This poem was written before the arrival of COVID-19 in the UK.
By Mary Jean Chan
The birds had their tongues tied to silver strings as they hung
mid-air in silence. I was kneeling on the wet earth, crying out.
A disembodied voice informed me that nectar was being slowly
harvested from their throats, that this was the only way. Heat
from their flailing bodies pressed my eyes into my skull. I tried
to hold myself together in the dream but could not. Once awake,
I could not feel tender. The brutality of all architecture stunned
me wherever I looked. What were we – as a species – doing?
I finally summoned the will to write Life on my to-do list but
kept postponing the task. I had been dreaming of the dying,
because I could not ignore the news from home, country not
so far from the heart. This viral uncertainty keeping me afraid
of intimacy. I did not want to touch what others had touched,
feared any public surface. Even the air was menacing, invisible
droplets omnipresent. A persistent cough soon developed, as if
to taunt me. My father, a rheumatologist, texts to say he is well,
reminds me that he went through the SARS epidemic and never
took a day off work. I have inherited this stubborn, Calvinist ethic.
Today, I return to where breath feels possible. My therapist asks:
What do you really want? I think to myself: mother’s gaze / straight gaze
/male gaze / white gaze… I am ashamed to confess that I want to
be reborn as the brother, the beloved son, the future patriarch.
I want to see this torso in a different light – beam on it a kinder
gaze as I wait for something to give. I read a poet’s words: Mostly,
we do not fail to go on living. There is fire on the streets of a city I still
love and fire in the earth’s lungs as the hour ticks on. Had I simply
imagined this intimate scene: the mother lying prostrate at the feet
of her child, begging for a miracle, or was it the other way around…
Poets & Players 2020 commission on the theme of ‘Altered Nature’