominic Cummings failed to resign. It was born out of pure rage so I used the ghazal form because I hoped it would stop it from becoming a rant. The more emotional you feel, the more form becomes your friend as a poet.
SONNET FOR MY MOTHER
Late May 2020, you and your garden
resisting lockdown beneath a thatch of birdsong
bristling with escapee coos, fugitive whistles,
your feral spirit bursting through coup d’états
of foxgloves, monkshood, salvia the colour
of pomegranates held by Christ Children,
their mothers gazing forwards to the Passion.
So once you gazed at me, so now I…
No, let’s retell. My Madonna is a fighter,
rejecting dead men’s histories, watching
lemon light on sapling birches, the golden moss
of bumble bees, their delicate, obsessive turning,
learning to count time as grains that whirl
not flow, spinning us back to love’s defiant zero.
Authorial note: Earlier this year, I published a pamphlet of sonnets written to my mother (Call and Response, They Emma Press, 2020) They launched in late March on Zoom, when none of us knew how to use Zoom. It was an emotional evening in the best possible way. In late May, my father had a hernia and was rushed to be hospital for an emergency operation in Shrewsbury which fortunately he came through well though he was frail for some weeks afterwards. Given that my parents are 89 and 85 respectively, I felt justified in ‘breaking lockdown’ to help my mother care for him. It was a special time, with a sense that the three of us were blessed to be together again. This sonnet came naturally one morning and feels like a sequel to Call and Response, or perhaps a continuation.
Friday 20 March 2020
On the scale of fundamental time everything we experience is incredibly slow.
Sky like calcifying ash.
Last night, you told me London was about to go into lockdown. I was angry with you for I manage this situation by filtering information whereas you need to know everything and share it. But you brought carrots which were impossible to find in my area and that made up for it.
My friend Sofia Karim, an artist and activist who runs a campaign group called @Turbinebagh_art, is working on behalf of a journalist in Bangladesh who has been disappeared. His name is Shafiqul Islam Kajol, and he was investigating a sex scandal that touched government officials. S’s intensity is like fire, kindling everything it touches.
Monday 23 March 2020
The blink of an eye has more fundamental moments than there are atoms in Everest.
Yesterday, we walked in the park under a forensically clear sky. Violets around the bases of the chestnut trees, clumps of daffs, and tiny pale blue flowers whose name I don’t know. Also ecstatic dogs, the only creatures allowed to still kiss in public.
Wednesday 25 March 2020
I have stopped listening to the news. Changed my home page from The Guardian to Poem of the Day.
On Instagram, Sofia posts an image of Mr Kajol with the legend Where is Kajol stamped across it in big orange letters. Underneath she writes. Thank you my good friends who emailed the ≠Bangaldesh Government about this. Can anyone else please write. It will take less than 4 minutes out of your lockdown lives.
Saturday March 28, 2020
Leaden sky. Gull tracing a parabola from one rooftop to another.
Only in a state of true unknowing in which we do not cling to the security of a defined position can we be open to something radically new. (Commentary by Ravi Ravindra, Bhagavad Gita).
Monday 30 March 2020
On Saturday morning, we walked in the park. Fewer people now; a flock of parrots like emerald spray. We spoke Spanish, your language, my way of distancing myself from your outpourings on Corona. Claro, I say, Claro.
Writing this to a recording of jungle sounds you downloaded for me. A solitary bird whistling through what I envisage as tall trees, their broad, bottle-green leaves dripping through rafters of smoky sunlight. You have often spoken to me about trying to open space for silence in your music, how difficult it is to achieve this effect, so effortless now in the bird’s song.
Thursday April 9 2020
A black hole is a place where gravity is so strong that the velocity required to escape from it is greater than the speed of light
Iris-blue sky, clouds like ectoplasms.
A friend in Italy, G, emails to share her trauma at hearing of another friend whose father had died of Corona. He couldn’t say goodbye, he couldn’t hold a funeral. Later she had gone to the supermarket and shouted at a man who came too close to her. Was appalled when his wife, who was in a nearby aisle, told her that he suffered from Alzheimers.
Mr Kajol’s son Polok has started a new Instagram account, @WhereisKajol?
His father has been missing for 29 days.
Thursday 23 April 2020
Yesterday afternoon, around 3.30pm, my editor called to say there is no more budget for freelancers unless they have been ‘ringfenced.’
If I lost you, I would see you more clearly. Your indelible imprint.
Normally, I would take an online yoga class at 5pm but my passes have run out and I daren’t buy new ones. So I take my mat to the park and put it down next to a tree which faces the promenade that runs along the river. I often practise here because I can watch the sun go down on the other side of Albert Bridge. This time however for the first time, I notice the low metal railing which encircles the tree’s trunk. Wild flowers flourish within this protected zone – violet, mauve, yellow, white – their petals whisper and fizz through the green tangle of stems and leaves.
The only species I can name are bluebells. Although I’m sure they are not the reason for the cordon, their peaceful violet gesture has been saved by an accident of proximity to some other, rarer species.
Sunday 3 May 2020
Mr Kajol is alive. Yesterday afternoon, his son received a call telling him to go to Benapole on the Indian border. His father was in the District Court jail. He had been found, the police said, in a field just over the Bangladeshi side of the frontier. Charged with trespass for he made the crossing, they say, without a passport. No information yet on where he has been for the last 50 days. His team are jubilant, knowing that the campaign to keep him in the public eye – to make the absent visible – has forced the authorities to produce him. So now the slogan is no longer Where is Kajol but Free Kajol.
Time changes when you are frightened. I knew this but I had forgotten it in my body. Its teasing, promiscuous shimmy. In 20 years of being freelance, I’ve never had work dry up like this.
The grid of stitches on my net curtain dividing the sky into small, grimy, grey lozenges, transient as a breath, a dance, a marriage.
Note: All quotes from Lee Smolin/Three Roads to Quantum Gravity unless otherwise indicated
Authors note: This is part of a longer text that is both a diary of Coronavirus swept across the UK but also includes the campaigns for prisoners of conscience run by my friend Sofia Karim who is an artist and activist. As Covid swept through the world, countries – such as Bangladesh and India, where freedom of expression was always at stake, used the threat of the virus to introduce brutal new laws silencing all government critique. In Bangladesh over 30 journalists were arrested during the spring and they are still in jail. Mr Kajol, whose case is touched on here, was later found – partly thanks to the @Turbinebagh_art campaign – but is now in prison awaiting trial.
(The first section of this text was published in PN Review).
Rachel Spence is a poet and arts writer based in London and Venice. Her work has been published, among other places, in PN Review, The Financial Times and the Forward Prize Anthology 2019. She has published a collection Bird of Sorrow (2018 Templar) and two pamphlets (Furies (2016, Templar) and Call and Response (The Emma Press, 2020)