At the end of 2020, we launched our poetry competition ‘This is the Year’. Working collaboratively with Theatre Peckham and poet, Belinda Zhawi, we wanted to help young poets reflect on the impact of the pandemic. The world around us had undoubtedly changed. But we had no idea just how much or for how long. When the competition opened, we found ourselves in the throes of yet another lockdown. Poetry as an avenue to express and capture how young people felt seemed more urgent than ever.
In this blog we hear from poet Israt Abdur about the inspiration and messages behind her powerful poem ‘Invisible’.
I titled the poem ‘Invisible’ not only because the virus itself is an “invisible criminal”, but also because we all became invisible at some point during the pandemic. The government’s supportive facade was really a laissez-faire attitude toward families of low socio-economic status. The loss of control over our lives made us invisible as we no longer performed our habitual roles as students, workers, and employers. We became mere beings with little prospects, enveloped by this shared fear. Some people were made more invisible than others too. London clouds no longer supervised people who became invisible whilst living with possible abusers, and perpetrators, exposed to continual violence.
I create the imagery of a typical British spring in the first stanza, referencing the rain in May. The month of May typically brings spring. But also reminds us of the approaching summer and signals going out, whether it’s for holidays or simply to spend time surrounded by the people you like. The emphasis speaks to our longing to “end solitude” due to the prudent preventative measures by the government and society post-Covid. This becomes obvious as the individual echoes the lockdown measure, almost as a reminder to themselves. The subject changes to “you” directing the line to themselves. But it also serves as an instruction, reminding the public to refrain from going out unless needed.
I wanted to focus and explore the coping mechanisms that different households used during the pandemic. Chaos describes the scene. Here, I am specifically referring to ethnic minority households, which often included extended family members from at least two or three generations. I remember in the early days of the pandemic I had developed a cough which turned out to be consistent. The fear of scaring my other five family members frightened me more than the possibility of having Covid. So I quietly coughed, away from nervous eyes, even after testing negative. Our families were disproportionately impacted by the virus. Living with older people who were more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 because of underlying diseases like asthma led to ‘stress and evident concern’. I wanted to highlight these health inequalities, especially as these disparities are caused by factors like where you live and how much you earn. At the end of the day, the most affected tended to be those living in deprived areas where ethnic minorities commonly live.
The last line of the first stanza shines light on the role of faith and religion as a response to the tragic news of deaths globally. The lack of scientific research and information available at the time left people feeling uncertain. Some people decided to take their health more seriously by monitoring both physical and mental health consistently. For example, I use the poem to expose the different attempts like homemade ‘cures’ shared on social media that elderly people used to try to prevent this life-threatening disease. But others used spirituality to help their mental health. For many people, the self-reflective period lockdown brought a ‘return’ to God and religious faith. Whilst I can only speak from personal experience as a Muslim, I believe that reverting to spiritual beliefs brought a sense of comfort and certainty amidst the unknown.
For many people, the self-reflective period lockdown brought a ‘return’ to God and religious faith. Whilst I can only speak from personal experience as a Muslim, I believe that reverting to spiritual beliefs brought a sense of comfort and certainty amidst the unknown.
In the fourth stanza, I zoom out from households and the public and instead focus on empty London. By using ‘I’ instead of ‘You’, the narrator begins to notice the wider impact COVID-19 had on Londoners. The poem emphasises London life through the line, “an invisible criminal without knives”, a reference of two contrasting epidemics, both of equal consequences in the end and with very little control on who the next victim may be, hence their shared “criminal” title. Despite wanting to “end solitude”, they remained indoors and simply watched the clouds, the only element in the city reminding them of London. This is because the once busy streets were no longer populated by the early morning coffee grabbers, the students with uniforms and backpacks waiting at the bus stop to attend school, shops and the local markets opening and setting up their products neatly. Echoing the different forms of anxiety experienced by employees, students and business owners, the narrator worries about the abundant financial loss people would experience or frowns at the unpredictable choices made by the government like the GCSE and A-level results that impacted 16-year-old school leavers like me. I also allude to the development of an agoraphobic-like mindset as fearing public spaces quickly became the new norm.
The poem emphasises London life through the line, “an invisible criminal without knives”, a reference of two contrasting epidemics, both of equal consequences in the end and with very little control on who the next victim may be, hence their shared “criminal” title.
The poem ends by bringing the reader back to households. Apart from anxiety and stress experienced by most families, the rate of domestic abuse also increased during lockdown, particularly heightening the risk for Black and minorities, disabled and migrant women. Additionally, the preventative measures put at risk migrant children and LGBTQ+ domestic survivors who felt unsafe within their households along with their perpetrators. The risk of sexual exploitation, and exposure to abusive behaviour, were unfortunately endured due to the reduced services and opportunities to seek help from. The ‘mantra to repeat’ alludes to the need for reassurance, a common theme throughout the poem. However, the third line echoing the mantra is used to portray a young person whose fears accumulated in the pandemic, making them secretive to not create further pressure on the family.
After the May rain, the clouds could no longer perform their role in watching over Londoners. We were to remain indoors. This image that frames the poem surfaces the untold and unseen experiences of Londoners. It makes visible those living in deprived areas, for whom the pandemic exacerbated the economic and social struggles that they face like poverty and systemic racism. Coping in such a tumultuous period was difficult. By drawing on people’s experiences, we can learn lessons and make changes before another pandemic threatens the London crowds and the world’s residents.