When COVID-19 struck the world and turned it upside down, poet Sean Arthur Joyce decided to record his impressions during the year in a series of linked poems—a kind of poetic ‘diary.’ Why poetry instead of prose? Because poetry condenses language to its most potent constituents, requiring the poet to practice the writing art with precision. Poetry at its best also allows space for intuition to render the spiritual essence of a scene—the picture within the picture, the ‘ghost in the machine’ that takes us beyond the literal. Joyce chose to base the poems on actual events, both personal and on the world stage, since the first lockdown in March 2020.
Besides the title sequence, the book contains two other sections, “Odes to Earth,” with poems celebrating Nature’s healing power, and “Songs for the Lost,” honouring loved ones lost during the first Covid year. This was consciously done so as not to overwhelm readers. “I wanted it to reflect the highly emotional journey this crisis has subjected us to during the past year,” says Joyce. “The highs of hope and the troughs of despair. By sharing our experiences we can find mutual comfort. I also believe that if you’re going to take a reader through the valley of the shadow of death, you’re under obligation to bring them back out into the light.”
Hence, after the roller coaster ride of the first year of Covid in the first section, part two—“Odes to Earth”—brings the reader back to ground by offering poems of communion with Nature. “During the era I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, the prevailing scientific view was still that there exists an unbridgeable gap between us and other creatures in Nature,” says Joyce. “But now with current biology—for example studies of animal intelligence and communication—we’re beginning to realize that gap may not be quite so insurmountable as we once thought. It’s a critical realization in a time of increasing extinctions.” His concern that we are being pushed toward an increasingly technocratic civilization alienated from Nature is thus reflected in the poems.
The final section, “Songs for the Lost,” comprises a series of elegiac poems honouring the memory of family and friends the poet “lost” to death both during 2020 and earlier. These poems thus also stand for the memory of all who lost loved ones whether due to Covid or other causes.
The poems in this volume draw from a wide array of historical and cultural sources to enrich the text, spanning 5th century BC Greek playwright Aristophanes, the 16th century Anabaptist movement, 17th century bubonic plague in London, England, 18th century Romantic poet William Blake, right on up to contemporary cultural references such as maverick songwriter Roy Harper—to mention only a few. Often a news report provided the inspiration for a poem in the title sequence. The author has provided a helpful ‘Notes on the Poems’ section at the back of the book to explain these references.
The author also designed the book, right down to the choice of a high-quality, heavyweight paper stock with a textured surface reminiscent of classic hardbound books from the pre-paperback era. This is a book that feels good in your hands. The imagery hearkens back to the medieval plagues and pandemics, notably the cover image—drawn by the author—which depicts a medieval ‘plague doctor’ mask as an analogue of today’s medical masks. The title is inspired by the story of the 1665 bubonic plague in London published in 1722 by author Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year.
By turns enraged, tender, mournful and celebratory, Diary of a Pandemic Year reminds us that we dare not lose touch with what grounds us—our connection with the Earth.
Watch for the video trailer for the book, “The Day After Covid” at the author’s website www.seanarthurjoyce.ca
Diary of a Pandemic Year, Sean Arthur Joyce, Chameleon Fire Editions 2021, paperback, 115 pages, ISBN#978-0-9952401-6-2, $20 Cdn. Order online at www.seanarthurjoyce.ca under the “publications” page.