Gita Ralleigh reviews Arrival at Elsewhere (London: Against the Grain Poetry Press, 2021) curated by Carl Griffin
Arrival at Elsewhere is a book-length collaborative poem compiled from work written during the first few months of lockdown. Poets from around the world contributed more than 400 pages of words which have been distilled into a book of around 90 pages.
Carl Griffin, the editor, has managed the difficult feat of turning this assemblage of voices into a single poem, albeit one representing a multiplicity of consciousness. In his introduction, Griffin states that he wanted to focus on ‘the emotions brought about by the virus, rather than […] the physical changes, the social distancing, the rainbows in windows, the clapping for nurses’ (Griffin 2020: vii). Although a plethora of other poetry anthologies have been produced during the pandemic (Bucknall, 2020) some of which include the voices of health and other key workers, this collaborative endeavour brings disparate experiences of the pandemic together in one long poem, making it (as far as I’m aware) unique. Some work has been transcribed in longer segments, recognisable to those familiar with the style of particular poets (Yusef Komunyakaa, George Szirtes) but most pieces are fragmented and have been rearranged or even rewritten in order to be assembled into the larger work.
Looking back at the pandemic’s early stages now seems almost nostalgic. For many of us, the streets had emptied of cars, birdsong filled the air, Italians sang from their balconies and people found time to bake and garden. But however untroubled their domestic idyll, the realities of death and dying intruded into many people’s lives as never before, with a resulting rise in anxiety and stress.
Readers sought out poetry for comfort: visits to the U.S. website poets.org went up thirty percent during the pandemic (Verma, 2021). The poem, Everything is Going to be Alright by the Irish poet Derek Mahon–with its final, reassuring line echoing the title–was widely shared on social media after it was read on Ireland’s evening news at the end of March 2020 and again when Mahon died in October of the same year (Howley, 2020). Poetry, with its alchemic concentration of emotions into concise language, is an art widely held to provide solace, even catharsis–witness its appearance at weddings and funerals. In recent years, a number of anthologies, websites and individuals have advocated poetry ‘on prescription’ for a range of mental health conditions and general dissatisfactions of modern life (Brody, 2021).
Listening to poetry has been linked with emotional arousal, similar to effects demonstrated when listening to music (Wassiliwizky et al. 2017: 1229). The question of whether poetry is an effective mode of treatment remains unresolved, but the circumstances of the pandemic have led to many therapeutic poetry related interventions targeted at the bereaved, at survivors of illness and at health care professionals–charged with treating the sick but provided with inadequate protective equipment and at greater risk of dying themselves.
The lack of fiction and poetry from our last comparable global pandemic–the great influenza of 1918-19–is sometimes attributed to its losses having been overshadowed by the violent horrors of the First World War, with which it overlapped (Outka, 2021). Though an absence of related literature cannot be said to be a feature of the Covid-19 pandemic, some of the difficulties in grasping the event are common to both–the ‘spectral trauma’ Outka refers to when she discusses the influenza virus’s ‘airborne, invisible quality […] as well as the way it silently infused itself into bodies and communities.’ (Outka, 2021, Ch. 1).
Even more than in the 1918 influenza pandemic, the deaths of Covid-19 took place behind the closed doors of hospital wards, while daily life, with the closure of public and commercial spaces and traffic-deserted streets took on a ghostly quality. The voices in Arrival at Elsewhere are not those of key workers who continued in their usual routines; instead the first pages take us through daily rituals of walks through public spaces, abandoned and sometimes reclaimed by nature and into the private sanctity of homes and gardens. The book’s title is taken from lines by Phillip Gross which encapsulate the dreamlike experience of the unnaturally warm spring of 2020 in England:
Spring is beginning.
As if it had been waiting for us
to be somewhere else…
Only, somewhere else, a place
called Elsewhere has turned up to stay (Griffin 2020:p.5-6)
The speaker’s voice continues, shifting and dislocated, through routines of dailiness, with themes of the pastoral remaining to the fore, and a renewed appreciation for the natural world:
Today I stopped to look at you
beautiful world I cannot touch,
your paths cordoned off beyond this path, (p.4)
In the first five pages, the words dead or death appear several times, closely followed by poverty and homelessness: words that circulated and stalked us through the media and internet. Descriptions of the natural world here take on a symbolism borne of older fears: a dragonfly with ‘jet-black military markings’ (p.8) a wagtail in flight like ‘a tiny fighter jet’ (p.17) and ‘a carrion crow, like a beaked plague-doctor’ (p. 20).
