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COVID-19: Lockdown unlocks poet Tanaka Chidora’s inspiration

Tanaka Chidora

The days drag by slowly in a way that numbs the mind, making it difficult to differentiate each day from the next. Watching TV has lost its thrill, like bubblegum that has stayed in the mouth for too long. The alacrity with which workouts were being done in the early days of lockdown has petered out.

All the novels, including the badly written ones, in the house, have been read, some even twice. Conversations now come in very rare drops like council water that has only come twice or thrice since lockdown started. Many tasks that one expected to complete during lockdown remain pending. The motivation to work is just not there.

But for Tanaka Chidora, a poet whose writings read like pieces from a veteran’s archive, there is something about the boredom of being locked down that inspires poetry. And it comes as no surprise that Chidora views boredom in that way. His first collection of poems, Because Sadness is Beautiful? was released two weeks ago. One look at the title is enough to tell one what tickles Chidora’s mind.

“If one were to read my poems, there is this unholy pact between pain/sadness/boredom and poetry,” confessed Chidora during a Whatsapp video call.

“I want my poetry to mirror the times and spaces that shape it: venereal spaces, spaces where darkness and light are engaged in an eternal quarrel, where sitting down to rest is cut short by the sound of running feet, where a lockdown comes closely at the heels of another until you lose track of time.

“My poems are therefore my attempt to purge myself of the demons of living in the claustrophobia of our time. Lockdown is here. There is a disease out there. What should the poet do? Cry? As a poet, I can aestheticise this sadness, this boredom, give it a gentle thrill, and give to the reader something beautiful. It is as if the sadness and boredom of lockdown have unlocked the padlock to beauty: angry, venomous beauty; gentle beauty that caresses the eyes; frivolous beauty; hard-edge beauty; or the beauty of something that transiently appears in the eye’s vision and disappears before the mind can put a form to it. You can see this in my published collection, Because Sadness is Beautiful? and the pieces that I have written during this lockdown.”

Since the beginning of COVID-19 pamdemic, Chidora has written many poems. His first coronavirus-inspired poem is ‘The coming (a poet’s response to COVID-19),’ a poem which bears Chidora’s trademark: making his readers fall in love with the beauty that is born in desolation. As if Chidora was aware of what it would take to fight this virus, he writes:

                        but now, in the place of intimate susurrations

are fear-stricken voices that quiver like

the feathered tail-end of an arrow,

and in the place of the things that tickle our ears

we desperately look for a secluded place of safety

where we huddle and count the days,

because when everything is said and done,

our lives here are merely days long.

This poem not only transforms the tragedy of our lives into a thing of beauty, but also conscientises us on what it takes to fight the virus by informing the readers that we must find a “secluded space of safety,” which in a way speaks of the necessity of the current lockdown.

In ‘Being old in the time of coronavirus,’ Chidora uses the persona of an old man who has been pensioned and stays at home while nursing memories of times past when he was youthful and agile. But since the coming of COVID-19, being old requires not just the nursing of memories, but fear, because there is an “affectatious” voice on TV

that finds pleasure in telling you over and over again,

and with the help of images of bodies piled

on the world’s pavements,

that being old means being the first in the line.

“I wrote this poem one week into the lockdown,” said Chidora. “I am talking about a week during which one of the messages that kept bombarding the ear had to do with the disease affecting the elderly. After a week of listening to that stuff and reading about it on Whatsapp and other platforms, I was like, OK, so how does it feel to be old and to have your ears bombarded by these messages? Honestly, while the message was communicated with good intentions, I just felt that being told, over and over and over again, that you are the first on the line can really get on your nerves and all you want to do is scream at that TV and say, Hey, I got it! Ok?”

Other poems by Chidora focus on what this lockdown can potentially do to love. All the love poems Chidora has written during the lockdown feature a female character that has become synonymous with his love poems. Her name is Rose. In one of the poems, ‘Love in the time of coronavirus,’ (a title that reminds one of Gabriel Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera), the persons confesses how the lockdown has given Rose epiphanic moments that include the fact that there are things that matter more than love. According to Rose,

                        there are worse things that make hearts flutter

than being dumped where love and loneliness

stare at each other across a thin line:

like stumbling upon the name of someone you know

in the list of bodies piled outside an isolation centre,

like waking up with a sore throat and a nose

imbibing air that has come from the centre of hell,

like the tell-tale signs of winter in a world

that is huddling away from a viral assault.

In another one titled ‘Lockdown with Rose,’ Rose and the persona are trapped “under the heavy blanket of another day,” which in a way speaks of the drudgery that comes with being confined in the same space for days until even love juices begin to run dry and the mere touch of a lover has the same effect as that of stumbling “to the edge of a nightmare.” But there are also happy moments with Rose, like when the lockdown leads to what the persona calls “the logic of sex.”

“Many readers have asked me who this Rose is,” confessed Chidora during our Whatsapp conversation. “She has featured in many of my poems, especially those that come after Because Sadness is Beautiful? It’s a whole collection which I have decided to call #TheRosePoems. Some think that Rose is a real person and I am crushing on her. In one of my short stories, ‘Days of the Sun,’ I even create a scene that leads to the genesis of the Rose poems. But the truth is, I do not kiss and tell; I kiss and write poems. So Rose will remain a mystery even to myself. Hahahahaha!”

Chidora definitely delights in transforming those moments that make us cry, grimace our faces in pain or smash a cup against a wall, into beautiful things. The boredom of lockdown has understandably availed itself to Chidora as a ready raw material for his poetic magic. This is the poetic magic that Chidora has already given to the world in the form of Because Sadness is Beautiful? which is available at African Books Collective. According to Chidora, once COVID-19 relents, he will make copies of the collection available locally. But for now, readers can purchase the collection via the African Books Collective website.

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende