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2020 Contributing Writers Pandemic Poetry

Dancing Around Corners: Poems written during a pandemic

Written by Anne Pia

My Mother’s Rosary

my nightmares play on repeat
sequence follows sequence
colour-bled animations
stain these fresh walls
a silent wilderness freezes on white geometry.
I leak secrets in sweat
am grateful for steady breath,
sound landmarks towards north…journeying still,
and in my palm finally
I clench a greening crucifix, mould and metal;
yellowed beads drop one by one through frail fingers,
each and every one defiant at
this craving to catch my mother’s smell.

Another siren splits clagging air.
Another missile.


Love Letters in Lockdown

In the last days of a world we thought was solid
massing of dark cloud, warrior winds summoning strength,
Corona settled, we cowered, made ourselves invisible,
and in the void
there was only the nearness of our own breath
of reality collapsed to window frames
the stillness of trees, as we all waited.

Somewhere along the rim of consciousness
there was the thought of ending,
the day I would delete you my old friend, from my phone
you no longer walking those sands I promised to visit,
or those wild flowered fields down by the river,
or like the well-loved notes of a much played tune,
finding myself speaking your words, spoken in a distant memory,
singing your song, as I speed along a motorway.

Then through the small, careful steps of day after day,
of small discoveries,
of dancing with strangers around corners,
the unaccustomed smile of a neighbour
that brought tears,
opening a front door wide to the unknown,
dismantling a home delivery,
like a forgotten war bomb,
on small screens, you became larger,
in unfamiliar alphabets
we evolved a new language;
and we learned to walk new leylines
learned a new geography of human,
of friendship and worth.

We laid foundations afresh.


Lessons in Coffee

my prosaic kitchen is the set stage of a Glass opera
replacing green-tiled, brutal style coffee shops
entombed now in plywood , drawbridge well shut
its lean anatomy is rearranged;
crumbs of love in coffee beans,
shallow breathing from a sleek Moka machine,
and out of sober, white bags,
sought after treasures from a Portobello bakery,
small miracles…
the slow rise of sweet scones,
dimpled dough basking in spring sunshine,
fattening on my windowsill,
earth scents of confettied rosemary,
whirlpools of olive oil,
rich crackle of crusting in an ample oven.

Amid the starkness of masks somewhere on the outside
beyond the trees and unused road,
with yeast, godlike particles,
I plough fresh tracks in flour,
pour out warmth in water.
I live a new innocence.


Notes

Don’t ask me for words
words won’t suffice,
can’t speak for me…
give no comfort
ask too much.
Wordless
I wrap myself in a blanket
working strings and bow…
seeking only small solutions.

In the late morning from sturdy sound structures,
I drift to the unknown …
in Higdon and Auerbach…
massaging grief
in the mythic fantasies of a Hebridean fiddle.

My rough-laid shelf,
is made of splinters..smoked salmon in a Tesco bag,
a first latte after lockdown, Wednesday tunes, zoom with friends,
or by a lake cooking sausages together, amidst Bay-leaved willows,
a neat stove, three laughing swimmers and the chatter of rain,
soft needles on a crater of glass.

My cold computer screen
contains me,
reminds me I cannot reach my daughters’ warmth,
I review photographs of that other time,
the wood strains against the force, fails,
no match for tears
or the fucking rage.


Game Over

Bring back the masquerades and the make-up
I am a self I do not recognise
where have I gone?


Anne Pia is based in Edinburgh, and is a language graduate with a Doctorate in Education. Her interests include language, dialogue, and identity.

Her memoir Language of My Choosing was  shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year 2017 and won the Premio Flaiano Linguistica 2018.

Transitory, her first poetry collection, was published in April, 2018.

Anne’s writing has appeared in Northwards Now, Poetry Scotland, New Voices Press, Southbank Poetry London, The Blue Nib.

2020 Contributing Writers Pandemic Prose

Abandoned

Written by Gail Aldwin

How can I possibly be responsible for the spread? I’m made of pure gold and the simplicity of my design means I’m just a circular band that fits neatly on Sophie’s finger. It’s absolutely ridiculous to suggest that my presence makes her susceptible. I certainly don’t irritate skin and the only things I attract are admiring glances. My sole purpose is to symbolise love and marriage. I didn’t even realise Sophie could remove me. It took a large quantity of soap to ease me off her finger and I noted with a little pride, that I left an indentation on her skin after my years of loyal service. I can’t believe I’ve been dumped and left to associate with adornments in the jewellery box. 

I hate being in enclosed spaces but at least I’m in the cushioned section and not shoved into a pocket like Bling. Feelings of grandeur can’t save her and anyway we all know she’s made from paste. And it’s so noisy in here. The usual residents are complaining of overcrowding. Grandma’s Brooch doesn’t like to share her compartment with Beaded Bangle. She says Bangle is a contender for germs because she hangs around wrists. I should sympathise, Grandma’s Brooch is an older piece and belongs to a vulnerable group. As for Choker, she’s long escaped. From what I understand, she’s having a fine time doing acrobatics on the jewellery tree when she’s not languishing around Sophie’s neck. I can’t blame her for making the most of her freedom. She’s a lucky one and as for Stud and Hoop they’ve never been so grateful to be associated with ears. Getting out and about was something I really enjoyed. Day and night I was on Sophie’s finger but now look at me, abandoned. 

