These poems were written over fifteen weeks of quarantine, lockdown, self-isolation or whatever you want to call the period of home-based existence between March and July 2020. I wrote them intending to document the outward changes to my daily struggle. But like so many other binaries in my own life (work/home; gay/straight; intellect/emotion; domestic life/public persona) the binary between the outer and inner life began to break. The poems traverse the territory between the outward, everyday solidarity of my inner-city neighbourhood and the profound internal questioning that solitude (facilitated by co-parenting between two households) occasionally provided during this period, along with the parallel stresses of parenting under a pandemic and keeping up with work. The political is personal here; along with the personal being political. Social media and virtual communications provide lifelines and adult conversation, but not the missing bodily intimacy or social exploration. Just before publication in 2021, I added a final poem which tries to address the terrifying sadness and uncertainty which characterizes our collective re-emergence into a world where so much grief, struggle and precarity remain unaddressed. Yet those of us who have survived must still carry these experiences, fears, hopes and potential into a loving, more radical world.
– April 2021
March 24, 2020
“Your meeting attendees are waiting!”
Maybe, everyone has been waiting
for my time and toil to be delivered
on time and seamlessly through video chat.
No need to heat the office or water the plants I brought back
stuffed into a bag on the side of my bicycle.
The letter from the school is printed in Comic Sans
which easier to read if you have a disability:
“A large amount of the learning will need to be carried out online so will therefore obviously
need to be supervised by an adult at all times.”
And then, “Your meeting attendees are waiting!”
“Call for papers”
“Call for research grants on issues related to the current crisis”
“Join our live stream”
I am not a brain on a stick;
I am a body in a house.
The bodyhouse for a child who is here, hot in the sun
Wanting something, wanting nothing
Wanting to leave, wanting to be held tighter.
Tighter, against the fear, the knowledge
that a sunny day was never going to promise a day of adventure
that a trip outside the house was illicit
that your friends couldn’t be trusted, only images on the screen.
Fall into my arms.
Will it ever end?
30 March 2020
“No eggs, you can get them at Lidl but only two”
Says the butcher, handing over bags of chops and mince.
He wonders why I’m not buying more.
No eggs in the supermarket
Someone heard there were eggs at M&S
At Blackfriars, someone’s mum in Lincolnshire had eggs.
We always have eggs.
Eggs in a Tupperware, blanketed in paper towel
Set on the wall on the patio.
Eggs in a box with a decoration drawn by a young friend
Pushed over the road in a doll’s carriage.
“There were no eggs”, my friend says, then
“Eggs from my mum
Eggs offered when I walked down the street”
Eggs at the wholesalers: we can buy them as a group.
Egg discussions in mobile chat groups
Along with stories of coping in a tiny flat
Being worried about health, work, pay, the future.
Standing in the backyard with applause bouncing off the tower block, watching Venus hanging in the air, clapping and yelling for people who can’t hear because they are inside tending the sick, sheltering the dying.
There are no eggs, they say.
We always have eggs.
Sacrifice Poem (Who is at work?)
April 8, 2020
Open the door.
First thing, the soft smell of flowers
And new greening.
Second thing, the birds
Cooing, calling, tussling,
Floating, blasting like torpedoes
Over treetops, above the flats.
Third thing, breathe in
Cool in the morning, and no sound
But swish of rope and slap of feet.
Step step step
At eight thirty
The man from Number Seven comes
Newspaper under his arm and
Fog of cigarette smoke over
In an ancient oiled jacket
“Good morning, y’all right?”
“As well as can be”
“You’re making progress, girl”
“Well – we have to stop meeting this way”
Every day, I hold out hope that
I’ll see him tomorrow walking
Share thirty seconds of Cockney greetings,
Keep him alive.
April 3, 2020
When I twisted my ankle
During the permitted morning run
On Westminster Bridge
(the sound of the tide rushing out with no boats)
I delicately walked past
The hospital where the prime minister
(don’t say dying).
Police at the gates
Panic on the faces of people rushing in
ID cards held aloft, to face the day.
In front, a rainbow floral display
Perpetual plastic flowers
Reads I [heart] NHS
A worker gives it a glance, rushing.
Does she think, like me
That this effusion seems too close
To a funeral display?
Behind, three ambulances
Are lined up
In the emergency bay.
Across the road, a dozen cameras
A dozen operators
Anchors in suits
Producers on the phone
Later their broadcasts speak
Of war and “fighting spirits”
Of bravery and sacrifice.
Down below, in the playground
Of the hospital daycare
A woman runs with a stroller
Mask on her face
Through the doors
With the child
On her way to work.
