Read time: 11 mins

Cross Words in Lockdown


by Olive Senior
6 August 2020

15 June 2020

It’s gone. The time. Some three months of it in self-isolation so far. Not spent learning something useful like half the world it seems, not baking bread, not listening to symphonies nor strolling through virtual museums and art galleries. Not playing games. The whole world offered up on a screen and I’m in rejection mode. Rigorously avoiding it all. Avoiding overload.

I don’t know how useful or useless I’ve been. Writing and crossing out words is how I’ve been spending my time. How I always spend time. My pendemic (bad puns no doubt a sign that I desperately need company).

And what about those cross words? O that’s not me. Crosswords. That’s what’re strewn about my apartment on top of every possible space. To be precise, the page from the Guardian Weekly that contains two crosswords. The easy one I can quickly knock off. The cryptic crossword never. I’ve been doing this for years. I don’t care that I have never completely solved one. I never seek the answers the following week. I’m interested in the framing of the clues and my own challenge to correctly fill in the answer. What I like is the exercise in probability, like gambling, but cheaper than a lottery ticket.

I have so many crosswords ongoing that as I move from room to room I’ll pick one up – any half-finished one – and try to solve a clue while I’m stirring the soup or lying in bed, or sitting at my computer trying not to do any work. Okay. So I am simply passing time as I pick up a yellow self-sharpening pencil with eraser, one of many that are scattered (or hiding) everywhere. No other instrument worthy of the challenge will do.
But crosswords are merely brain-teasers. They are never enough.

After we were told to self-isolate, my plans on hold, my life upended, I seethed for a while, worse than cross, in my downtown Toronto apartment. Greyness inside, the view outside of unending winter. I was totally unable to concentrate on anything though I did have things to do. After two weeks, I gave myself The Talk: what I needed was a project, something that would engage me, allow me to escape the present condition and focus on something else, a strategy I have used throughout my life to get me through the hard times mentally. Which is how all of my books have come to be written.

I was spending time every morning, as I have always done, engaging in my preferred mode of media consumption – scanning a number of newspapers to keep on top of what is happening in the world. Online, most mornings, I read two Canadian newspapers, two Jamaican, one in the UK and occasional ones in the USA or articles brought to my attention on Twitter. I read headlines and plunge deeper into articles on blogs and in journals that I want to pursue, sharing some on Twitter and Facebook.

I was struck by the new language that this pandemic was throwing up, including the word ‘pandemic’. I started to note down new words or old words repurposed. . . . coronavirus, hand sanitizer, ICU, lockdown, panic buying, physical distancing, quarantine. . . I asked friends to share and soon I had a glossary of hundreds of words. I thought, what am I supposed to do with this? I decided that I would write a brief poem utilising these words, one for each letter of the alphabet. This gave me the focus I desired and in no time at all I had written quite a few, in no particular order, simply in response to whatever the word or phrase evoked.

I created a template and called the project Pandemic Poems and started sharing them on Twitter and Facebook. I felt a sense of urgency, that this was something that would be here and gone in a moment, so I needed to post a poem a day, having no idea how greatly this ambition would stretch me. At time of writing, I have posted over 40. Where will it end? I do not know. I tell everyone who asks that it will end when I run out of steam, because the virus and the disjunction in our lives seem here to stay.

The first poems were obvious ones, reflecting the words then current – ‘F for Flattening (the Curve)’ was the first, followed by ‘Mask’, ‘Social Distancing’, ‘Hand’, ‘Quarantine’. I wanted not simply to record but to interrogate what was happening and my response to it, to use poetry the way it can function at its utilitarian best: offering ways of seeing, of examining, of challenging complacency, and of contextualising the current situation within broader life considerations. So yes, sometimes I do a bit of hectoring, as in ‘N for Normal’. And I sometimes insert a bit of dating or identification to pin down a moment that can be so easily forgotten. There isn’t much space for lyricism here, or humour, but I do try. The responses I get – for now – suggest that I am hitting the right notes with readers.

I am surprised at what I am doing because I normally spend a huge amount of time thinking about, writing, and then editing everything that I write before sending it into the world, so this speed of composing, followed by a click of Send and then almost immediate response is something new for me. I am less concerned with literary values or aesthetics than I am with memorializing the historic moment that I am living through. I want to capture the zeitgeist, literally, ‘the spirit of the time’.

I thought this was simply going to be an exercise about COVID-19 and its impact. That once I had covered all the letters of the alphabet I would end it. But, I was to discover, one never runs out of words though one can run out of breath. For suddenly in the midst of a pandemic, there is this irruption into the narrative, a panic, if you will, a shortness of breath.

With three words ‘I can’t breathe’ spoken over and over by a man held down by a policeman kneeling on his neck, the tone of everything changed. George Floyd’s last words were more than an ominous conjunction of a disease that took one’s breath away and the end game of a breath-taking sickness – racial hatred – deeply rooted in history. It could be viewed as synchronicity, as Jung described it, ‘the unexpected parallelism between psychic and physical events’. On reading the text of George Floyd’s last words, I didn’t even think about it, I immediately wrote and posted the poem ‘B for Breathe’. (It is number 28 of Pandemic Poems and has since been included in the CBC Books Transmission series). As the world convulsed in the days and weeks following, I followed this up with ‘I for Invasive Species’, ‘V for Vaccine’, ‘K for Knee’ to further explore the connexion between ongoing medical trauma and current events that was exposing endemic racism and its impact on health and the need to affirm Black Lives Matter. The irruption, the symbolic materialization of ‘I can’t breathe’ blew holes through the social fabric to reveal a hyperventilation of crying, confessing, bended knees, tossed statues and in response, the palpable fear, hypocrisy and deepening entrenchment of the old order.

The poems forced me to think about consequences; the demonstrations have made me focus on the moment, reinforcing the notion that I am living in history. This has always been my approach anyway, seeing history not simply as a record of the past but as an infolding into the continuous present. We are simultaneously witnessing, mourning and moralising.

All of this has been playing out on the world’s stage virtually, but not in my living room. The events of the weeks following the George Floyd protests around the world have made me even more aware than ever how strictly linear I am, print focussed, not really engaged in the Newtonian field of simultaneous engagement as I imagined myself to be. I am not part of that global village that Marshall McLuhan predicted the electronic (and now digital) age would herald, where we consume the message arriving by so many different media. For sanity’s sake and by preference, I impose limits, blockade myself into squares.

In self-quarantine, I find myself unable to watch moving images – television or film, I tend to reject Facetime phone calls, I don’t participate in Zoom events. Which does not mean I am zoning out or living a hermit’s life. Just living life differently. I like to know what is going on and I read in depth those stories that interest me and I read other postings on Facebook and Twitter though I limit my time on both. But when the world is blazing and everyone is taking a knee, I don’t want to see the moving images over and over again as they play across a screen, to hear the same words repeated tirelessly, to abide the complacency and the clichés from talking heads.

I like to focus on still shots, one picture that I can freeze and interrogate over and over. I need fixed images so I can interpret, contextualise, question. I want to simplify the message so I can fully comprehend it. I interpret the world through language, one word at a time. Moving between words enables me to create my own mental images.

Yet, I cannot ignore the message today which is about involvement, the whole world in furious action. I feel that at this time of crisis I should be doing something meaningful. I try not to be overwhelmed, I can only read people’s pain and shake my head in identification or understanding. But I don’t see my role as marching on the frontlines or manning the barricades or being confessional, for that would sell me as inauthentic. What I can contribute to the discourse is lived experience filtered through a poet’s perspective. Language is my only tool. Perhaps saying this diminishes me in some people’s eyes. Yet the deeds we perform are often shaped by words. Some not fully conscious but rising subliminally from the depths of our being to be expressed, for instance, in the punishment of the black body. Cross words leading to gross actions. The unsaid is silence. Black Lives Matter is something said that shouldn’t need to be said. But it has opened worlds of action in its saying. Who knew that words could unleash so much power?

But back to lockdown in my own city where there is some slight easing of restrictions and summer weather at last. Conscious that I am in the vulnerable demographic for COVID-19, and anxious about leaving the security of my apartment, I still stay mainly at home. I do go for walks though, and where I live in the city affords me a lot of choice.

Like the black and white squares in the crossword puzzle, I embody contrast: my own mixed racial identity, my rural and urban upbringing, and now life in two separate countries – Jamaica and Canada. I don’t see this as problematic, I can switch from one to the other, in my head, in my imagination, and when travel is an option, in actuality, in four hours’ flying time. I know I am greedy in wanting to inhabit totally different spaces from time to time. I want wilderness and I want the city. Sometimes I have both:a newly created wild park near where I live offers wilderness in the heart of a city, while skyscrapers in the distance are geometric substitutes for mountains.

I want order and I don’t mind occasional anarchy when the world needs shaking up. The two worlds of Canada and Jamaica are different but important in providing me with equilibrium, with a global perspective. Which is how I have tried to interpret this moment in the Pandemic Poems, the historic moment which has more than anything revealed the increasing gap between rich and poor individuals as well as nations, expressed, for instance, in the disproportionate toll of death from COVID-19 on people of colour.

I said that I didn’t follow moving images, but I lied. I went along on some day trips offered on Jamaican website Cockpit Country Warriors, for Cockpit Country is the place in Jamaica where I was born and which is under threat from bauxite mining. It is a unique terrain of Karst topography – green-clad rounded hillocks and deep valleys carved in limestone. Beneath it sits huge reserves of underground water. This is a longstanding site of resistance, the country where Maroons fought for several hundred years against the British colonizers. I vicariously went on the walks and bus rides for several days through the Cockpit Country, to places I have known as a child, along narrow, winding roads and rolling hills, to the banks of pristine rivers and waterfalls, through a land of energetic people, rooted and self-sufficient, proud of ancestry, far away from the centre, but also trying to ensure that land and livelihood are not despoiled. As in the streets of capital cities, the warrior spirit here is also alive, thriving amidst nature both cultivated and untamed, in what is a potential World Heritage site, unique home to an enormous number of plants, birds and animals found nowhere else.

These refreshing virtual rides were also linear, on winding country roads with high banks and thrusting vegetation, sometimes too narrow for more than one vehicle. In my childhood, some of these roads were tracks so narrow one was forced to walk single file. And now in our cities, despite our propensity for multimedia expression and consumption, for expansive appetites, linear is also shaping our lives. In our current condition, with social distancing, here on city sidewalks, we too are forced to walk single file. One step at a time. Into an unknown future. With blank spaces waiting to be filled in.

In my Pandemic Poems, the letter X was represented by ‘X for X-road’ which is not a word in the pandemic glossary. No matter, the crossroad is always there, the place of power and possibilities and the place we stand now. Waiting. We are at a crossroad in human history with people responding in many ways, but like all revolutionary moments this one has us locked in, locked down, or locked out. There is always a deity that commands the crossroad. An intelligence for us to wrestle with, whether the icon we have chosen to uphold is a religious cross, a national cross or a burning cross.

While in this posture of waiting – like everyone else – I’ll end by referring back to Pandemic Poems. I have almost completed my objective of writing a poem for each letter of the alphabet. Some popular letters like C or S have acquired several poems. I just checked and found that only one letter is now missing: the letter J. I haven’t written it yet but there is only one word that keeps leaping out at me from the posters, chanted along with the upraised fists and uplifted voices, the most challenging word of our time: Justice.

Illustration by Alexis Baydoun

About the Author

Olive Senior

Olive Senior is the prizewinning author of 18 books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and children’s literature. Her work is taught internationally and has been widely translated. She is a winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, among others, and has been shortlisted for Canada’s Governor-General’s award for poetry. A […]