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Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Olive Senior 2021-2024
Photo Credit: olivesenior.com

My Poetry Corner August 2021 features the poem “W for Workers” from the 2021 poetry collection, Pandemic Poems: First Wave, by Jamaica’s third Poet Laureate Olive Senior (2021-2024). Since 1993, the award-winning poet, novelist, short story and non-fiction writer has made Toronto, Canada, her home. She returns frequently to the Caribbean which remains central to her work.

The seventh of ten children, the Poet Laureate was born in 1941 in the wild mountainous landscape in the interior of Jamaica. The child of peasant farmers, the young Olive enjoyed a better, though solitary, life as the only child in the home of a wealthy and cosmopolitan great uncle and great aunt who encouraged her love for reading and writing.

After winning a scholarship to attend the prestigious Montego Bay High School for Girls, Olive embarked on a career in journalism. At nineteen, she joined the staff of The Daily Gleaner, Jamaica’s major newspaper located in Kingston. She soon won a scholarship to study journalism at the Thomson Foundation in Cardiff, Wales. Later, while attending the Carleton University School of Journalism in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, she began writing fiction and poetry. She returned to Jamaica where, in 1982, she joined the Institute of Jamaica as editor of the Jamaica Journal, a magazine that promotes the history and culture of the Caribbean Island nation.

In the summer of 2020, between May and September, when the Covid-19 pandemic transformed our lives, Senior began writing pandemic poems and posting them on her Twitter and Facebook pages “as a way of keeping [her]self engaged and not falling into depression.” Each of the 71 poems in her collection Pandemic Poems: First Wave is “a riff on a word or phrase trending at the period.” This pandemic lexicon has since become a part of our new normal.

Considering that “We have beaten nature down / Exalted straightness,” the poet observes in “F for Flattening (the Curve),” the first poem of the collection, “When and where, unnoticed for how long / did this bump in the road emerge / this curve / that so urgently / needs flattening now?”

In “S for Social Distancing,” she poses yet another question: “What if you / wanted to / keep me / at arm’s length / anyway?”

The contentious issue of wearing masks continue to divide us. Senior offers a unique perspective in “M for Mask” for our health care workers who continue to battle on the frontlines to save our lives.

Masqueraders know the protective power of masks
assumed in Carnivals each year to placate the spirit Death,
embody the supernatural.

Now, Death is here. Masks for everyone is streetwear.

Except in this theatre. No wild carnivalesque disorder. No
summoning the supernatural. Here mask-wearers offer silent
intercessions in communal rooms, wrestle Death for Life
in choreographed routines: calm, concentration, skill,
compassion, order.

Only when the masks are off do they reveal the traces:
the daily struggle with Death imprinted on their faces.

“Q for Quarantine Roots” offers a lighter tone about our obsession with getting our hair done or dyed, as the poet tries “not to laugh as I hide my uncombed grey locks…”

You can’t even get paint or fertilizer, an angry veteran complained / while an older woman in a car to the cameras / bared her grey head, deploring her inability / to secure a hairdo or hair dye.

That’s a hair-don’t, jibed the Twittersphere. / Dyeing to die. Who’s gonna see you when the casket’s closed?

And a double whammy: At the cemetery they will take care of all your gardening needs; / at the mortuary they will take care of your roots…

As in the above poem, the poet uses the words of others—a legitimate poetic form known as ‘found poetry,’ which employs scraps of material from various sources. Where exact words of others are used, she puts them within quotation marks or in italics.

The pandemic poem “H for Hero,” reminds us of those early days when we clapped and banged pans to celebrate our health care workers on the frontlines. “Don’t call us heroes, they remonstrate.”

We keep trying to reframe ‘hero’ in the refracted light
of those we have been told to call heroes all our lives.
In the current pandemic, we are embracing as heroes
those of a different demographic.

During the first wave of the pandemic, our service workers, once invisible, were also regarded as heroes for continuing to supply us with our daily bread. In the featured poem, “W for Workers,” Senior uses ‘found poetry’ to bring us the voices of essential service workers forced to work in our supermarkets, meat processing plants, and farmlands.

Once we were faceless. Then service workers.
Now labelled Essential, we have become ‘Heroes.’
Do not call us heroes. That’s the kind of rhetoric
that sends young people off to war though we too
are in this struggle because we have no choice.
We are on the frontlines yes but stop trying to speak
for us. We have a voice. We are risk-takers.
But we don’t want praise. We just want a decent wage.

Calling me a hero only makes you feel better.
We are not heroes. We are hostages. Work or starve.

As the fourth wave of Covid-19 is now underway thanks to the Delta variant, our vaccinated, essential service workers must contend with consumers who defy company and state directives to wear face masks, putting the lives of their young unvaccinated children at risk.

I feel like essential just stands for exhausted and expendable.
(Grocery worker) 

I’m essential and I get a starvation wage for others to eat.
(Fast-food worker)

In her closing pandemic poem of the collection, “L for Liberty,” Senior’s warning in September 2020 still resonates during this fourth wave as anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers celebrate their freedom “to party…to play…to worship…in [their] usual way.

Let the rest of us not have to remember / September / as the month of / Give me Liberty and Give me Death.

It is worth remembering that the life taken by Covid-19 may not be your own. It may be a loved one, a close friend, a stranger in the supermarket. I’ve never seen my well-buffed, 29-year-old neighbor, who works in construction, wearing a mask. Recently, he was home-bound for over a month with a serious infection of the Delta variant. He doesn’t know how he caught the virus. “I infected my girl (the mother of his 18-month-old son), seven guys at work, and my best friend who almost died,” he told me. It was a sobering reality check. Yet, still no mask.

To read the complete featured poem, “W for Worker,” and learn more about the work of Olive Senior, go to my Poetry Corner August 2021.