Quarantine, Michèle Roberts

Melos Press, 2020    £5.00

The first shocks of enclosure

It is hard to know how to react to poems written about the first Covid Lockdown while sitting in self-isolation during Lockdown #3. I have mixed feelings, though none of them are about the quality of the poems. Michèle Roberts writes wonderfully well.

Each of the seven poems in this short pamphlet tackles some aspect of our shared experience of the springtime lockdown. Then we had the consolation of flowers, insects, gardens. There was colour and gossip between neighbours, even as we were adjusting to the shock of being restricted.

In ‘Enclosure’, we encounter the feeling that we’re being monitored, even in our homes:

Bees dive at water drops on pea
shoots, drown
out the drone
of helicopters
police buzzy as flies
swivelling, spying.

In ‘No Visitors Allowed’ we find the disturbing dreams that so many reported, as people familiar to the poet (a surgeon, her dentist) are transformed into sometimes shockingly carnal fodder in night-time visitations.

The desire to break free is examined in a delightful poem about slugs, ‘Anthropomorphic’:

Currently I’m kept back
by barricades: government ads
bawling Stay at Home.
If I were a slug
I’d chomp chomp chomp my way out.

Two poems consider how Lockdown provoked memories of illness or restriction in childhood. In ‘Quarantine’, the poet recalls being ‘boxed in a bedroom’ with scarlet fever. In ‘Conventual’ she considers a former teacher, Sister Immaculata, and the nun’s restricted life.

The escape, for a writer, is the imagination. Roberts can free Sister Immaculata to ‘flap away’ to another type of life. The poet can call forth words to describe the beauty of a blooming clematis in ‘Adjectival’.

Luminous blue soaks into me.
Cordial. Medicinal. Blue
with a kick in it.

I admire these poems, but in the colourlessness and cold of Lockdown #3, with a rising daily death toll, that first Lockdown seems almost paradisal. Imagination and creativity can still rescue us, but the poems we see about this new enclosure may look more bleak.

Heidi Beck