Friday 17 April 2020

Letters from Lockdown

What I know

As part of Tortoise’s Letters from Lockdown series, a new poem by Alba Arikha, written in the time of coronavirus


1

What I know
about the ochre soil outside that Provencal village
we stopped in for lunch
a church clock chimed last year
our yellow napkins flew away
and we laughed as we rushed to pick them
up in the wind

What I know
about the sturdiness of my feet on stone
as I pound the pavement on my way
to the library where I will seat myself
on the second floor
all of us heads down
far in mind but close in skin
as it always has been
like the classroom
where my daughter used to sit
‘Happy day!’ my husband would wave
on the morning doorstep

Happy day.

What I know
about my friend’s voice on the phone
she sounds low, family trouble, difficult to cope
(I’m sorry)
my daughter comes home
her young heart broken by a boy
quickly mended,
my mother in Paris increasingly forgetting
where she is
who she was not long ago
she’s so tired she says, but very happy
with all these people visiting her
all the time every day even at night
she has doctor’s appointments
must rush
her lipstick shining at dawn

What I know
about who and what I love
and live and hope
and write and travel
to open lands in foreign countries
where the sight of bougainvillea
dripping purple on whitewashed walls
entrances me
as does the glimpse of olive groves
and indigo sea
and old ruins, palaces and hidden alleyways
and churches where treasures await in darkened corners
like the Caravaggio painting I stumbled upon
in a Tuscan village one summer
a monk was dozing on a bench
clutching his rosary
while we stood and gazed in wonder
and watched as men and women
walked in and out
through the wooden door
gazing too and taking pictures
some chewed gum
their languages reflected
on their faces, their history
far from my own yet in some way
hauntingly near at least I would like to believe it
as does my friend whose house faces a Cretan forest
of oak and pine
she was on her way there last month
and later described the beautiful stewardesses on Aegean Airlines
‘2000 years ago we used to paint those same women on vases,’ she said
and nothing has changed.

Nothing has changed.

The forest of oak and pine got burned in the wildfire
a few years ago
nothing could stop it
and nothing could stop Miss Fanouraki either I read,
from setting fire to a drunken British man’s genitals
after he sexually assaulted her in a crowded bar in Malia
she tried fighting him off but he wouldn’t stop
so she poured aniseed liqueur on him
lit it where it mattered
and Ms Fanouraki became a heroine, the crowd chanting
‘Bravo bravo’!
as she was released into the glare of the sun.

 


2

What I know
about the shop down the road
its stalls piled high with deep-red tomatoes
and Cyprus aubergines and pale green Turkish courgettes
although blood oranges have a short season
Hassan tells me as I add olives, yogurt and mint
to my bulky basket
and return home where I hear for the first time
about something in China
which may have started in a wet market
or perhaps a lab
a zoonotic disease escaping into the air droplets
which might travel
calamity someone says and that word
calamity
pierces like a blade
as the news starts to come in thicker and faster
Covid – vide, French for empty
live images leaving me black and empty
streaming through our screen
images of dying people and harried doctors
cities closing down
far away then closer as the weeks roll by
You have no idea
and politicians join the doctors and the scientists who predict a pandemic – words of ice
pandemos: relating to all people
those droplets travel
choose their victims randomly
cruelly, insidiously
a ghostly invasion
the revenge of nature on man
‘it was bound to happen one day
we deserve it for the way we have treated this planet’
yes but that does not mean we thought it would happen
in our time
because this is what we fear most
in our time
we confide to each other
and hold our glasses of Malbec wine
with trembling hands
our fingers interlacing

Here.
Come here.

What I know
about the world as it was
last week
last month
when everything ran its course as we knew it
stumbling upon difficulties
along the way
as one does
small stumbles some
with longer lasting consequences than others
but nevertheless
we ploughed on
and made plans
for tomorrow
for summer September and beyond
not understanding that the cloud was gathering
or perhaps we did but chose to pretend
it wasn’t
(you have no idea)
even when those faces hidden behind surgical masks
those desperate voices
those pleas for help
travelled through cyberspace and reached us
inside the comfort of our living rooms
the comfort of our lives
the comfort of love
of what we took for granted
the sudden urge to connect and cherish those we care about
even distant names or brief encounters
suddenly appearing on our screens
‘how are you?’
barriers dissolving as the small things that once mattered
no longer do
at least not as they used to
and probably won’t again
in the same way.

What I know
about lockdowns
is nothing
a word rarely used in my everyday vocabulary
a word of emergency and immediate action
a door slamming
between borders
as it has
Wuhan first
then Italy
where people now sing on balconies
from Naples to Rome to Madrid
torches are lit
at 9:00pm
hope rising beyond the wrought iron ledges
overlooking the empty streets
hope melding into arpeggios and crescendos
people clapping from above
confined at home
in lockdown capitals
where my sister teaches her boys at home
their desks like those at school
so that like all the children in the world
they can continue to believe that the only difference to their lives
is geographical
because routine has broken down temporarily
like accident damage we need to repair
And we will of course repair it of course we will
we say without imparting
the whole truth
the knowledge
the panic
the sleepless nights
the fear of being in the vicinity of someone who may
or may not have the disease
inside now outside
the layer of dread regular words now conjure –

wash hands-wash hands no touching- no kissing, protection,
happy birthday twice, hand sanitizer, fever, tomorrow, fever,
safe, breathing, plans, metal, streets, restaurants, fever, crowds, lungs, theatres, planes
trains, ferries, fever, appointments, meetings, two meters apart, proximity, lungs,
confinement, outside, breath

keep Away

please

keep

Away

 


3

Nature is not interrupted
in my garden
where blackbirds are nesting
and the cherry blossom is in full bloom
as it is outside
in the streets around us
everywhere bursts of pink
and white
blessing the air
petals eternal
for a few days
only.

What I know now
I will not know when we emerge
into a different light
a cleaner sky
a slower world
from the one we entered
thousands of days ago
when our toddler faces beamed at the smallest sights and touch
our mother
extending a hand for comfort
all will be well
she hushed
all will be well
words she can no longer utter
words I miss
I miss my mother
but we are the comforters now.

Here is the river
clear like glass
rippling between sun and stone
glistening like the dress I wore a month ago
at a party
we stood outside in the rain and smoked cigarettes
and drank too much wine and a man began to recite a poem
then forgot the words and laughed
as we all did
someone turned the music up
and we went inside and began to dance
and dance
just like the dolphins who have now returned
to the empty lagoons of Venice
where they fly high above the water
nature reclaiming its rightful place
leaping.

 

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