It’s funny the things you think of when the going gets tough.
Like everyone else in recent weeks, I could feel the sun’s warmth, see the green tips coming through the garden soil and welcome the crocuses.
It’s spring arriving, yet there wasn’t a big smile on my face; no, just the tension of uncertainty and foreboding that goes hand-in-hand with the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then I heard Penn Kemp’s voice on the telephone and a smile arrived.
I can’t help it. London’s first poet laureate and one of this country’s great writing talents always offers up some delightful word treats that usually provoke a smile, sometimes laughter and even tears that eventually give way to serious pondering of the words, ideas and observations she so expertly writes on paper.
I should have anticipated the phone call because April is poetry month and, more often than not, a chance for me to reconnect with Kemp, who has written more than 30 books of poetry and drama and is renowned as a spoken word performer.
Penn Kemp is a perpetual reminder to me of why we need our artists and I couldn’t wait to find out how she’s been keeping, but even more excited to find out what she’s doing.
“Life as usual for a writer, I’m at home,” said Kemp, for whom a degree of isolation is a natural consequence of her art.
“But we feel it all so deeply. The irony and the consolation or disparity in it all is spring’s arrival – the return of warmth against the depths of sadness and sorrow of so many people passing. There’s so much information coming at us, we’re inundated with so much grief. For me, poetry can console.”
And then I read her new words, in her new poem titled, What We Remember, words this horror has provoked that grabbed my heart and told me I am not alone. The opening stanza drawing tears . . .
So many are leaving the planet and yet
are with us, still and still.
How they hover,
the lost, the bewildered, the wild ones!
Clearly life during a pandemic hasn’t escaped Kemp’s gaze or understanding; it has provoked her muse to sing.
There are two more poems, each with compelling observations, perhaps even provocations. It is what Kemp must do, even though she won’t get paid this month when she is often on tour to celebrate her art. It is why I feel so compelled to write about our artists.
“I so believe in the power of community yet everything we relied upon has shifted — to ‘host’ has become a negative and even ‘positive’ (test) has become a negative,” said Kemp.
“What the arts really does is offer a vehicle for the expression of emotion, whether we’re creating or we’re a recipient, you can share in the collective expression of sorrow and suffering and sense that we are together, that humanity is facing this together.”
And I smile again because I don’t feel so alone.
I’m feeling hopeful again because the power of the arts continues to churn, inspiring and, yes, comforting.
The Big Ask
In times of crises we count on the arts for respite,
relief, relaxation and articulation of our response
and reaction to a compounded new normal. As if
unknowns have not always been nearby, hovering
at edge of sight, beyond reach but closing in now,
still unknown. All our questions rise without reply.
The difference is now we know for once what we
did not know, can’t know, don’t want to face, hid
under cover. But special masks hand-sewn as if to
protect let us feel we are doing our bit, let us act in
dispelling disconnect, overwhelm of circumstance.
Art helps us stitch together disparity or discontent.
This poem will not reveal statistics, won’t describe
missing medical gear, what remains undelivered,
how many gravesites prepared, how much suffering—
how many gone. We have aps for that, as numbers
grow beyond belief but not beyond hope nor help.
Frontline workers, be praised. May all you need be
yours now. May salaries be raised. May you rest
till the rest is easy. May your harvest be in health
not death, not calculated statistics of raised risk.
Do care for yourselves just as you care for others.
We wait, sequestered, connected, isolated, missing
touch, missing what we used to call normal, what
we used to do long ago just last month. We wait for
the weight to lift, to remember we are safe at home,
not stuck. We also serve who stay indoors and wait.
May home be our haven. May we shelter in place,
in peace of mind. Confinement’s just fine for now,
home stead, home stayed and schooled in the new.
Mind the gap, the gulf between then and now as
broadcasts sweep over: they are not forever. Turn
off the hourly news. Tune in to spring joys instead.
We can gather in the power of dandelion greens.
Warmer weather is not another postponed elective.
Even though last night, lightning and hail the size
of loonies lit up the sky at the pink full moon, no
frogs are raining and forsythia has not forsaken us.
Toads are peeping, myrtle is purpling and the sun,
sweet sun, is warming our faces as forget-me-nots
pop their determined way up through damp earth.
What is essential, what urgent when baselines shift?
Spontaneous dance parties and web performance
lighten fatigue, the philosopher’s moral dilemma.
The consolation of poetry is the resilience of words
given to comfort or challenge, compare and contrast.
What is grief but love unexpressed? What is love but
expression? Giving, not in, not out, but forth, giving
over to you. The game’s a match. Love won. Love all.
April 8, 2020
What We’ll Remember
How first scylla sky shimmers
against the tundra swan’s flight
west and north, north north west.
How many are leaving the planet and yet
are with us, still and still forever.
How they linger,
the lost, the bewildered, the wild ones!
Though tears come easily these days,
we too hover over the greening land
as spring springs brighter than ever
since stacks are stilled and the pipe
lines piping down.
When the peace pipe is lit
and sweetgrass replaces
smog— when the fog of pollution
lifts and channels clear—
Earth take a long breath
and stretches over aeons to come
and aeons past.
No Reruns, No Returns
for les revenants
Those who died once from influenza
a century ago, who now are pulled to
a hell realm of eternal return—are you
repeating, reliving the hex of time as if
doomed to replicate the old story you
already lived through? Once is enough.
No need to hover. You have suffered
plenty. You’ve loved and lost all there
is to lose. You have won. You’re one
with all that is. Retreat now to your own
abode. Return home, spirits. You’re no
longer needed here. You are no longer.
Although we honour you and thank
you and remember you each and all,
all those who’ve been called back, called
up from dimensions we can only guess at—
caught in the Great War and carried away
or carried off in the aftermath of influenza—
by this spell, we tell you to go back to
your own time, out of time. Just in time.
May you depart. We don’t know, how can
we tell? where your home is. It’s not here.
Know this virus is not yours. Know this
war is not yours. You are here in our era
by error, by slippage, a rip. You’ve mis-
taken the signage, the spelling in wrong
turns. Now return, by this charm, retreat.
You are dispelled, dismissed, dismantled,
released to soar free from the trance of time.
May you travel well. May you fly free.
The poems have been slightly revised.