** The cover image is the draft design of the book-in-progress **
Raymond Rambert, the journalist who comes to Oran to research on the sanitary condition in the Arab population there in Albert Camus’s The Plague gets trapped by the sudden quarantine of the city because of the plague epidemic. He is separated from his wife who is in Paris and his desperate unsuccessful struggles to meet his wife defying the quarantine show a measure of his love.
Sudeep Sen’s poem ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ [published in The Indian Express newspaper on April 5, 2020, ArtVirus USA on April 6, 2020, and part of Write Where We Are Now global anthology (curated by the former UK poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy) on the Manchester Metropolitan University’s website)] too gives us a measure of love but, as the newspaper The Indian Express stated, it “meditates on the shape of love in a time of self-isolation”. Writers have often self-quarantined themselves into a coop to write some of their best works. Quarantine has two other words associated with it — isolation and distancing. Isolation conveys a sense of separation from someone or something loved and distancing is the process through which it is achieved. This separation can also be metaphorical rather than physical as is exemplified by the two epigraphs from Marquez and Brecht with which Sudeep Sen starts his poem.
I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of Him.
— Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.
— Bertolt Brecht
The poem ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ is divided into three numbered sections. The three-part structure reminds of the poetic device used by Andrew Marvell in his ‘To His Coy Mistress.’ In fact Sudeep Sen’s three stanzas are each of ten lines as is Marvell’s. But unlike Marvell’s poem there is no explicit argument in two premises leading to a logical conclusion exploiting the carpe diem theme. Still syllogism may be intrinsic in the theme of Sudeep Sen’s poem. The poem starts with an allusion to “Krishna’s love for Radha” brought into focus by the evocation of memory mediated through the sighting of indigo streak in grey hair.
Faint indigo tints in the greys of your hair
evoke memory — Krishna’s love for Radha,
its perennial longevity, its sustained mythology,
its blue-bathed lore — such are life’s enduring
parallels. (ll. 1-5)
But the allusion is not left undefined because Sen is subconsciously aware of his readers who encompass geographies beyond the cultural landscape where the lore of Radha and Krishna is household name. He once again uses the three-fold technique to define it evoking three qualities of love being uninterrupted over a prolonged duration of time, having sustenance through a living culture and getting abstracted into a symbol that becomes part of a tradition. All these are important ingredients for the creation of mythology. Once that mythic love iconography is achieved it becomes a sort of touchstone compared to which all other loves can parallel. Parallelism is a concept that has separation and attachment together at its core. The love of Krishna and Radha too symbolizes that twin conundrum of the coexistence of distance and affection at the same time. The first stanza continues beyond the enjambment word “parallels” but now becomes entirely personal.
Fourteen years — yet my heart flutters,
infatuated like first love. My hands fidgety,
palms sweaty, pulse too fast to pick — (ll. 5-7)
The mention of “fourteen years” immediately arouses in the mind of the reader the fourteen years of exile in the Indian epics as well as the purported duration of a life sentence in Indian legal system. Thereby, the first quality of longevity in personal love is put in parallel with mythological love. The second parallel of sustenance is indicated by the undiminished love that exists like infatuation. The third parallel of abstraction into symbolism is achieved paradoxically through the depiction of physical attributes of fidgety hands, sweaty palms and fast pulse, all of which symbolize the nervous energy of love. And then comes the line that alludes to the time of the Corona virus that has created a situation marking the coexistence of separation and attachment.
I am not allowed to touch your face.
Cyber-flurry emoji-love cannot assuage fears —
or corona’s comatose cries. I don’t believe in God. (ll. 8-10)
Physical expression of love is replaced by love expressed through emoticons because of distancing but it does not mitigate the fear of the virus. The stanza ends with a cryptic sentence which partially echoes the epigraph of the poem taken from the lines of Love in the Time of Cholera. Belief and fear coexist just as distance and affection do.