This focus on the detail of the natural world is not mere distraction and respite from the encroaching pandemic but comes with its own ‘anxious spreading of boughs’ (p.47). ‘We hear these omens clearly now/with the cars gone, traffic lulled’ (p.49) begins one passage. We are reminded it is possible that as mourning for victims of the 1918 pandemic was absorbed into collective grief for those of the First World War, the Covid-19 pandemic itself may be subsumed into the climate crisis, with its catastrophic potential for death and destruction.
As the book-length poem progresses, ongoing effects of the pandemic surface: life lived on screens, sleep disturbance and the effects of prolonged isolation:
My shadow follows me,
reminding me always of two things–
my loneliness and my loneliness. (p.7)
The possible fate of victims of domestic abuse were little considered in government’s approach to the enforced lockdowns and this is alluded to powerfully in the passage beginning:
In this doll’s house–
its wallpaper and tiny carved beds–
I slam the timber door,
and it loosens from its hinges. (p.65)
As the pandemic continues, encroaching illness makes itself felt: the mere ‘presence of the plague/ affects how I experience/being in my body’ (p.81) and the virus’s particular physical effects on the lungs are mirrored in nature:
Oxygen is rationed.
A ceanothus tree blooms
outside the doctor’s surgery.
My cyanosed fingers click
to a close-up clustered
with blue flowers– (p.84)
Outka’s book on the literary legacies of the 1918 flu discusses traces of the pandemic in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, also a book-length poem. Here she finds scenes of dead bodies, tolling bells and an atmosphere of enervated ‘living death’ comparable to post-viral syndromes, remarking of the passage where a crowd of the dead flows across London Bridge, ‘the state of living death infuses the crowd and the landscape’(Outka 2021, Ch. 5). In Arrival At Elsewhere too, towards the close of the poem, the speaker states:
I am immersed
in the crowd of the living
and the dead. They are all here.
I know their faces. (p.85)
Griffin’s use of the long collaborative poem to pin down a crisis, ‘too close and wide to see–only to see through,’ (p.12) captures the roving and shifting eye of multiple speakers in a remarkable attempt to create a multivocal lyric form. This technique manages to retain the individuality of poetic voices, yet unites them in a chorus where each voice is shaped by others, allowing readers to share in this urgent and necessary act of poetic communality.
Gita Ralleigh is a writer and NHS consultant born to Indian immigrant parents in London. She has been published by Wasafiri, Bellevue Literary Review, The Emma Press, Magma Poetry and The Rialto. She teaches creative writing to science undergraduates and has an MSc in Medical Humanities. Her debut poetry collection A Terrible Thing was published by Bad Betty Press in 2020. You can find her on Twitter @storyvilled.
Brody, Jane E. 2021. When the Doctor Prescribes Poetry. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/12/well/mind/national-poetry-month-coronavirus.html?referringSource=articleShare
Bucknall, Clare. 2020. What Do We Want from Poetry in Times of Crisis? https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-do-we-want-from-poetry-in-times-of-crisis
Eliot. T.S. 2002 (1st ed. 1922).The Wasteland and Other Poems. London: Faber and Faber.
Griffin, Carl (ed.). 2020 Arrival at Elsewhere, Against the Grain Press.
Howley, Ellen. 2020. Why are we turning to poetry in the middle of a pandemic? https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2020/0331/1127523-poetry-pandemic-coronavirus/
Outka, Elizabeth. 2021. Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature. New York, Columbia University Press.
Verma, Jevika. 2021. Poetry Provides Comfort — Through The Pandemic And Beyond. https://www.npr.org/2021/04/27/991117892/how-poetry-has-helped-to-guide-people-during-the-pandemic
Wassiliwizky, Eugen, Stefan Koelsch, Valentin Wagner, Thomas Jacobsen, and Winfried Menninghaus, 2017. The emotional power of poetry: neural circuitry, psychophysiology and compositional principles. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12(8): 1229–1240.