Isolation, Desolation, Conversation, Restoration: A Collaborative Poem

from Emily Bednarz, Managing Editor

The following poem was constructed by over 100 writers who subscribe to The New Quarterly’s monthly e-newsletter. In May 2020, newsletter subscribers were asked to submit one line of poetry to create a crowdsourced poem of many voices. 

I really couldn’t prepare myself for the flood of verses. It was incredible to see them pouring in. Over 100 lines of poetry. Given the enthusiastic response, I made the decision to reorder the lines into a logical flow. (I also sparingly added punctuation to line breaks.) As I was copying and pasting, I took inspiration from one of the submitted lines: “Isolation, Desolation, Conversation, Restoration.” This line seemed to reflect the major topics that arose in the submitted poetry. It also reflected the phases we might experience living in the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. 

This poem became a joy for me to organize. It was a satisfying puzzle to set out, to dig through the lines and assemble some sort of flow, to find a line to pair with another line. Some seemed to irresistibly belong together, like the two writers became one voice:

“I always suspected that this would all end in some sorta absurdity / yet I still find it easy to laugh.”

I was fascinated by the echoes of images and tone that appeared across the submissions (i.e. coyotes, spring, sleeping, birds, and baking). Many of the writers focused on the power of connection, community, and hope. Many still wrote about feelings of loneliness and isolation. As I was arranging lines around loneliness, I realized something: these writers were unknowingly creating a conversation with each other, a paradoxical sense of connection in their shared feelings of isolation. Everyone is separated from each other physically, and yet these similar circumstances draw us into a more collective kind of perspective.

I invited our subscribers to submit so we could “have some fun,” and I did (I hope the writers did too). But it was also inspiring, and refreshing, and sad, and hopeful. So, thank you to all the writers who made this poem possible. 

Isolation, Desolation, Conversation, Restoration:
A Collaborative Poem

On the thirty-first day, listening to Beethoven’s Ninth repeatedly, I run out of the good scotch.

In the home of the brain, I’ll renege on any treaty witnessed by any god to share another glass with you.

Quartered and stale, the day passed again like a day old loaf, waiting for a rich, savory sauce to swim in before being devoured.

Encountering the stare-eye of Medusa, on a drizzly walk –

one day she was seen running through the streets carrying a pot of fire in her hand.

Beware of knives, especially if you’re uncomfortable with cutlery.

Stale breath, fresh bread, stuck inside with a wild mind. This is isolation nonsense.

On Earth Day, trillions of molecules roamed, attached themselves randomly, unaware humans recasting the planets posture

and when the Universe falls into alignment we will all return as one, or perhaps the opposite is true.

We think COVID 19 is bad news. But what if nothing changes as a result of this?

Remember when we smiled at someone and they smiled back.

Alone outside, wind stings my eyes, releasing waves of loss and hope

how jaggedly we carve ourselves, into the rind of the world.

Wind sharpens our elbows

fold, smooth, measure and cut — oh, oh.

My destiny is to fuse a self from the shards of tragedy.

The wind flew like desperate vultures, turning crumpled leaves to dust.

Out of the bathtub, onto the floor

the fireworks crack like a tooth on ice

bone tiaras for trophy wives.

I hide and paint my nails, underworld red. I am not crushed; this colour blooms from me

the blessed ink seeping into tattered sheets of gold and cream.

And I sit alone, and the hours creep by, and I try my hand at painting, and the colours swirl and create a world I no longer recognize, and I realize that perspective is everything.

Though while I’m of the world inside I’m not in the world:

distancing from social media

sensitivity readers grieve pseudonyms

anchor to whispers

oil the key and choose the room.

The eye of day drew blood and stained the ebbing darkness.

Time aches us old in its slow passage.

Sirens blare across the firmament.

Pull of synthetic harp between my ears,

time of ticking minute hands, the triangle, its knelling..

Dinless days and skinless nights and little lambs eat ivy

dreams break up, like lumps of sugar in a bowl.

He enables me to be my worst self.

Together in heart though six feet apart.

Evil never dies.

In the green room of inevitability Persephone arranges her hair,

sad eyes so wide they’re holding up the sky.

Night might fall several times a day,

the benevolent sun casts no aspersions.

She’s on the brink of this unknown abyss,

Smoke blown into the same still dark as last night, every night, billowing, ballooning, like thoughts turned heavy and lashed rain.

Body erect, as still as a stork; eyes haunted, hiding a fear; heart pounding awaiting release

I opened the door to let out the dog and in flowed the night air – filling me with breath I forgot I needed – ready, set, go – I closed the door and continued on.

Any night of this strange spring coyotes trot together hunting socially down the centre of my street.

Every coyote is a master of the long distance call.

The pomegranates hide under the front steps, shy of the apocalypse and waiting for dawn –

it’s time once again, to be blinded by hope, dizzy with trust,

but not only, as the rain quickened like a sonata changing tempo.

It was a tug, a pull, without loyalties, and I felt my being lean towards it as I thought, “it’s best to turn away.”

Plaiting the long day and night into a rope of twilight you grasp before sleep; 

it required fire, so I lit a candle in my mind—time, the tallow.

I turn the calendar page, again it says, again Wednesday.

At the end of the empty street, & down the darkened aisle,

lost in this sea of sameness, sudden sunlight to set the world in motion

and we stood shoulder to shoulder, watching the world unfold onto itself from the safety of our balcony.

