By Degrees, David Tait
Smith/Doorstop, 2020 £6.50
Let’s get political
It’s difficult to write well about contemporary events, so those who manage it deserve boundless admiration. This is the second pamphlet concerning Coronavirus and its impact that I’ve reviewed within the space of three months. Like the other, By Degrees tackles that impact head-on, but there the similarity ends.
In ‘The Virus at My Window’, the passage of an ambulance becomes an embodiment of Covid itself:
It’s heading this way, and everyone on the street
stops to watch it. It’s passing, it isn’t slowing down.
The people on the street breathe, then keep walking.
A tour-de-force, ‘The Pitch Invasion’, uses the statistics of Covid deaths in England to make the sort of comparison beloved of popular-science journalists — ‘If thirty more people were to die from this / the deaths could fill the Vitality Stadium, / the home of Bournemouth FC’. Here, the stadium’s name takes on a terrible irony, and then pushes that possibility into macabre, yet darkly-comic territory:
The newly dead could be brought in as stewards.
Mike Dean could volunteer as referee.
The poet goes on to examine the politics surrounding the pandemic, both local and far flung. Given that he lives and teaches in Shanghai, this is all the more acute.
‘Sonnet’ addresses Chinese state censorship in a matter-of-fact way, as if it’s wholly expected. ‘The Censors’ and, especially, ‘Wuxi’, with its direct address, also engage with this unavoidable theme: ‘Soon it will be as if there were no deaths at all / and this poem, too, will disappear.’
Tait reserves particular anger and scorn for the UK Government and its leader. ‘Get Well Soon, Prime Minister’ deploys a wry, unflinching tone, in which Johnson’s past transgressions and character flaws are paraded with a stylistically brilliant and bitter repetition of his job title:
Prime Minister, we need you to take back control.
Prime Minister, we need you back to compare Muslims
to letterboxes again, you do make us laugh Prime Minister,
please host next week’s Have I Got News for You.
Tait’s poems are Premier League quality.