Kondottiyans

The repatriation flight skids off the tabletop runaway,

thundering in the tailwind.

Homing dreams crash through the optical illusion.

 

Breaking the pandemic shackles,

they gallop toward the gruesome gorge.

Downpour and darkness cannot immure their vigor.

They are incandescent with compassion,

forget their masks.

Excruciating voices.

They hasten to hospitals,

carrying the passengers in PPE kits,

who are either dead or dying.

Their WhatsApp messages multiply agile hands.

They wait before the blood banks.

The forlorn kids are glued to their hearts with the love-epoxy.

 

They return home to quarantine themselves

at dawn.

Humans aren’t extinct among men.

 

September 20, 2020

Grieving Season

I take my father’s ghost and a crochet bird nest with me. The air is clean and clear, my body is empty, and no-one mentions the war.
It is January. The nest is a half-built tiny home for a tiny injured thing. The left-over yarn I’m using is messy as life, cobbled together. An emergency measure.

 

We already know which cities will go dry. Which will be flooded.

I tuck the nest, with hook and yarn, into a (reused) paper bag.

And somewhere there is an animal. The last of its kind.

 

In March, we are sent to our homes, while we still have them.

We’ve already forgotten islands. We’ve already forgotten fire.

I fold my father’s ghost and slip it between my ribs. I wear my grandmother’s thin Irish skin as a mask and learn how to breathe. Nothing is wasted. My liver came down from my Grandfather.

We are sent to our homes.

On the TV the rich men take turns.

And somewhere is an animal. The last of its kind.

 

I have forgotten the unfinished birds’ nest by August, until I find it on a side table. It is made of left-over strings of yarn in every colour and it is the ugliest thing I’ve ever created. I remember when I sat watching the world on fire. All I could do was twist and hook with great seriousness.

On the TV the men don’t mention tiny birds and their vaporised homes.

The people are dying (heart disease, cancer).

The people are dying (suicide, hunger, mosquito).

The people are dying (virus unknown).

“People really die and no longer one by one,” Sigmund Freud said (Freud, via Victoriano, 2003 212).

On the TV the men come and go but there’s never time to grieve.

Fire season is nearly here again.

And somewhere there is an animal, the last of its kind.

 

I am 11 years old, sitting under a tree next to the river. A migraine peels apart my brain. My grandma’s cool hand on my face.

“Just let the pain in, don’t resist,” she says. “Relax. The pain comes from resisting.”

I relax my mind. The seagulls wheel.

The tree holds us in its shade.

 

Here’s the pain I let in: I have stopped thinking about the baby bird. (I think of it as a baby but it could just be very, very small). I’m slow at crochet and not very good with babies either, having never had one wanted one, having never seen the need.

But now the world is full of endings and somewhere an animal is the last of its kind.
My Grandma’s cool hand on my skin.

The world is full of endings and I am the daughter of a daughter.

I will never have a daughter.

And somewhere, an animal is the last of its kind.

 

There are no ultimatums with ghosts.

My dad is a ghost who, when living, would enter the country in secret, so he could surprise us after school. Thirty years before every kid in the country saw the animal corpses. Thirty years before we started baking bread with fervour, stuck at home, safe at home, neither, never. He leans in, all paper, and reminds me that it was him. That he told them where to dig for the oil and the gas.

Here, on Noongar country, I was born, he was born, his dad was born, and before that, the boat, the English towns, the Irish fields. The sky is clear, there is no emergency for white folks, until there is.

And somewhere there’s an animal. The last of its kind.

Dropping its bones for the future (what future?) to name.

 

I tuck his ghost back between my ribs, I take him with me to the protest march. But my voice is stuck, there are feathers and guilt in my throat.

On the TV, the rich men come and go.

Fire season is nearly here again.

“People really die, and no longer one by one,” Dr Freud said. “It is no longer an accident.” (Freud, via Victoriano, 2003 212).

And somewhere there is an animal, the last of its kind.

 

The Noongar calendar has six seasons, because December is different to February, but they all burn just the same these days.

The ghost of my dad folds up small. A beginning, an ending, an origami weight of never growing old.

It’s eleven seconds to midnight. The rich men wear suits and wave showbusiness hands.
Now is not the time.

Now is not time.

Now is not.

I thought there’d be more shouting, at the end.

And somewhere, there is an animal.

The last of its kind.

 

—January – September, 2020

Works cited

Victoriano, Filipe, Aaron Walker and Carl Good Fiction, Death and Testimony: Toward a Politics of the Limits of Thought, Discourse 25, (2003): 211–230. Sourced at http://www.jstor.org/stable/41389671.

