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LIFE IS A MANY-COVERED THING



While I was in Trinidad, earlier in 2020, but after the plague had sprung, a friend from England caught me up with their living situation during a stricter phase of lockdown. It was good to speak with each other. No detail was too small. Although we were used to an ocean pooling between us during my family time, we were not used to feeling that if we were in the same town, we would be forbidden to see each other. Their area was badly affected. They mentioned in passing that there was a makeshift morgue on the green. Then we spoke of other things.

Since then, I see buildings as covering people, rather than containing them or being inhabited by them. I am not fond of coverings. The trend for ‘modestwear’ amongst women who have no religious or cultural understanding of modesty but have decided it would be much nicer to cover up, or something, infuriates me. It seems racist. When I caught up on reading Robin Coste Lewis’s brilliantly innovative Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems (Knopf, 2015), which shows how museum contents distort and over-write black female bodies in objects ranging from obvious to unguessable, it was not surprising. A child born in the Black Power generation in the Caribbean learns how black and brown bodies literally have been exhibited and anatomized.

I and my friends were born into the naturally immodest body shapes of the global south. If we tried to don ‘modestwear’, or the tiny vests beloved of Lipstick Spirituality Wilderness Girl as photographed for self-help articles, with her thin outspread arms, pale closed lids, and a blissful sense of personal security, it would not sit well on us. We would look as ungovernable as we are.

I love my washable masks, though. They do not feel like a covering, but like an interface. I am grateful to the hands that sewed their folded cotton.

I was cruel in 1991 to the nurse at my Oxford college, and I doubt I shall regret it. She had seen me, an overseas student from the ‘West Indies’, as in need of civilization, and used her own time to show me around shops aflutter with the faded-vomit-palette florals of what my parents called ‘frowzy’ clothing. The nurse said girls dressed like this, and I should make sure to wear knickers under thick tights, though some girls didn’t. When she asked me about living in Trinidad, I described a mud hut on the beach. She believed me. I elaborated on it to the point of absurdity, but she did not join in what should have become a joke. She became uncomfortable. She probably does not remember this. Sometimes I remember that imaginary mud hut, around which my mind circles curiously, because it did dwell there for a while. What was I doing, in that most postcolonial of moments lacking in jokiness? Was it revenge?

Her attempt to educate me in the covering of the body was strange. When had rituals surrounding dress not been part of my life? I remember my youngest aunt coming to show us her Carnival costume. She laughed in custom-made boots like flames shooting up her calves. Since forever I knew masquerade was transformation. Since forever I knew that for Trinidad’s Hindus, makeup and ornaments celebrated life’s vividness, in contrast to the unpainted white of mourning. For seven years among Convent girls, I joined in making petty infringements on a strict dress code: turning white socks down, scrunching up one side of the Cluny blue skirt so it ruched during walking. Since forever, clothing was delicate, complex, meaningful and layered.

I felt cruel and powerful, telling the nurse about that mud hut, though in fact she was the one with power, almost fatally refusing the next year to have me treated for Dengue fever because she did not believe in it. I wonder now: which are the bodies that seem convincing when people seek COVID-19 testing or treatment? No doubt the performance of credibility varies from place to place. Some people will get, some people won’t, no matter how hard they play.

Yes, my wild beach girl lie was revenge, but bigger than personal. Less than one of the famously compressed eight-week terms had been enough to make me tired of being seen as someone who had to explain themself. There were many years still to come of being told that I did not seem as if I had been to school in Trinidad, or that I had ‘done very well to get to Oxford’. What was driving my ‘joke’? Did I simply want someone, anyone to play?

Ecstasy and silliness rush back in when people start to release trauma held in the body. Sometimes I feel that just as in Christianity the individuals who make up the church comprise the body of Christ and may be thought of as wounded and perfectible, so in modernity the peoples born into the ‘Commonwealth’ comprise the body of colonialism – which is grotesque. It is as if complex PTSD could be not only transgenerational but transhistorical and transnational. In the absence of a conscious healing approach to the discomfort we store (regardless of how unknown, whitewashed, or saintly our ancestors), encounters will be marked by nervous disturbances and express themselves as fight / flight / freeze / fawn.

To address new nervousness around touch and contamination, closeness and violence, visible and invisible yet contagious difference of blood, it is crucial to remember that the traumas of the pandemic are superadded to, reacting with, and in some cases catalyzing the traumas we already carry, not you and I as person A and person B, but you and I as part of our civilization(s).

Look at our responses. Take, for example, ‘cocooning’, the self-isolation, weighting, and motionlessness craved by bodies rewired to keep scanning for, without finding, signals of safety. If, like my poor nurse, you have little idea of the ‘West Indies’, you might substitute an image of a mass of bacchanalian bodies in the streets or on beaches, while a select, clad few hit sixes at cricket. You would not suspect how shut-in a well-brought-up child can be in Trinidad and Tobago; worse than Victorian, cleaner, perhaps as beaten. You would not suspect the fear preventing well-grown, well-fed, articulate citizens from enjoying the outdoors. How many refuse to walk up a hill without a gun and/or a guide.

It is as if there is a national impulse to cocooning in Trinidad and Tobago. Is everyone on perpetual alert, guilty at some level of not belonging, or viscerally afraid of being punished or disappeared? Does this originate with the inherited mix of oppressions and hopes from the indentured, the enslaved, the missionaries, the doctors, the plantation owners, from Europe, Africa, India, West and East Asia? Did it accelerate under recent bullying from the global North decanting its toxic chemicals, trading its bad food, deporting its supposed worst criminals and ‘helping’ defend democracy against the people themselves and their eliminable intellectuals?

And then I flew into quarantine, compulsory isolation, in the UK, and found equally sinister forms of cocooning, equally compounded with all that left unresolved since imperial time. We have dragged everything up to this moment – we show it; most often, we don’t want to know. Forget about resisting the protective physical mask. Think what freedom, if we can uncover to recover…

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© University of Canberra | Poetry on the Move 2020
Poetry on the Move is a major initiative of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research in the Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra.

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We pay our respects to all Ngunnawal elders - past, present, and future - and to their continuing culture.