The afternoon snow had second thoughts and left,

the last of the snow melts, revelations of mouldy dog shit but crocuses too.

Ever so rarely, on the rocky Laurentian shield, Nature moves fast.

Spring stumbles into this surreal scene:

Quarantined, I watch a black bird gather nesting material

a flock of sparrows chattering

the white-throated sparrow’s rising repeated call unfurls:

they opened parks and walking trails today. Hurray!

A fool in pyjamas, a beer in his hand

clutches a one-eyed teddy bear

My health! My health! Some Lysol for my health!

Oh life–sweet pleasure dome, my soul has been infected

(In my defense, the cat started it.)

I always suspected that this would all end in some sorta absurdity,

yet I still find it easy to laugh

The phone rings as I am about to scatter a tablespoon of yeast on the surface of warm water

panic pas step by step

Rice Crispy Squares are served every day in heaven.

I wake up to make this place kindness

eternal love adorned by every new love.

Among the heart’s too easy comforts is the first reopened window in the spring

and what happens when pain turns

spring into every new growth, give red a whistle and each handsome woodgrain one caress

Springs the merriment in my heart, with pink sun kisses on cheeks and brow this new May      May

It sways and bows, but never breaks.

The spring peepers are right on schedule, heedless of human lives all bent askew

the deer come out of the dripping woods, their hooves dawn-pointing

a colossal swan with wild eyes, its wings like jumbo sails blowing across a pond

raindrops line up on branches

beyond waving pampas grass frogs sing in mist rising over snowmelt pools

and we exhale in wonder.

Neruda, let me wear your socks, don those downy kayaks to move through rivered metaphors.

Lean into the light and wish quietly upon their bowed heads that their fractured lives be mended right now and now be stretched beyond its mute meaning

gratitude like the phyllaries of a dandelion cradling our flowering hearts in the storm.

As the western hills claim the day’s last sunbeam, the ghost of a long stray hair, escaped from their ancestral funnel, brushes the flank of their hand — felt yet invisible, invisible yet felt.

ssssshhhhh! everyone in the world is still sleeping.

I call the cosmos to my bedside:

it was the blue eye of a blind pony lost in a moonlit sea

and she whispered “All is done, the world is healed; the fight is won, the future sealed.”

Pine needle bed, moss pillow, our luminous room breathes under mighty trees.

What sits here is beyond understanding – so the wish is for a planet full of fish where whales make dictatorships and dolphins are queens, cockatoos have kingdoms and mice direct our dreams.

This happily open place yielding again is

glorious you may think but it hadn’t always been that way.

Breath, death, a wayward feather…nothing is ever irrelevant.

At the top of tomorrow anticipation awaits

and we’ll fall—skin to skin; days dropping as silk to floor.

In the greywalking days we dubbed our bed “the raft” and journeyed on.

Take a breath, soar away, imagine one tiny note of grace:

a dragon that breathes flowers instead of flames.

I’m with you in some other way now. Can you hear us? Our voices tender beneath the searing blur of crisis.

We’re on this unexpected journey, together and yet alone.

Dance to these words, read them, eat them, crunch on the letters; feel them scrape the roof of your smart mouth.

Isolation, desolation, conversation, restoration.

Making do is what we do.

This poem was created by:

Laurie Aikin, Susan J. Atkinson, Lucy Bacon, Jody Baltessen, Joelle Barron, Deborah Beauchamp, Tracy Biggar, Barbara Black, Yvonne Blomer, Carolyn Boll, Eddy Boudel Tan, Virginia Boudreau, Rita Bozi, Sue Bracken, Kate Braid, Dolores Brent, Jan Buley, Pam Bustin, Heather Cadsby, Carroll Calder, Louise Carson, Dell Catherall, Guy Chambers, Myrl Coulter, Maxine Cowan, Donna D’Amour, Heather Davidson, Sandra Davies, Pamela Dillon, Tricia Dower, Haley Down, Katherin Edwards, Kim Fahner, Eufemia Fantetti, Julie Filion, Ingrid Fischer, Suzanne Foreman, Pauline Gauthier, Allison Gibson, Susan Gillis, Beth Girard, Susan Glickman, Georgina Green, Mary Anne Griffiths, Leesa Hanna, Koreen Heaver, Crystal Hurdle, Maureen Hynes, Richard Johnson, Bruce Johnstone, Nancy Jones, Frederick Kraenzel, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Ted Landrum, Genevieve Lehr, James Li, Linda Light, Maya Linsley, Jockie Loomer-Kruger, Carolynn Loopstra, Ralph Lucas, Colette Maitland, Catherine Malvern, Monika R. Martyn, Jenn Marx, John Colin McKenna, Lis McLoughlin, Jane Mellor, Caroline Menzies, Robert Menzies, Susana Molinolo, Cindy Morris, Carol Motuz, kjmunro, Katie Mussellam, Leland Nicholas, Sandra Nicholls, Nicole Nigro, Morgan O’Connor, James Owens, Linda Pearce, John Potter, Heather Rath, Frances Roberts Reilly, Cynthia Robins, Kate Rogers, Bernadette Rule, Aaron Schneider, Linda Schueler, Josée Sigouin, Marlan Siren, Sue Sorensen, Carol A. Stephen, Eleanor Sudak, Roger Suffling, Judy Tate Barlow, Peter Taylor, Carolyne Topdjian, Danuta Valleau, John Vardon, Holly Veale, Owen Wagg, Michelle Weglarz, Valerie White, Erin Wilson, and Elana Wolff.