In Isolation

In isolation, I thought maybe nature was the answer. No other humans, just the organic Earth and everything else that lived on it. If we were the lice, then all those other plants and animals were what? The too-tiny-to-see worms inhabiting our eyelashes? All the microorganisms living on our bodies, unnoticed until something goes wrong and the benign skin bacteria begins to rot the blood?

The metaphor got away from me. It’s useless anyway. Language is for communicating with other humans. The world doesn’t care what we call it.

And so I took long walks at midnight. Sometimes I heard frogs. Sometimes crickets. Sometimes birds whose bodies were fooled by the glow of the city that never died. Sometimes someone else walking the sidewalks, face also masked. Everything went quiet when I passed, ghosting like a dream I couldn’t shake.

In my fourplex, the sounds of my housemates were distant. Practicing drums. Loud and laugh-salted phone conversations. The thud and groans of home exercise or masturbation. There was no passing each other in the front entry. No hellos. The cars drove themselves out in the morning and parked themselves at night. Packages delivered on the front steps walked their way inside.

I was lucky to have this luxury of isolation. I had savings. A job I could do online. When I went to the grocery store, I eyed everyone with suspicion, and they suspected me right back. This would bring us closer, I remember an op-ed claiming. Distance makes the heart grow fonder. People are more compassionate with the suffering they can’t see.

A shaky claim, but I’d bought into it.

But in the grocery store and the post office where other people were unavoidable, all I saw were the eyes and the upper part of the face, eyebrows angled down, foreheads wrinkled in annoyance and fear. Do you know the way an ear moves when a person frowns so deeply their face collapses in on itself? Or how the throat visibly tightens if you’re straining to hold back a scream?

I practiced in the mirror, eliminating all the telltale signs visible around the mask. It is so much safer to be a blank slate, reflecting nothing. With all the masks, how can we know who to hold accountable? By the time the mask is off, it’s too late.

Months passed. The world evolved. Civilization adjusted. Every online meeting I attended, I blanked my camera. My cat became a great conversationalist. Television windowed a world that was and would never be again.

Oh, not even that is the truth, I can tell you now. There was an alternate universe in old photographs, one which never even existed. Or if it existed, it was always an illusion with as much solidity as a soap bubble. The illusion popped and our eyes are stinging and we can choose to keep our eyes closed or wash them out and look around us with a new, pained vision.

I say we because it’s easier than saying I.

Here’s the truth.

We are each in a tiny spaceship, a bubble just large enough for us and the supplies to survive. An attic efficiency in space. Bed. Kitchen. Exercise machine. Entertainment box. Each ship can survive indefinitely, which is good, because each of us is traveling through space for an indefinite time. Like dandelion seeds, we have been blown from Earth and shot out into the vastness of the empty black.

Food and water are effectively infinite. Air, too. Everything is recycled. Nano-machines ever carefully clear the air of the dust made by our flaking skin and shed hair. Something something relativism makes it so we age virtually not at all. And communication between us is equally magical and instantaneous. There are explanations for why it all works, but the science doesn’t matter. Whether we understand how and why we are here, here is where we are. In an enclosed space, each of us alone.

Hello? Can you hear me? If you can hear me, press the red flashing button.

One day we’ll travel beyond the Sun’s encompassing light and it’ll shrink to be just another star. Already, all the planets are invisible except by computer projection. I know your voice is out there. So just press the button to open the link.

All we have is each other.

 

—September 9, 2020

Writing in the Time of Coronavirus 2

One thing that’s been blooming in this coronavirus crisis is dreams. Near the beginning of lockdown, a friend told me hers: the landscape outside her house was destroyed. But it was replaced by a green cactus with kangaroo-bear hybrids lolloping round it. It seemed to symbolise devastation and enforced change, but something new and tougher was growing from it.

My latest story involves a prison, and a tremendous sense of longing for and guilt about what we’ve lost through our destruction of the environment. Oddly, we’d succeeded in displacing ourselves. As I’ve had more time to listen to the birds singing above the traffic, and to observe a chopped-down tree continuously sending out new shoots in the back garden, I’ve been cheered by nature’s astonishing tenacity, and saddened at how, if we don’t get our arses into gear, we won’t be a part of it. Already, we barely belong.

What has also crept into my writing is paying more attention to all of the senses, but especially touch. Currently single, not touching people feels like a dismemberment of something crucial: connection through the body. I’ve written quite a few stories about apes and this strange absence makes me think about how they touch each other continuously, and how the warmth of another body bypasses the mind and hooks into the sense of belonging necessary to all human beings.

I’ve been wracking my brains about how this sense of belonging can help overcome the enormity of the climate crisis facing us. People’s actions during the covid crisis are a giant crucible, reflecting how we’ve acted in the past and showing how we could do things differently in the future.

There are no goals for me in writing fiction, only open-endedness: feeling my way, seeing what comes up, and following it. It’s the opposite of the control and dehumanisation inherent in the late-capitalist view of what a human should be like.

