A series of poems written by Craig O’Flaherty during the COVID-19 lockdown over March-April-May 2020 from his home in Cape Town, South Africa, starting out as a personal practice and through which many of us have found insight and inspiration.
We hope you enjoy this series, and that you too may draw your own insight and inspiration.
“Since we went into lockdown here in South Africa on 26 March 2020, I have been using my personal practice of writing poetry as a way to ground and steady myself in these difficult times. I find the time spent to reflect and still myself has helped to provide a place to go to when I need solace – especially being on my own. I’m going to start a blog called ‘A Poetic Response’, where I capture these and other things. Teaching myself to do this is a new possibility. It’s a world where we are tempted to react – when what we are being asked to do is to respond – stop – reflect – then and only then to act.
I think each of us is being asked to contribute in our own way. I hope that you are finding yours.
I’m not a doctor or a nurse or healer, those whose role has become so crucial in our changing world. But I am a poet and I think the small contribution that poets make in our world is to witness, watch and observe what happens in the world around them and then turn these into words that might help others to pause for a moment and consider what the world is saying to them.
It’s a daily practice for me, so I will post one each day.
Letter from a Virus
Sitting down today I was struggling to think of what to write. Then the universe sent its own inspiration –
‘What is the virus trying to say to us?’. Things started to fire and ignite.
We often de-personalize and objectify events or occurrences in our world – the weather, the current, flowers
even animals. So what if by giving the virus a voice we might start to listen to what it’s trying desperately to
say, that we are not hearing?
I took on for a period, the personality of the virus and tried to write a poem to say what it might be saying. We as humans are so good at assuming we are ascendant above everything else around us. Perhaps if we heard what the earth is trying to say to us – we might listen in a new way. That’s not to venerate the death and suffering the virus is causing – but all too often we only start to listen, see and understand what’s going on around us when we encounter suffering and disturbance in our lives.
So, here’s what the virus might be saying to us. The question is – will we listen, really listen?
A Language of Optimism
The essential palette that a poet works with is a vocabulary of language that gets woven to create imagery. An imagery that pulls the reader into experiencing their familiar word in a new way.
Artists work with stone, fabric, paints and wood. Musicians work with sound and the spaces between notes. Poets have words as their palette and scales.
Tonight’s poem is rooted in an emerging language that we might consider weaving into our dialogue. Words create worlds – possibilities beyond what we see. As I thought about what to write today, words began to suggest themselves. What’s a language that comes from the very essence of who we are, that no virus can ever infect?
The more these words flowed from the ink of my fountain pen, the more they began to take on a new identity. It reminded me of how poetry can take obvious or existing words and by using them in new ways, can gift them back in ways that generate new meaning and possibility.
In each of our own ways I think this what we are being asked to do – take what we think we know, or are skilled at and find new ways of using it – to help us as a collective, as we frame what being human in this new realm of existence is. I hope that these words open up new worlds for you, as you stand into the emerging reality that embraces us all.
Owning My Truth
Sometimes as poets, as in many other crafts, we need to keep open to learning from others. Craftsmen and craftswomen of old would often meet in village squares or around kraal fires and would watch how others made their pots or shaped their assegais (spears) – and then build their observations and learnings into new ways of perfecting their crafts. It is a way of learning we need more than ever in these times. For this poem, I learned from the poem of Portia Nelson, who wrote a thought provoking poem called – There’s a Hole in my Sidewalk: The Romance of Self Discovery.
As we all ponder deeply about what is happening to the world around while we watch the news or surf the web, it’s all too easy for us to seek who or what might be to blame for the virus and it’s devastating consequences. My sense is that we will not find a way through these difficult times until we are prepared to take individual and collective ownership for the circumstances that have led to this global tsunami of devastating consequences. Each of us has, in our own seemingly tiny or, in our view – irrelevant actions, contributed to what is unfolding. Choices we might have made in how we live, what we eat, what our needs are – and how all of these have in their own way contributed to what might be happening.
