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  • Vahni Capildeo, poet-in-residence

You Can Look At All Sorts Of Things: Plague Journal, May 2020

Updated: May 28

Sunlight through metal louvres bars this room with heat. I used to lock myself in here for safety, as a child and as a teenager, before leaving home at the age of eighteen, intending to return only for short visits. There is a lockable door. The key has been lost for years. This piece of prose arrives aerated by the east-facing garden, the dawn chorus, and prevailing winds over Port of Spain. Sounds which are far from the house are brought closer than sounds from within the house. Forest fires blow down ash from the hills; drought unpetals the bougainvillea; I sweep the garage around the car that doesn’t go out. The airport remains shut.

A visit officially finished a month and a half ago has transformed into a version of domesticity. At least, it’s recognizable as domesticity, though unlike the domesticity known in childhood. I keep explaining this, here and there. People repeatedly read each other and write to each other. Repetition becomes normalized as one of distance’s dynamics: hello, hello my friend, the isle is full, full, full of noises. This was, this is my room; if you visited, you wouldn’t see this room, we’d be in another room, the living room, a public room. Welcome into the inside-out intimacy of lockdown home.

The blessed normality of taking each other for granted, forgetting to visit, fitting plans in between other plans—of sharing in being the comfortably wishy-washy main fabric of a communal carpet, not alert to each other’s crying-out-loud thread of scarlet—begs quietly to be dreamed again. Is there some irony to being locked down here with my mother, my father’s ghost, and the residual patterns of my older brother, after twenty-nine years of living far away from Trinidad, by choice?

Irony doesn’t cut it. Comparatively speaking, I’m in a state of luxury: I feel looked-after. As I’ve not tired of saying via numerous channels, the Prime Minister in Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Keith Rowley, is a geologist, qualified from the University of the West Indies. I have visited the research unit that deals with disaster preparedness, to attend one of their public education talks, and again to interview seismologists after some earthquakes that were more noticeable than usual in this rippling, active zone of the southern Caribbean. Dr Rowley knows his stuff; he was formed for such a time as this. He instituted strict lockdown, while refusing to declare a state of emergency. Free testing is available for all. Mask-wearing is compulsory.

One fear on this smaller island is death by tourism if we re-open under pressure from the global north (I’m writing this in the Americas). Finally, it seems to be contained—hence my state of comparative psychological luxury. My other, adoptive country is the UK, in a state of apparent abandonment to chaos and an effective cull of the vulnerable.

Lockdown doesn’t feel like lockdown. I have less sense of distancing than of shamed, terrified witness that only hopes to rise into solidarity, like a new swimmer raising their eardrumming head, looking through droplet-confused eyes, hoping the edge of the pool would be closer. My British friends are stripped down to their individual vulnerabilities. One tells me about finding no bread or flour to buy, not even expensive, specialist bread or chestnut flour from online retailers. In her city, better-off people bought multiple freezers and cleared the shelves of goods, hoarding from early on. Going to the shops was for socioeconomic losers. Another friend alternately posts wildflowers, and updates on not getting the medical treatment that keeps her alive.

Sometimes ‘The State’ used to seem like an abstraction, or a poor puppet pulled about by conspiracy theorists. No longer. In the Time of Coronavirus, the intersection of State and individual, the way that governmental decisions have fatal or happy impact, is almost immediately visible in people’s lives. Which people, though?

Enclosure doesn’t bother me; and I’m more sorry than surprised to hear of the UK’s plight. What stupefies is the insight into other people’s ‘normal’; or is it the relentless media projection of what Normal should have been, what Normal we should fetishise, what Normal we should sacrifice to? Is this a question of who gets to talk? Or is Plague Time pushing a big trend in our dreams for ourselves and our language for ourselves? Is there a conscious manipulation, or an unconsciously manipulative drift, bullying a shape onto what the acceptable collective story of our humanity should be?

Is Normal the all-singing, bread-making, nuclear family that wants to walk in the park? Whose expression of hurt feelings at the scientific assertion that their breath might kill, if they return to their accustomed place of community worship, commands more airtime than traceable killing? Is Normal self-fashioning its future family?

In the years when the men of this household were at home, things were volatile. It would have been more unsafe to be locked in then, than to be let out now. I remember my father shouting that he would kill all of us and kill himself. He jumped under a cold shower to get out of the mood for killing his family. This isn’t unusual behaviour. You can look at transgenerational haunting and trauma-fuelled patterns of behaviour in people with histories of forced migration. Look at ‘the patriarchy’, and men’s entitlement to act out, even unto the murder of those frailer than or inconvenient to themselves. You can look at all sorts of things. Except such homes aren’t looked into.

This is a time of many plagues running together: domestic violence, poverty, illness. The intersection of State and individual, the way that governmental decisions have fatal or happy impact, continues to be both invisible and powerfully immediate on the majority of people’s lives. Coronavirus is hardly the crowning evil of our civilization. Though the airwaves, felt some ways, are newly radiant with love.

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© University of Canberra | Poetry on the Move 2020
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