Writing constantly surprises me with the answers I find, without trying to, answers that seem to come from the sum of my experience with other human beings, which is why I think of writing as a communal act.

So, who knows how writing fiction can help change the world. Some submission calls ask you to imagine a positive future. That has its place. But writing about the sadness of the world could just as easily change something. The reader’s absorption of the writing is as mysterious as the process of creation. How to put a value on such a subtle, but real, thing? Which is why it’s so hard to fund the arts in our hyper-capitalist society.

But don’t you always remember that thing you read years ago, that you’ve never forgotten, that in fact changed your life?

Whatever happens, I know I’m going to keep on with this odd activity called writing, that is all about exploring and possibilities, without pressure. The crisis has affirmed this for me.

 

—August 26, 2020

COVID Summer: Against Dystopia

They ask her if this is the end,

Armageddon, Ragnarok—is Jesus

Going to come sort this. Can it get

Worse. Winston Smith knew

Dystopia is not drama but grind,

The constant scrape of fear.

We’ve tried dramatic speeches

(Appalling, sublime); it’s time

To get on with the slow business

Of building, growing from seed,

Rejecting the martyr for the maker.

 

July 31, 2020

COVID Summer: After, Now

There will be rooms of people

You’ve never seen before.

And won’t again, strangers,

Brazenly loving music,

Eating dumplings, browsing scarves.

There will be breaths let out,

Unchecked; there will be strange air,

Strange beds, cafe tables

That wobble as you write.

There will be spontaneous outings.

You will linger in the ice cream shop,

Not hurry out to lick your cone

In the street; you will rush

Between drinks and a show,

Take a cab, hug a friend. Now

There are calculations, comparisons,

Care. Familiar walls and making do,

And it does. But only for now.

 

July 31, 2020

Escaping in a little boy’s play.

It’s been some cold four months. Even though our heaviest rainfalls happen between March and July, and are always chaperoned by intense heat, these months have been cold ones. Somehow, the months had the biting loneliness and endlessness one only gets on cold nights. Living, for those of us that haven’t died, has been like lying in a large bed in December with no coverings, in a room with large open windows. Alone. Wondering when morning will come, if morning will come.

What I have done the most in these days and months has been watch. I watched because in watching you’re persons removed, you’re apart from the pains and the confusion. I watched my four year old nephew who got so little time to watch cartoons when we all soaked our eyes in Al jazeera resort to staging plays with his pairs of slippers, and cups, and sticks. I watched as people who once had full lives, who went to the gym and planned diets they knew they’d not stick to and holidays they could never afford became reduced to numbers and cases. When I went out to buy vegetables from the small market at a junction not so far from my house, I watched faces that knew so little of what was happening in the world outside their front doors and stalls forced to close up shop early or close altogether and go hungry without explanations or provisions… Watching was a lot of comfort but at the same time a lot of pain.

While counting the cold days from March to July, and watching, I wrote poetry. I didn’t write poetry because I wanted to bide time as my cousin did when he opened a Tiktok account to follow trends of short videos. I wrote poems because that was the only way I could stay sane. I wrote poems because I needed to stop talking to myself and I couldn’t stop talking to myself knowing that people who once had full lives, beautiful lives, sad lives, all kinds of lives were now nothing but numbers and cases.

The poems, all twenty of them, were imagined lives and significant others of the cases and numbers. Some recovered and went home others died and others faced agony within white walls and under bright lights and the stench of disinfectants, not knowing if they will live to go home or not. I hoped that these imaginary lives would add some warmth to the coldness of numbers.

When I wasn’t watching the news, wishing I could give those cold words and numbers the broadcasters called out a hug, I was watching my nephew, all William in his Globe, casting Romeo and Juliet, and having them live happily ever after. Thinking back now, I marvel at the escapism his plays offered him and I; creativity rescued me from the chill of numbers.

 

—July 30, 2020

Retreat, April 2, 2020

After Tim Lilburn’s poem, “Retreat.”

 

When I was in Desolation Sound, during the pandemic, holed up in that bay,

its mornings and green tides and ravens, reading Tim Lilburn, it was so cold

in the mornings I’d put on five layers, feed the woodstove

until the kettle started to tick.

I’d stack firewood in the afternoons, the alder bark with its islands

of sepia and grey overlaid on cream, like an antique map

but studded with woodpecker holes

like tiny machine gun bullet holes,

as though attempting to obliterate the memories

of the world we’d just left behind.

Then I’d go rowing out into the Sound

toward the Unwin Mountains, rows of blue peaks receding into mist.

Also, I was tucking into Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium,

literary values for future generations, his parliament on light

and the imagination. There was no hockey,

the NHL having cancelled the season, indeed, all seasons cancelled

except for nature’s, getting a reprieve with this new quiet,

fish now visible in Venice’s canals, the gondolas neatly stacked

across from the Basilica di San Marco.