A non exhaustive list of things that are now gone
April 14, 2020
Cresting sound of cheering echoing off the sports ground on a warm afternoon
Putting on lipstick while riding the Tube
Many footsteps echoing on cobblestones
Pub chatter, overheard
A ripped open packet of crisps sitting on a sticky table; picking one up and eating it
Taking the night bus from Dalston Junction
Sharing a few starters for the table
Sex on the back of a toilet stall door at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern
The landing stack for Heathrow, every 90 seconds over the back garden
“Let’s just walk around until we find somewhere with an open table”
Standing on the corner still talking when someone said they were about to leave but no one has left yet
Someone bringing a round of drinks
Popping in to Heal’s to see what rich people have for lamps
The preacher outside Brixton station, and the lady who sings with that amazing voice
Touching someone new
May 11, 2020
If you were looking for some dark optimism
From a walk among the tower blocks, in the gloaming
What would you miss, in the long low seduction of the light
Waning pink behind the clouds, behind the towers?
The river moves; the air’s scent of flowers
Floats past as I hang on the concrete
(was it always so thick with lichen?)
The corner store is closed, shutters down.
No milk or old onions, no sweets.
I saw an ambulance parked there last week.
By the Thames a couple passes arm in arm
Springtime romance blooming, their masks fitted tight.
He jokes about throwing himself in the river
“But” she says, “you’ll be at work”.
In the yellow evening I want to hope
Passing through the square with the bunting
And the jolly blonde families in deck chairs
2 metres apart, on their front lawns,
The stylish young arrayed with plastic cups
Celebrating victory 75 years ago.
The dead are still dead.
And the living, us
This is the easy part.
Songs on the air in the flower scented evening
Barbecue and take-out beer.
Next week, tomorrow, the beer must be served
The trash taken out
The children taught
To be alive is
Be alive, until
The spring is spring without you.
(In memory of Barbara Powell, November 1950–May 2002)
May 26, 2020
For these weeks the pieces
Of life are
In the viscous time of confinement.
The world rearranged
The roadrunner ran too far
Still in the air
And in this endless moment
Some pieces shifted
Unsettled by a force we couldn’t see.
To the time of action
For a last second all’s
And then suddenly the shape of things
The feet hit the ground.
The world is unrelenting
And we are too; the world.
I have never touched you
Not even a hand on the curve of shoulder
Face brushed in a perfunctory hug.
We hang here suspended
For the longest moment
Endless and too soon to end.
June 6, 2020
(this week’s soundtrack Jimmy Cliff and Alpha & Omega)
(this week’s US news: a woman in a New York park harasses a birdwatcher who, being black, cannot be?)
Watching the birds
(a safe activity
for a white lady; but if you were a black man
in Brooklyn, perhaps someone might call the police)
Then the helicopters, a pair
Wheeling above the blocks.
Bodies on the move.
Lives matter, black lives matter.
All those weeks
Who clapped? Who saved lives?
(Covid-19 killed four times as many black and minority people)
Who did we celebrate?
(the Prime Minister survived)
Whose death was not a crime?
(Belly Mujinga, spat at on the job by a white man in a suit)
Black lives matter;
George Floyd was murdered on camera.
My stomach turns.
In the front garden
My daughter says
Two magpies bullied a jay
Pecked its head
For being in the wrong tree
At the wrong time.
Indigenous lives matter;
Whose land made my home?
Whose disadvantage gave me my chance?
I learned to critique on the basis of race
In the books I read
I learned segregation
In the city I lived.
So strong in me that I touched a black hand
For the first time
In London, aged 35.
Down by the river
And the young walk, each with a sign, marker on cardboard
Silence is Violence.
Racism is A Pandemic
Black lives matter.
Don’t say the words
Make the change.
I can’t be free until others are too.
June 20, 2020
This essay about the future
Could never imagine the present
Hot rain, mosquitos,
From a cough
That couldn’t be contained because he had to work
Driving the bus that she took
Between the jobs that paid the rent.
From a cough
That the mother, grandmother caught
And had nowhere to go
No sun, no air.
From a cough
That the bat had, before she was hunted out of the cave;
This end of time continues
Improbably, and we play games
As the sun sets
Watch the clouds
Take the last train home, at 10 pm
Before the rain.
Wake from dreaming
Of everyone loved and missed and untouchable across the distance.
Of every new place’s air never smelled
In the moment of first stepping down from the train.
Of every surprise encounter
Coffee bar raised eyebrow,
Radio program in the local language
Caught between nostalgia for then and never,
The memory of life of those lost
To the cough, now and soon,
The wish to be elsewhere where everyone else is -
The rain, summer.
July 2, 2020
The grey light is fading:
Today is Thursday
This is a lull before
I pretend instead
To be a bit like
Even though I know
This lulling feeling
Than I’ve ever felt
Slows my mind, though I try
News scrolls, tempting change?
The new world is yet to
Everyone I know slows
In the apathy of
I heard yesterday
Dissolve, turned to mush
They become themselves.
What does it feel like?
I’ve forgotten who I was
And am not
Yet, who I might be.
Not even daring to be hopeful
To be anything, some
Making impossible plans;
Nothing yet, waiting
In the lull
Every part dissolved, cloying
It is not getting better
Bigger than we thought;
One Year Later
April 3, 2021
I am very good at skipping now.
The rope turns fast.
A private bubble
Fixed in place.
I’m running, but with nowhere to go.
If I let go the handles
Drop the rope;
Open the door
What might happen?