No more oceans or rivers, which can help
only so much. Forget the cliffs with the
views or the tops of mountains and ‘off
like a bird.’ They can mean just something when
we need everything, distracting with their
beauty when we need hard ugliness to
bloom, the lily dated, inefficient.

(Tasked) https://www.shoutoutuk.org/2014/05/03/three-poems-by-sandra-kolankiewicz/ 

I rarely write about the pandemic. Sure, I buy my masks and sanitize the fingerprints out of my palms…my life-line is almost eroded from all the rubbing- I now know the art of altering destiny. But I don’t write about it. Somehow, I have deluded myself into making this into a waiting game- where I meet my friends in a controlled environment, eat at selected restaurants, speak only to familiar people and never ever shake hands. A hug is an act that is deliberated over and over as something that might not just encroach upon personal space, but also entail endangerment. So, it was a waiting game. 

Until that is, India erupted into a rash of epic election rallies, pilgrimages and all forms of intense public participation that required sumo wrestler-style physical contact.

People found time and mental courage to yell slogans through wafer-thin masks, take a dip in the holy Ganges because this festival comes only once in twelve years- never mind that the river was there for centuries- and is still flowing without realizing that it is part of a festival that peaks once in twelve years- and what is a twelve-year cycle in the life of a river that flows through three countries and melds into an ocean. Of course, what is a country for a river? Just another pebble to flow over.

While people were converging at election rallies and river banks, I was rubbing my hands and pretending it was a waiting game. And then, suddenly, we were having the worst humanitarian crisis since the Bengal Famine of 1943. Which was the worst humanitarian crisis in the subcontinent since the Great Bengal Famine of 1770. To call a famine great is, I suppose just a way to distinguish between two famines in the same location. While a famine is not an epidemic, it can lead to one or be the cause of one. And like an epidemic, it is also often, man-made, the result of unimaginative governing actions and a general lack of direction and compassion. Sounds a lot like the situation that we are in right now.

Sometimes, my friends call me up and ask if I miss going out. Because before all hell broke loose, I was the most compulsive ‘go-outer’ you could find. I was forever out there- my home was a place I stopped over before the next time I headed out. It could be to the same place again, the same restaurant, the same mall- to the movies, to the bookshop to gawk at books and some magnificent stationery, to the church to sit in absolute silence and contemplation- to the market- I rarely loiter around in the market. There, I am focused- a woman on a mission- because in the market, they are looking at you, calling out to you- hoping to make a sale, offering you what they think you imagine is a bargain- and I who don’t use a lot of stuff, I am wasting their time. Their time is their money. And also, because, I have to compulsively answer anyone who calls out to me. I look at them and politely say no thank you. And I hate issuing steady refusals.  Or because sometimes get stuck into buying things I don’t know what to do with- like a kilogram of tapioca I bought off a woman at the market just because she looked like my grandmother.

I tell those who ask me that I don’t miss going out. I stay at home and listen to the birds, work from home, read and wonder what I did when I went out. I watch movies online, and realise I can do without the popcorn that I thought I absolutely had to have. Recently someone told me they went to a movie hall to watch a film and I was surprised. “Do people do that still?” I asked. I can’t seem to understand the idea of public transport, especially autorickshaws anymore. How does one think it ok to get into one- that’s what I keep thinking. And gradually realizing that this is most probably my own form of trauma that I am dealing with. The loss of a certain gloss off the surface of my life. The acute awareness of the singularity of existence.

It has become important to tell yourself to be grateful you get to stay home. That you are putting yourself out of harm’s way and in the process, helping stop a pandemic in its tracks- so you don’t suffer from survivor’s guilt or the intense awareness of not having to earn from day to day. It is a form of morally ambiguous respiration. And a peeling back of the eyelids to stare directly at the velocity of noise that is generated. Of propaganda. Of self-righteous misleading and soap-opera theatrics and tears that pervade the air waves every day. In lieu of a planned, reassuring system of preventive care.

India’s vaccine diplomacy, procurement policy, credibility of news, the worth placed on the lives of its citizens- all look like they have a long way to go. But go where? In which direction? I have people telling me about people disappearing from their contact lists, entire families laid low, children losing both parents… when the world get a handle on this situation, then the social and psychological cost of the pandemic will set us back by a couple of decades. New and intelligent policies will have to be devised for children orphaned, for families who have lost the earning members of their families, preventive measures to stop possible exploitation through trafficking of various kinds. What sort of society will be growing out of these cuts remains to be seen. But in the absence of a conscientious social welfare and watchdog system, the future is as bleak as the present.