 

Early morning rain fat with snow, unusual for April.

I didn’t know exactly what I was lonely for.

Inchoate, this rite of passage into the world’s ruin.

 

It’s a Dark Time and I Try to Be a Light

I’ve been interviewing artists of various kinds in New Haven since March about their response to the pandemic, and I’ve been telling people throughout that my job as a journalist has often been a real help, because I’m telling the stories of people who are adapting, people who are still working on things, who are sort of doing OK. I’ve also noticed that it seems sometimes like they’re talking to each other, like they seem to be on the same page. What’s below is constructed from quotes from 22 different people.

 

This virus is a horrifying gift—a life-and-death gift—for us to examine our priorities for how we want to be in this world. The system was set up for us to work too much and forget as much as possible. This has made us aware, if we didn’t already know, of how on a wire our lives were.

 

It’s not necessary for us to be stressed for the sake of productivity. If everyone just had $1,000 a month coming in from a value-added tax, people might be able to stay indoors and not have to risk their lives to get groceries. How robust a system can capitalism be if it needs to be bailed out by socialism every 10 years? If we didn’t spend $90 billion on a bomb the size of Rhode Island, we could have a test kit in everybody’s mailbox.

 

We are not going to go back as a society to the way it was before. People won’t want to go back. We have to find out how to have the space to access that part of our brains and hearts, to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others. We got to lock arms and get through it together. What better way to uplift people’s spirits than to do what we love to do? It’s a dark time and I try to be a light.

 

I find a lot of solace in history as time goes on, because you see the patterns. This has happened, and people had to figure it out, and yet we’re still here. Things continued. This is all just sort of a trial run—working out the kinks for what you have to do with climate change—anyway.

 

The danger isn’t running out of stories; it’s not telling them. I didn’t have the time before to finish records, but now I do. Creatives always say that: We need more time. Now we have the time. We are understanding what a moment in time is. We can sit on a bench and think: light and leaves do that? Bathrooms are the cleanest they’ve ever been. They could be this clean all the time. People have a lot of time to work on stuff. Maybe we’ll all learn how to farm and cook.

 

I’m not afraid of dying, We’re all going to leave here; it’s just how we go. I truly have a deep, deep trust that there is a lot going on that we don’t understand, or can’t wrap our heads around. I think my whole childhood and young adult life got me to this point. We have one life on this earth. I’m in my 50s. I want to eat every good thing in every day. I have all this wood laying around—a lot of random, found objects. I have a bag of paints and glues. I got some papier-mache. So I’ll come up with something.

 

The future: We live there, it’s weird. Hey—what are you going to do? Part of being an artist is getting in touch with your humanity. It’s being vulnerable. We’re all facing an existential threat. Connecting with people—it’s why people keep showing up when it’s so imperfect. This is the thing that reminds us of what it means to be human. That’s what we want to capture when we get the chance, on the other side, when we’re face to face. Even if we’re six feet apart.

 

What do we see through the window? There was a nice day, and people were out and walking their dogs as if they had never been outside before. It is remarkable how good people are being to each other. Go outside and the spring is happening. The swamp maple is covered with little red furry blossoms. The iris is poking out from the ground. The daffodils are blooming like mad. Those are things that happen every year. This is not about the chaos. This is just Earth doing its thing. Every year it comes to life.

 

Don’t give up. Work on you. Do some self-reflection, because once this thing lifts, we got to hit the ground running. We got work to do. There are forces in the unseen that can help us if we’re open to them. There are ways of working that allow for repair to happen. Now more than ever, we have to reach out, figuring out ways of supporting each other. We have to reach out to something bigger than us. It’s the new growth after a forest fire. Make new things. We’re going into a new world. We need new songs.

 

—July 8, 2020

Love in the Time of Covid-19

Dear editor,

I am submitting the personal ad below as a letter to the editor in order to save money for any possible coronavirus-related financial hardship I may encounter. Thank you in advance for waiving, in the spirit of the times, the normal fee for classifieds.

 

CNM seeks CNW

 

Coronavirus-negative man seeks coronavirus-negative woman for social distancing, lockdown, self-isolation, quarantine, hospitalization, possible long-term relationship. Let’s avoid each other from the start! Especially interested in meeting compulsive handwashers and/or professional epidemiologists. Please, no asymptomatic super-spreaders. Attractive elbows a definite plus, though physical intimacy will be very limited for an unspecified period, subject to the dictates of government officials. Interested parties should transmit their astrological and vital signs to the CDC and await further instruction.

 

(s)James Treat

Silver City

 

—Originally appeared in the Silver City Daily Press, March 17, 2020