Poeticizing the Pandemic: A Grad Student’s Reflections on Living through COVID-19

Green College Staff


“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

I begin this post with an epigraph because writing about the experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to feel a little bit like T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, from which poem the above lines of dialogue are drawn.

I recently began an email to a long-time and close friend with the lamentation that this long period of isolation has begun to do odd things to my brain, illustrated by my new tendency of frequently conducting conversations with people who are not really there. While engaging in a Castaway Tom Hanks-like relationship with an imaginary friend is understandable enough given the current time which we’ve been enduring lockdown, I can’t help thinking that if I did in reality have a volleyball sitting in the corner of my unit to whom I addressed my thoughts, it might actually be less weird then simply remarking to the empty air: “I’m sorry, but I can’t accept your premise that Schwatrz’s explanation of the Amazonian figure’s reducibility to domestic femininity isn’t in some ways, essentialist.”

Looking over Eliot’s lines, I’m struck by the need they hold for not only company to assuage the nerves of the speaker, but more crucially for a reciprocation of their words and thoughts. It’s all well and good to have someone stay with you, but what if they behave like an unspeaking statue without thought or expression? This would not really be an improvement on one’s situation. By nature, my own invisible interlocutor is without any original contribution to our conversations. They can only ever say what I want them to which, while comforting in a non-confrontational sort of way, is not at all the way normal human interaction usually proceeds.

My impatience at my invisible debater’s lack of originality might explain why four different people disagreeing with me by name in a recent philosophy class left me grinning ear to ear — incidentally, a facial expression which I’m sure only irritated my detractors even further. The reason for my smile was not a toddler’s irrepressible amusement at evoking conflict, it was a feeling of long overdue normalcy. We are not supposed to agree with each other all the time and it was a genuine delight to bump up against a conversation that was so refreshingly challenging after the experience of reading and writing within the unrelieved echochamber of my own bedroom.

Another set of lines of dialogue from The Waste Land — this from the same part of the poem as my epigraph so we might assume a continuity of the same speaker(s) — I feel, accurately reflects the feeling of being locked down during a pandemic:

“What shall I do now? What shall I do?

I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street

With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?

What shall we ever do?”

Perhaps this comparison will be too obvious a one for the reader. This picture has certainly applied to me quite literally during the pandemic, when I often wonder what occupation will while away the hours of the evening and spontaneously resolve to rush forth and walk the empty streets of UBC campus — admittedly not always with my hair down; that’s simply impractical in the Vancouver climate.

However, beyond the facetious surface comparison between the speaker’s frustration at the lack of occupation leading to a mad dash towards outdoor freedom and the constant advice given by various pandemic experts to make sure you ‘stay active’, I think these lines point as well to an comparable anxiety over the future. We may have solved the simple problem of what to do this evening, but what about tomorrow? What shall we ever do? We may have found ways to stay alive in a waste land but what is left is the far greater question of how or even if that wastedness can be permanently redeemed and the oft-touted ‘return to normal’ achieved.

A partial and entirely personal solution I offer to this comes from another canonical poet. To introduce him however, I will have to commit the cardinal sin of switching my framework halfway through. I have already led you to rely on Eliot for this linguistic portrayal of the experiencing of living through a pandemic lockdown and now I propose to abandon him for John Donne. How dare I have showered you with the refuse of the Waste Land only to now yank the rug out from under your feet and toss you, along with it because it probably smells bad by now, into the washing machine of a different man’s poetry. Surely the one who got you into a mess should be the one to get you out of it. Oh well, it can’t be helped.

Perhaps you will forgive me once you realize how perfectly Donne’s famous expression “No man is an Island, entire of itself” fits the description of lockdown. This is of course the opening line and title of Donne’s 1624 book, an oft-quoted cliche that has never rang more true to me than in the last year. However I want to bring to the fore the closing lines of Donne’s poem, which have recently struck me with a greater appropriateness. Donne’s poetic proxy concludes by stating, “therefore never send to know for whom / the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The pandemic has caused many bells to be tolled and no doubt it will cause many more. Donne’s words bring to light for me a different way of looking at lockdown; not as a separation between myself and the world, but a communal sharing of the sorrow caused by the suffering endured by everyone. If we take Donne at his word, that we are all part of the same land mass, we must accept the communal responsibility and sorrow of every COVID death, every sickness, every business lost, every life disrupted or ruined. Every bell that tolls, tolls for us all. This might be saddening, but I also find it uplifting to imagine that no one individual is alone in carrying all their grief, nor all the responsibility of today’s evening walk, nor all the evenings of tomorrow.

If anyone would like to disagree with me though, I will, obviously, welcome it.

by: Jane Willsie, Department of English Language and Literature, UBC; Green College Work Learn Content Writer, 2020-21

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