Philip Resnick’s Pandemic Poems, Lillian Nećakov’s il virus, and Anahita Jamali Rad’s still respond to life in the age of COVID on disparate registers, exploring the conscious, unconscious, and material possibilities of this new era. Whereas Resnick and Nećakov employ poetry to address the everyday woes of lockdown subjectivity, Jamali Rad wields isolation as a tool heralding a politics to come.
Pandemic Poems is an outlet for Resnick’s fear and frustration. He frequently gestures toward the chronic overwhelm of the crisis and the bombardment of doomscroll-inducing coverage in the mainstream media, observing society as it transforms into a collective of “hermit crabs, / self-absorbed within our shells” (86). Resnick responds to a wide range of source materials, from headlines all the way to Salman Rushdie, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Lenin. Despite this rich tapestry of influence, some of the pieces read like prosaic takes from a Facebook meme or a tweet stating the obvious. In “Crises,” for instance, Resnick writes, “Crises have a way / of forcing us to come to terms / with paradoxes we ignore,” concluding that “we must seek contentment where we can, / in love and friendship that endures” (120). Nevertheless, the book does not lack charm, especially when it comes to its relatability. It is easy to empathize with Resnick, and the dates inscribed at the end of each piece are like small wounds, reminding readers of the pandemic’s strangely accelerated temporality. There is comfort in seeing the idioms and metaphors that other people use to work through a global state of panic. Feverishly archival, Resnick attempts to extract meaning from moments which would otherwise be lost, like tears in masks.
Like Resnick, Nećakov is devastated by the fallout of COVID, but she does not fall into the solipsistic trap of compiling linear meditations for the purpose of hoarding memories. Rather, Nećakov withdraws into the depths of the psyche to dilute the intensities of daily life. As an edition of Stuart Ross’ A Feed Dog Book imprint via Anvil Press, it is hard not to associate il virus with the surrealism for which Ross and his cronies are famous. By surrealism I mean that body of work that privileges dreamscapes as the most authentic wellspring of creativity and radical hope. Nećakov’s work illuminates the intricacies of the wandering mind and its discontents, finding humour in the mundane, without foregoing sentimentality:
my pyjamas are not impressed
to hold me hostage for hours
and that’s okay
I realize that all these syllables
are just scars on a life lived. (93)
The poems are a complex entanglement of half-thoughts, revelatory disillusions, and nostalgic delusions, all of which point to the enduring terror wrought by lonely, sad brains in search of new neural connections, new memories and ways of thinking to help facilitate and process the most grandiose work of mourning imaginable:
On waking, I realize
along with the bread
is gone (61)
il virus is a must-read for those seeking a more lighthearted approach to the virus. The book gives equal weight to political turmoil and absurdity, as the former becomes indistinguishable from the latter. Referencing the cancelation of the annual Gathering of the Juggalos in 2020, Nećakov writes,
Even the Juggalos
restless as hummingbirds
know there will be hell
to pay (69)
Finally, Anahita Jamali Rad’s still takes as its starting point the financial and psychic economies that were immediately pulverized by the first lockdowns, which seemed like “an opening / an unravelling of structure” in early 2020 (41). Jamali Rad’s brilliant collection shows how a recombinant critical theory—transformed into an experiential, meditative practice of refusal—is both a way out of the “boredom, suffering, and generalized pain” (21), as well as a guide to the shifting tides of the political landscape: “Disruption is / and is not staying still, forgetting consumption, limiting the scope. // Disruption alters without warning” (61). As an affirmation of quietude as a performative mode of evading capital, the book attempts to make use of state-mandated isolation as an opportunity for a radical line of flight. Sure, the speaker uses language to better understand “governmental / neglect and . . . anxieties gone viral,” but more importantly, “I only write to be unproductive” (29). Like Resnick and Nećakov, Jamali Rad acknowledges the importance of reminiscence, but not the kind limited to depressive nostalgia: “The body forgets sometimes, too. How it used to breathe. How light it could be to breathe. How effortless. When air moved through the body, before its boundaries were so heavy, a density of materiality weathered by space, this unregulated destability” (46). After all the fever-dreamt CERB money is spent and it seems like UBI is possible, the body nevertheless still finds itself “within the bounds of capital” (47), which is now outwardly encouraging the death of its workers for the sake of maintaining the economy. What is to be done? Jamali Rad does not leave the reader to wonder in isolation, luckily. The book concludes with a Mao Zedong quote about the importance of dialectical materialism, in which life can only be lived as the affirmation of contradiction, a theme which runs throughout still. Jamali Rad writes,
I stayed, still
for the right external conditions
for my internal contradictions to
being to non-being (100)
COVID did not and will not shake the system up like many leftists hoped it would, but it did—and continues to—suss out more and more contradictions: a slow, destructive burn rather than the immediacy of revolutionary rupture.
Through deep contemplative exercises, Jamali Rad reveals the biopolitical stakes of the pandemic, whereby the body becomes the foremost site of discursive contestation and possibility: “The body considers how its militant materiality can reconcile its desire for that which is yet material” (49). But in the age of COVID, the body—as both symbolic and real—is bombarded with new, irreparable affects and limitations, which leave us no choice but to turn inward, in what the state hopes to be a form of complacency. But prolonged meditative acts reveal “a soft resistance to participation in control” (56). For Jamali Rad, inwardness is a chance to recede into the body, to work toward a new understanding of the self-as-body in secret, away from the ever-intensifying spectacle of COVID and biopower.
These three texts are coagulations of distinct coping mechanisms. While Resnick leans into the melancholy of an ego in the throes of endless reality-testing, Nećakov offers a gleefully uncanny turn inward, toward the deepest recesses of the psyche. In other words, Pandemic Poems and il virus are, respectively, representative of conscious and unconscious subjective testimony, which seek to affirm the presences and absences of a certain I. Jamali Rad offers a third strategy, which supersedes the I-Thou of testimony: withdrawal and anonymity, or the possibility of “recessive potentials,” a deeply intimate espionage, which panders to no ego and works to materialize the autonomous, unproductive, recessive, and ungovernably still body, in order to counter the excessive new forms of bare life created by the state’s insistence on production under the so-called new normality:
In the absence of human activity
light spreads over the city
a hidden presence or
negative action with
the aim of disappearing
a recessive potential that
appears only to disappear (38)
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