Do You Know How Kind I Am?, Kathleen BellThe jacket features grey paving stones, with slightly faded white paint that has stamped the message KEEP 3M APART. This appears twice, first upside down, then the right way round. At the top, above the white paint, the title stretches from left to right, in fairly small black lower case with each word beginning with a capital letter. The author's name, in the same font but slightly smaller is centred towards the foot of the jacket, below the white paint warning.

Leafe Press, 2021     £5.00

The way we live now

Poetry pamphlets, being small and quick to publish, respond well to changing times. ‘Changing times’ — that phrase hardly does justice to the rapid cartwheels of the past two years of pandemic and the wider global situation.

Kathleen Bell’s pamphlet is a sequence of twenty poems written during the pandemic’s first year. They are observations — visual and aural — catching the texture of learning to live in new ways. In line with the sudden sameness of days, they are numbered, with no intrusive titles. Days which were beginning to feel indistinguishable are made individual in their small differences, while the poems quietly vary in shape and length. The sequence opens —

Out there’s a woman, driving a bus.
Her only cargo is cloth, metal and air
and at night, light.

Remember? We observed life through our windows, only venturing out with caution, and buses ran only for key workers. Seeing a bus without passengers was a sharp reminder of what we weren’t free to do. The casual act of hopping on a bus? Being spontaneous? Forget it.

There’s the plain mask,
the paisley-patterned,
the clearly home-made
from T-shirt or tea-towel

Remember? Who’d have thought a government website would give craft advice on how to make your own mask, mindful of those with neither sewing skill nor elastic and thread to hand.

Other voices: Bell is a good eavesdropper with a keen ear for self-justifying hypocrisy. A scrap of conversation, perhaps caught in the rapid dash to a shop when there was no queue (remember?) becomes a monologue —

No-one’s had it — not that I know —
no-one that matters. Well, there’s my cleaner,
her father too, but they were overweight —
almost obese, they could have joined a gym

Even when Bell identifies a bonus in lockdown — ‘I learnt to name/ cocksfoot/ rye grass/ meadow fescue’ — she can’t ignore how society is becoming bleaker. Three four-line stanzas (left justified) about her personal gains are balanced against three stanzas (right justified) pointing to food banks, street sleepers, refugee boats.

This pamphlet bears witness — something that poems like these do very well.

D A Prince