The second section starts on a very impersonal note referencing the condition of the migrant workers who have been stuck in the cities due to the sudden lockdown and now march home in a perilous state. Here the word “thousands” echoes Marvell’s usage in the second stanza of ‘To His Coy Mistress’ but without the hyperbolic sense. Herein lies the irony that makes the poem more biting. The transferred epithet of “hungry footsteps” adds to the bite. A crowd of migrant workers marching in empty highways making a mockery of social distancing reiterates the coexistence of contrasts — the privileged and the underprivileged.
In thousands, migrant workers march home —
hungry footsteps on empty highways
accentuate an irony — ‘social distancing’,
a privilege only powerful can afford. (ll. 11-14)
The contrasts continue in the depiction of the dehumanizing mistreatment of the poor beside the almost celebratory vulgarity in gestures employed to ward off the virus. Paradoxically it creates an atmosphere of necromancy and decadence instead of being able to “rid the voodoo”. The use of the similar sounding word “karuna” for “Corona,” which in Hindi means showing mercy, kindness, pity, stands starkly against the Hindu concept of “karma”. Remember that the first sermon delivered by the Father Paneloux in Camus’s The Plague implied the advent of the plague as a punishment to the people for their bad deeds, their sins, and their “karma”. No doubt Kunal Ray in his article titled “Sudeep Sen: The Poet as Seeker” compares Sens’s “astute selection of words” to that of the “deft strokes of a painter.” (197) Sudeep Sen revels in such amazing intertextuality.
Cretins spray bleach on unprotected poor, clap,
bang plates, ring bells, blow conches, light fires
to rid the voodoo — karuna’s karma, infected. (ll. 15-17)
The line ends with the word “infected” and the next line has the word “sanitised” — a repeated indication of the side-by-side coexistence of contrasts. The phrase “Mood-swings” reverberate with Sen’s technique of swinging from personal to impersonal and back like Coleridge’s conversation poem ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’. The context comes back to the poet’s own condition of self-isolation due to the virus going “viral”. The stanza ends with a question which echoes the second epigraph of the poem quoted from Brecht about singing as a symbolic gesture of hope, defiance, protest and creativity amidst doom.
Mood-swings in sanitised quarantine — self-
isolation, imposed — uncontained virus, viral.
When shall we sing our dream’s epiphanies? (ll. 18-20)
The third section takes the trope of the weather to explore the contrasts between human beings and nature. The privileged human beings remain quarantined in air-conditioned houses in the tropical climate whereas in the southern hemisphere there are hailstorms in winter. The extreme climatic condition is contrasted with the “sky’s pink-blue spring” as a sign of the rejuvenation of nature in the meantime when humans beings have quarantined themselves.
City weather fluctuates promiscuously,
mapping temperature’s bipolar graph —
tropic’s air-conditioner chill, winter’s
unseasonal hailstorm, sky’s pink-blue spring. (ll. 21-24)
In a recent poem titled ‘Speaking in Silence’ published in the Summer 2020 issue of New Humanist (UK), Sudeep Sen starts the poem with the line “Breathtaking weather surrounds us in these dark times”, almost resonating with similar sentiments expressed here. The next two lines of ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ are filled with conjoined words indicating even more the concept of coexistence but also additionally of transformation.
Blue-grey will moult into salt-and-pepper,
ash-grey to silver-white, then to aged-white. (ll. 25-26)
The last four lines of the poem returns to the personal front. It vividly portrays an infected individual’s struggle against the virus and since there are no vaccines or medicines for the virus, the only hope lies in prayers. As the poem comes to an end the remaining parts of the two epigraphs are evoked — the one of Marquez indicating the fear of God and the one of Brecht indicating singing. The song at the present moment is of hoping, heeding and healing.
My lungs heave, slow-grating metallic-crackles
struggle to escape the filigreed windpipes —
I persist in my prayers. I’m afraid of Him.