There is nowhere to go and lull the million voices that you keep at bay as you go from wall to wall, doing your daily chores, grateful to be alive, rubbing your hands- in a conspiratorial gesture to stay alive, dreading the next disappearance from your contact list, looking at obituaries of strangers in the newspaper and mentally checking their date of departure to then guess if they might have died of COVID-19 or other reasons.

Who knows what will turn up in your Sent Mail,
under your trolling history, on your

caller ID, slaughtering what cow, the
counter a mess after you’ve descended

at midnight to hear Agamemnon on
his wife, Tantalus on thirst, Sisyphus

pushing his load even over a meal
as you eat your way back to those who wait.

(Voyage of the Ambien Eater)

…says Sandra Kolankiewicz. In her these and many, many other poems, Sandra looks at mortality as though she holds it in the palm of her hands- as though she is holding a moth- (a word that sounds very much like death in Hindi)- fascinated and terrified of its colours and designs. Sandra’s world is one that acknowledges mortality and phantasmagoria as faithful companions. The apocalypse is around the corner and it may not be such a bad thing after all, she thinks.

Her love has the acidity of lime and the departed come back to stand at the foot of the bed just to remind people of what could have been. The immediate rootedness of Sandra’s poetry is carried on the shoulders of an aching knowledge- of responsibility, of culpability, of wistfulness, an ardent desire to tamper with the dynamics of Time.

I can’t write of the oceans
without seeing that landmass of
plastic swirling in the Pacific,
bigger than Pitcairn Island, the
consequences of mutiny against the
natural world. Squeeze a rock,
drain the dirt to get plastic.
Scrape a sticky flower center for the
smell of forget what we deserve.
Likewise that sacred cliff
from which the ancestors watched
us from above had no means to
protect itself, face blown off to
reveal the images of idols, their feet
down in the clay on which we stand
to admire them.

(Earth at Apogee) https://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2020/09/earth-apogee-curbed/

Says John Guzlowski, about The Way You Will Go, Sandra’s collection of poems,  “We’ve been taught to expect comfort from our poetry, the poet telling us about the truth at the heart of our yearning: the mother who loves her child more than anything, the father who returns from war to find his house still standing. But this is not what Sandra Kolankiewicz wants to talk to us about. She is the poet of mysteries, the real ones that hide in the most common things (a pet rabbit, a child’s dollhouse), and elegies for what we’ve lost and what we’re losing and what we will lose. She has the gift the great poets have, the gift of telling us what we’ve lost in language so beautiful and rich that it almost makes us forget our loss.

You’re probably right; no one counts but you.
We have no credibility. We’re the
people in the rabble who understand
if we didn’t impose, you’d ignore us,
wouldn’t step up to help, would even sniff
like a gentleman who sneers when he is
not. If you had been educated on
curbs in this city, a result of where you
are from, off the normal boundaries, your
childhood an estate with no sidewalks past
the bus lines, you would know that slaves cut them
from single slabs of rock, something you have
always taken for granted as if mid-
way between the walk and street just for you.

(Curbed) https://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2020/09/earth-apogee-curbed/

The other day, during an online meeting, a colleague coughed- twice- and I asked her in a playfully-fearful voice, “Are you ok? You seem to be coughing a lot.” Laughing, she answered- its just a common cough. And I said, “This is not the common cough anymore. This is the uncommon variety. The common sort of cough is the other one.” Common, uncommon- everything is being turned on its head. Even pineapple upside down cake has begun making sense.

In such a world, the verses of Sandra Kolankiewicz come across as pungent, hard hitting and unapologetic. They speak plainly about the imbalance that exists between a world that should have been and a world that is. She doesn’t nurture fault lines. Rather, she holds them out- jagged and broken- to be thought about within the confines of walls, in the engulfing darknesses of movie halls or jammed between soft apologies and refusals while walking through a market when an old woman who looks like your grandmother stops you and offers you what she thinks you will think is a bargain. And today, the way the world is…by God you would take it.

Sonya J. Nair
Editor

Poems