Until we step into that, we will conveniently take on the role of being the victims of what is happening around us – rather than owning being contributors and therefore, also the agents of the changes that might need to be made in how we act in, live through and imagine into, the world in which we live.
Perhaps we are been given a time to think about ‘what matters most?’. Are we using this time or, will we simply continue to act as if we are merely corks bobbing in an oceanic wave of distress?
Sometimes, the words that accompany what’s written can’t say as much as what’s written. It’s a late Friday evening. Each of us sit in our own silence and wait for a new morning. A morning where new levels of this deep challenge to humanity, and how we live, arise. And then we need to encounter them with calm and compassion for ourselves.
The poem tonight comes in two forms. One being the words which find a way of combining to generate a way of considering what is happening around us in new ways. The other is a picto-poem – where words and imagery are combined to engage and create more sensory feel for what’s being said. Let me know how it changes or adds to what you read.
I’ll be using the weekend to rest and restore so that the words that flow on Monday come from a regenerated me.
Words aren’t the only things that poets can use. Line lengths can sometimes create a visual picture that underlines or accentuates what the words are trying to say. Image and picture combine to invite the reader into sensing what’s being written.
One of the things that gets used so often by media and medical people with regard to this virus is the concept of ‘flattening the curve’. Keeping the number of people who become infected below certain levels and stretching it out over a longer period – to leave medical and hospital facilities able to cope.
This poem tries to capture in image and emotion the turbulence of the curve we are on – almost like being at a fairground and riding a roller-coaster.
What we do know is that roller-coaster rides end – so do viral pandemics like this. We need to not lose hope.
I went shopping for the first time this Saturday, since lockdown began. The empty streets were eerie and unreal – particularly for a weekend. Standing in the winding queue for Woolies gave time for thought and reflection. The memories of shopping at other times in life, as a boy, came flooding back. I remember what a tradition shopping-day used to be in times gone past. In my Gran’s generation – it was a social outing. So contrasting to what shopping is in our modern era – especially in these times.
Shopping had a ceremonial side to it – what one wore, where one went – who one went with. So different to how we tend to shop today. Any last shreds of ceremony have been ripped away in these recent times – to be replaced by new ceremonies of hand washing, regimented queuing and functional buying. Much of this might be good for us and our planet. But perhaps we had already lost any sense of shopping as a social outing, as previous generations might have had. Perhaps new protocols and practices will start to emerge about how and when we shop and what it’s purpose is. I think it’s only one area of change, to what existence in this emerging world is becoming.
And then there are times during this where we need to see the lighter side. The ‘sturm und drang’ of the news
and internet blitz we sometimes subject ourselves to can be a real drag. In the midst of drama, humor and a
bite of sarcasm can take the edge off of what we feel and lighten the way.
Humor in poetry is not easy. It’s not like acting or movies – where the humor can be indicated and amplified by
expression and gesture. Or cartoons – which use exaggerated imagery. So the temptation is to accentuate it,
which can make the poem come across a little overblown. It’s probably better to use irony, that’s what I’ve tried
to do. I must admit, before this I never really engaged with poetry as a humor enabler. For me it was always a
medium for exploring the drama, mystery and sadness of life.
Sitting down to write this was fun – the glass of wine did help!. Laughter has a way of lightening life. I hope
that poetry doesn’t suffer too much from this attempt.
It would be so easy to be sucked into the most profound existentialist crisis that mankind, in such population
number that cover the earth, has ever faced. Humor is in us and all around us – if we are prepared to look for
it. I’m sure even amongst this mailing list, there is a plethora of funny and humorous incidents that have
happened to you and others during the lockdown, or laughter that has been generated from silly incidents.
We need to hold onto these. No amount of tears that we might shed in this impending wave, will make any
difference to our navigating it successfully. Humor will. Hope this helps you to look at the silly side of what is
happening around you.