Hope, heed, heal — our song, in present tense. (ll. 27-30)
Here hangs the question whether this Sudeep Sen poem follows the syllogistic pattern. The first two sections establish two premises of the personal and the impersonal. The third section is a combination of both the personal and the impersonal. The “slow-grating metallic-crackles” can be of both the poet’s as well as the migrant workers’ and now both are afraid of “Him”. It is love that makes the poet sensitive and fearful and makes his condition parallel to the condition of the underprivileged migrant workers. In a sense, this forms a logical conclusion to the argument though may not be technically syllogistic. But it is true that “Sen’s work endeavours to transgress classical structures of poetry and achieve new synergies and patterns.” (Ray 194)
What is interesting about this poem of Sudeep Sen is that there is a fine tension maintained between presenting images and developing a narration. There is less visual delight like “elliptical gathering / of fine-graded hair” (‘Chinese Calligraphy’), “azure haze of reflected light” (‘Blue Nude I’), and “Onion-pink aorta transform / crimson-red” (‘Aorta Art’) present in his earlier poems from Fractals. But here is something similar to “the interweaving of the stage art with the art of storytelling” (Ray 190) as depicted in his poems based on Indian classical dance forms or a mix of “visual architecture” and “layered narrative” (Ray 185) as is found in his poems based on modern art. Sudeep Sen has been generally recognized as “an image maker, interpreter and re-creator, whose images are redolent of time that was and perhaps would be.” (Ray 199)
Another excellent new poem by Sudeep Sen of empathy with an elegiac tone, one that reminds me of Donne’s line “any man’s death diminishes me”, is ‘Obituary’:
They were not simply names on a list.
They were us.
— THE NEW YORK TIMES
Death knell peals, numbers multiply,
virus ravages us, one by one.
No amount of hygiene-ritual
enables our lungs to resuscitate.
Newspaper columns loom, unsteady
ghostly apparitions on broadsheets —
name, age, date of death —
tall epitaphs in fine print.
Ink spills, bleeds dark — newsprint
blotting out our wheezing breath.
Our lives — micro point-size fonts
on an ever inflating pandemic list —
black specks, fugitive lonely numbers —
the deceased, on an official roster.
Another sick, another dying,
another dead — yes, they were us.
But in the poem, ‘Love in the Time of Corona’, another important facet of Sen as a poet comes out strongly. This poem, while giving due recognition to Sen’s preoccupation with time in the past and future, establishes him as a poet of the present. It is this lingering presentism that is so palpable here. Love makes all times present and thereby alive and especially so in the time of a pandemic when one is quarantined like Raymond Rambert in Camus’s The Plague away from his loved one. In ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ Sudeep Sen meditates but the reader too can ruminate with him for this is the time for contemplation when the world is passing through a time like never before.
In conclusion, I quote yet another new poem that is part of Sen’s ongoing book-in-progress, Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation (one that includes the earlier two quoted poems, ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ and ‘Obituary’). This one is titled, ‘Hope: Light Leaks’:
Late at night, light leaks — spilling
beyond the door’s rectangle edge —
a cleaving shift, its shape —
a partial crucifix, a new resurrection.
Light’s plane waxes, wanes —
viral load expands, contracts.
Lives matter in this blackness —
there’ll be light after the darkness.
Ultimately, like so many other pieces in this book — it is a poem of hope, a plea for positivity, and a prayer.
1. Ray, Kunal. “Sudeep Sen: The Poet as Seeker.” Envisioning the Indian Muse. Ed. Goutam Karmakar. Transcendent Zero Press, 2019.
2. Sen, Sudeep. “Love in the Time of Corona.” The Indian Express. April 8, 2020.
Author : Dr. Amit Shankar Saha
Dr. Amit Shankar Saha, a poet, short story writer and critic, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Griffin Poetry Prize. He is the author of two collections of poems, Balconies of Time and Fugitive Words. He teaches in the English Department of Seacom Skills University in Kolkata.