Welcome to the latest weekly installment of our blogs written by poets about what they have been doing since the lockdown began. We’re calling it From the Front Lines: with the public being urged to stay at home to hinder the progress of Covid-19, it often feels as if our front door is the front line. Today, we hear from Saltire Poetry Book of the Year 2019 winner Janette Ayachi.
It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down –
We were all incarcerated, flights were cancelled, kids off school – another threat to make us value life more. For some wondrous reason, poetry seemed to be the only art form that didn’t shut down with the lockdown. I still had publishing deadlines for translations and projects and collaborations; readings and events were cancelled, but pages were still being printed. And for me, a sense of urgency emerged; life less benign but ramped up to full speed.
My time is filtered by the sudden exclamations and emotions of children, so it is more difficult to immerse myself. My girls and I have turned into a clan of mice, scuttling between rooms with knots in our hair. We are happy, and getting along better than ever, now I can home-school the little lobsters, teach them what I want them to know. We learn to speak now without spitting.
Time doesn’t have an invite anymore; Groundhog Day, quantum leaps, over and over. My preferred fashion seems to be boys’ boxers and silk kimonos every day and I delay everything until tomorrow because tomorrow is today and yesterday too. I bit off all my nails and spat them out like a savage. Threw books to the floor and played ‘Dancing in The Dark’until the bed vacuumed me into another world. Then I ate some feta cheese and had nightmares. We all deal with sudden changes and turmoil in different ways as we look for something to blame our grief on.
In the absence of crowds and pollution dolphins came to frolic in the canals in Venice wild boars bounced through Barcelona, turkeys clucked through Oakland, and the common toad, looking for some action, will get across the road safely. Soon, vultures and carrion crows will queue outside empty supermarkets.
I traffic in thoughts of extinction; the solo sabre-toothed tiger, the solitary parrot, the last manatee ploughing the ocean in search of a mate. Human exceptionalism doesn’t convince, our magnificence falters. I eat the stars, they remain unaltered. In crisis I reach for the sacred but everything just curdles in my mouth. Writing becomes a desperate search for catharsis. ‘Never despair, but if you do, work on in that despair,’ said Edmund Burke, and I am trying.
Long shifts and short nights, I find myself asking the rooftops for the answers to conundrums. The sky keeps rehearsing its colours. I let loose, untie the phantoms. I watch how bright Venus shines, listen to the river song, and grass growing all by itself. I absorb the earth’s tremor, and when the ducks or geese or otters pass in tribe on the river with their eyes closed I hear the marathon swimmers practice at the swimming pool, length after length, never knocked by monotony or routine, stroke after stroke, and when strolling I couldn’t gaze upon the starlings in the gutter; so I imagine myself underwater not for minutes, but for days dipping to surface for air, lap after lap, page after page, beating wings and ink against the stove never seeming to get anywhere but the wall, and back, the wall and back again even though all streams are supposed to lead to endless horizons.
I store my faith in the future. Out of the silence and healing, we will go out into the world singing.
Janette Ayachi is a London-born Edinburgh-based Scottish-Algerian poet. She collaborates with artists; engages in numerous projects, performances, exhibitions and events. In 2017, she was commissioned to write a poem for a documentary Conversations on a Bench for BBC Radio 4. She is the author of poetry pamphlets Pauses at Zebra Crossings and A Choir of Ghosts and her first full poetry collection Hand Over Mouth Music (published by Pavilion: University of Liverpool Press) won The Saltire Poetry Book of the Year Literary Award 2019. She is currently working on Lonerlust: A Poet’s Memoir a nonfiction narrative about desire and travelling alone. Visit her website here.