1377 Going viral: plague’s the thing
In the Plague Year: Poems
by W.H. New
Oakville, ON: Rock’s Mills Press, 2021
$20.00 / 9781772442366
Reviewed by Gary Geddes
Early on in the first year of the pandemic, I received a letter from my friend Mark Mordue in Australia, to say he’d written a sequence of poems, only available digitally, about the emotional impact of Covid called Via Us: Poems from inside the Corona, light but heartfelt poems about parenting, the meaning of love, and the role of the individual in society, written over a seven-week period and illustrated with his own photographs.
I mention this because I think it was the first of many such projects initiated by poets to deal with and make sense of the pandemic. Since then, I have been astonished by the volume of writing about Covid and its impact, including Art Joyce’s Diary of a Pandemic Year, recently and enthusiastically reviewed here. There is a Canadian anthology called Pandemic Poems, edited by Kevin Solez, and a UK on-line site of Covid poems, their authors listed alphabetically. I gave up counting when I reached one hundred and realized I was only at the letter ‘C.’
What is it that poetry can do in the face of danger, disease and death, not to mention war and genocide? What are the aims and possible contributions poetry can make in the face of such crises? In addition to being a call to action, poetry can also be a source of healing. It flies under the radar, nests in the ear, and can alter our chemistry, our way of thinking. How does it do this? It employs rhythmic strategies and economies of language that slow time down, make us wince, curse, laugh, weep or rejoice by using the rhythms of ordinary speech, heightened by syllabic stress patterns, surprising imagery, and acoustic pleasures such as the repetition of vowels and consonants, all of which slow us down, make us pause, consider, and experience what has been called “felt time.”
W.H. (Bill) New delivers much of this verbal richness in spades, not just in poetry, but also throughout his writings. He’s always alert to the multiple meanings and connotations in words, in books for young readers such as Vanilla Gorilla, Llamas in the Library, and Sam Swallow and the Riddleworld League, important nonfiction works for nerds and academics like me, including Articulating West, Borderlands, and A History of Canadian Literature. An embarrassment of riches. Not surprisingly, given his Protean capacities, he has also, since retiring from the University of British Columbia, become a prolific and gifted poet with at least ten collections of verse to his credit.
His new poems work best when he provides specific details such as the following, from “Inhaling”:
A caller on the radio
says she’s built an obstacle course
for her children:
Out of plastic.
The poem describes an activity that takes this mother out of the box of current regulations, with their claustrophobia and solitude; but it’s presented via a simple but subtle verbal image that appeals to us because of its specificity and verbal music, the recurring consonants of caller/course/children, the open vowels of A, on, an, obstacle, Out, and of. And with the implicit irony, of course, that the reader, too, is enabled to escape, briefly, from the straightjacket of the lockdown.
New writes of tedium, tempers lost, rumours, false alarms, dashed hopes and signs: “so much impedes us: / the politics of rage, contagious fear, the sad smut / of bullying smoke, the solid bulk / of invisible walls.” But he also sees and remembers the vitality and resilience ready to explode at a moment’s notice, at the first signs of improvement or opening up. “Maybe we’ve / lost our taste for the politics of this pandemic, / maybe we’re numbed by statistics.” Are these poems, he asks, “an obituary for a lost year”? No, they reflect the necessity of recall, of recording, the literary rescue work that takes the time required to give this epoch the permanence of art.
In “Other Voices” and other poems New touches lightly on vaccine hesitation, suspicions surrounding scientific information and the shock of an anti-vaxer spitting in the face of nurses or ordinary folks for wearing masks. When I read this I was reminded of “Areopagitica,” John Milton’s famous speech to parliament against the censorship of books and free speech. He challenges censorship, but also invokes notions of social responsibility when he writes: “Licence, they mean, when they cry liberty.”
Poets, since Wordsworth and Coleridge, have been intent on returning poetry to its more colloquial roots, or what is often referred to as ordinary speech. This may involve resisting some of the technical hijinks, or ‘symphonics,’ that draw more attention to technique than to what the poem is trying to convey. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk. In his pandemic poems, New is setting aside some of the lyrical and narrative skills evident in Underwood Log and Touching Ecuador for a more accessible or commonplace diction and voice, resisting the temptation to offer the poem as artifact and offering it instead as a less formal, but witty, informed and observant communication. The reasons for this are as obvious as the risks.
Bill New talks about the clichés that come to mind when dealing with such huge issues and subjects: “Old saws — they have their uses — ” he says, “they’re anecdotes distilled across time.” Addressing fear, hostility, uncertainty, empty shelves and the growing tensions from being out of our element, New offers a consolation: “We know what feeds us, that we can rely / on each other, that even in the whirlwind / we can, and do, reach out to calm.” He also indulges in some refreshing word-play in “Sourdough,” which demonstrates his ability to make these lower poetic registers dance. The poem begins with an anecdote about masks, but quickly morphs into an extended metaphor about baking, playing with the differences and similarities in the words need and knead and the power of yeast, like poetry, to make spirits and expectations rise. This poem would be a good note to end on, and to celebrate the gifts of Bill New and the magic of right words in the right order:
Our friend T. tells us she saw the need
and wanted to do something tangible,
so started making face masks from old
leotards and giving them to friends.
She’s left two on our doorstep, in a paper
bag. Keeping apart. One is flowery,
the other dun. I assume the plain one’s
for me. It’s the colour of baking powder
biscuits, I say, thinking distantly of my
taste buds. The truth is: there’s
no yeast on grocery shelves these days,
or baking powder either. More people
kneading means fewer staples handy:
Authorities — maybe projecting —
say there’s no problem with supply lines:
We’re rising to the challenge.
Gary Geddes is the author and editor of more than fifty books of poetry, fiction, drama, nonfiction, criticism, translation and anthologies, including 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics (Oxford). He is also the recipient of a dozen national and international literary awards, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Americas Region), the National Magazine Gold Award, the Lt.-Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, and the Gabriela Mistral Prize from the government of Chile, awarded simultaneously to Octavio Paz, Vaclav Havel, Ernesto Cardenal, Rafael Alberti and Mario Benedetti. His most recent works are The Resumption of Play (Quattro, 2016), Medicine Unbundled: A Journey Through the Minefields of Indigenous Health Care (Heritage House, 2017) and The Ventriloquist: Poetic Narratives from the Womb of War (Rock’s Mills Press, 2022). A collection of new poems, The Oysters I Bring to Banquets, is due out from Guernica in the summer of 2022. Editor’s note: Gary Geddes’ Medicine Unbundled is reviewed here by Mary-Ellen Kelm; The Ventriloquist here by Art Joyce.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and writers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster