After trauma, we often try to forget, to pretend that everything has returned to normal. Unfortunately, even though we have removed our facemasks, the fact is that COVID’s aftermath has left us different – the world, too, has changed.
Prize-winning poet Salimah Valiani’s fine new chapbook, Love Pandemic, reminds us of what lockdown was like and, gently, lovingly, warns us with regard to the future. In fifteen short poems, she refuses to let the past years go unheeded or permit us to selfishly continue as we did before, fighting between peoples and destroying the planet.
The chapbook’s title, Love Pandemic, appears to be a noun.
But in the title poem Valiani coins it as a verb, hoping we can all ‘make love pandemic’ in word and act. In this title poem, she realizes that the ‘heart [can] spill all colours’, which is her way of believing that we can love all people, in many ways. There is optimism at the heart of this chapbook, and it’s worth recalling that the very word ‘pandemic’ comes from pan=all and demos=people. This is book about love, but not merely romantic love – rather, love in all its guises from care for the dying to love for the planet and its ‘non-human life’ as she puts it in another poem, ‘Switch’. If COVID made ‘Zoom’ a verb, then why can’t Valiani make ‘pandemic’ a verb, prefixed by that glorious word, ‘love’?
The colours spilt by the heart in the poem ‘Love Pandemic’ cleverly seep across this entire collection. Indeed, the primary image in this chapbook is colour. Most poems feature this motif.
For instance, the poem ‘Inward’, which restricts itself to the description of a room based merely on the colours it contains, offers us a ‘tangerine green sunflower’, ‘magenta sky cubes’, and so on. It’s tempting to read this as the consequence of a locked-down society where we all, atomized into our own homes, had excessive time to itemize every single detail of our rooms. It is a poem born of isolation.
But Valiani refuses to simply retreat during COVID into her self, or into bourgeois property. Rather, many poems, such as ‘Outward’, travel out beyond into the wider world, and seem based upon responsible lockdown-period reading. ‘Outward’ jumps the globe – as poems in Valiani’s previous collections do – and in just four lines encompasses the environmental degradation of our planet. Again, there is colour as she mentions: coastal erosion in Ivory Coast; the drought-occasioned blue-green algal deaths of hundreds of elephants in Botswana; the ‘snow-green’ algae of Antarctica, caused by rising temperatures. Colours here link us in a global ecological death as much as COVID similarly linked us. The neologism ‘snow-green’ is of course a grotesque reworking of the classical ‘snow-white’, and shocks us into realizing what we’re doing to our planet. Fortunately, Valiani’s other neologism, ‘love pandemic’ as a verb, provides some hope.
But Valiani is realistic – hope doesn’t come easily, and there is death and the sadness of loss. Loved ones die of COVID with ‘no collective goodbye’ as an elderly relative’s family is spread in the diaspora, meaning that during lockdown travel restrictions they could not travel to mourn together. Valiani encapsulates this cruelty – these harsh conditions – with just one, stand-alone word, ‘asperity’ (harshness), a word as movingly isolated on the page as the relative was in death. Elsewhere in this same poem, ‘for dadima’, colours again feature: yellow and red refrain, and by the end of the poem it’s clear that the yellow is of the relative’s ‘urine’ and her ‘blood’. Death and illness are grotesque. As Valiani is a public health expert as well as a fine poet, she will be aware of the realities of pandemics, of mass death.
And Valiani has a learned fury and exasperation regarding the isolation rules that nations laid down during COVID. In one poem she alludes to the 11th-century al-Aba’iniya, the Muslim ‘father of modern medicine’, who basically invented quarantine and recommended a 40-day isolation period. Valiani cuttingly adds, ‘not even 30 [days] in the 21st [century]’. As a public health expert, she is incredulous; as a poet, she is exasperated by the lack of human compassion of so short a period, which she implies elsewhere might be due to the cruelty of a modern-day capitalism that requires workers to be productive.
The final poem in Love Pandemic, ‘erosion’, returns to the erosion hinted at in Ivory Coast, but now turns that erosion into a more personal sense of loss, of the washing away of loved ones. In this poem, Valiani seems to be saying goodbye to a friend during the pandemic, uncertain as we all were of whether she’d meet that friend again. It begins with ‘if we don’t meet again’… It then progresses through a series of couplets that articulate what Valiani will remember of the friend, and what the friend should remember of her. For instance: ‘remember my smile/ I will remember your tight rocking hug’.
When the last word in your collection is ‘hug’, an embrace even during absence and possible death, you know that you have created a chapbook full of love from start to finish. Indeed, perhaps this is how the world will be saved: with love, with heart, with colour…
During a COVID when our worst nightmares were of white wards filled with white-clad nurses, and when Trump asked us to bleach our very selves, the colour that seeps through Love Pandemic in effect says, ‘You may throw the worst at us all, but we will glow, love and – if we do love – survive’!
In my favourite couplet in Love Pandemic, Valiani laments how young black South Africans dying in various ways are implicitly told by the State: ‘THIS IS THE LAND YOU CAN HAVE/ AND THIS IS WHEN YOU CAN HAVE IT’. That is, when dead, as a tiny grave. Valiani instead wants us to all share the world now, and believes that the trauma of COVID should spur us into shaping a better future.