On the bright side, it’s only a matter of time before a vaccine is found and I can resume my place on Sophie’s finger. I mean she is still married to Paul, isn’t she?



Gail Aldwin’s publications include a debut novel The String Games (Victorina Press, 2019), a poetry pamphlet adversaries/comrades (Wordsmith_HQ, 2019) and a flash fiction collection Paisley Shirt (Chapeltown Books, 2018). Prior to repatriation due to Covid 19, Gail volunteered at Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda. Find Gail @gailaldwin and https://gailaldwin.com.

2020 Contributing Writers Pandemic Poetry

A CARNIVAL WITHOUT SOUND

Written by Niall McDevitt

1
it is strange to see the young so afraid of death
walking badly dressed in emptied-out streets.
at first, they were not supposed to care much
or to be looking for cheap flights and hotels;
but fear foreruns virus and dragnets foil escape.
no one is quite the same anymore, body or mind,
all succumbing to the ghostliness of the hour.
the bottom has fallen out of the usual charade.

a carnival without music, a carnival without sound

2
laughter, disbelief, and conspiracies are dustbinned.
moods shift, heavy-bellied with unnamed feeling.
hair lengthens to brute, even women look feral
in a funereal atmosphere where nothing is normal.
we process along paths as pilgrims to Mecca (maybe
Islam was onto something with face coverings?)
or like a fancy dress party where everyone shows up
as the invisible man in sunglasses, bandages, hats.

a carnival without music, a carnival without sound

3
fear is in the equinoctial weather. the primal war
between winter and spring is in its endgame
so that March would have discombobulated anyway.
fear is even in the sun that registers win-win
by flaming through a status quo of negation
to glow so warmly and brilliantly and sanely
polishing the infrastructural surfaces we share.
the sun! it may be the last some of us ever feel.

a carnival without music, a carnival without sound

4
people have lost their poise, their bravado
as malaise takes hold of their understandings.
the young Indian in the cornershop is terrified
of his customers’ quasi-fatal notes and coins.
his eyes roll and dart about his youthful skull
as if about to shoot out with a sudden pop.
I felt I was murdering him just by perceiving him.
other shopkeepers wobble on the frontline too.

a carnival without music, a carnival without sound

5
in the midst of no man’s land, outcasts regroup.
it’s a ‘boon time’ for criminals who are yet discernible
– though everyone’s masked, gloved and hooded now –
by their Cain-like gait and cloven hoppings to and fro
from dealers to users and back, stopping momentarily
to look about shiftily, and then gob on the flagstones.
etiquette of the demimonde? territorial markings?
they are staking a claim in the fresh dispensation.

a carnival without music, a carnival without sound

6
the spectacle is of a land with no grail. Avalon’s
stupefied queues forage for basic provisions,
two metres between wrapped hangdog forms.
on one high street, only Tesco and the undertakers
are trading. pasta, alcohol, soap and toilet rolls
are the commonweal of the atomised-by-law,
some talking into wires like madmen, fiendish,
others vacant, half-afloat on shuttered parades.

a carnival without music, a carnival without sound

7
ambulances dance via christmas-cake mansions
and brutalist blocks of two-nations architecture
with sirens switching from long wails to short
whoop-whoops along tree-lined, traffic-free lanes.
one house is entered, a ton of chattels piled up
on the grass outside, eerie eviction. another flat
is sellotaped-off. a trio in hazmat safety suits
hovers about the foyer as noiseless as astronauts.

a carnival without music, a carnival without sound

8
freezers ordered, freezers delivered, freezers stocked
in a political landscape like a pop-up morgue.
the older and wiser look down toward the ground
who knew death might come soon, but not this soon.
they too have shopping bags and thinned-out newspapers,
standing under a natural white blossom umbrella
grateful to insert a key into their own front doors.
they know the rhythms of spring better than anyone.

a carnival without music, a carnival without sound


Niall McDevitt is the author of three collections of poetry, b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010), Porterloo (International Times, 2013) and Firing Slits, Jerusalem Colportage (New River Press, 2016). In 2012, he performed poetry at Yoko Ono’s Meltdown. In 2016, he performed in Iraq at the Babylon Festival. Irish poet, he lives in London. You can see more of his work at poetopography.wordpress.com.

Article Jonas Guigonnat MICRO CHANGES - JAN/FEB 2019

A Pragmatic War On Drugs

Written by Jonas Guigonnat

To the irritation of most locals, and of Dutch people in general, if you drop the name Amsterdam anywhere in the world, weed and coffeeshops will pop-up almost surely.

For decades Amsterdam has been considered a symbol of tolerance and freedom, mostly in left-winged communities, but as far as the right is concerned, it is a place of dangerous pragmatism. The Dutch media would say, “that’s typical ‘Nederlandse politiek.’”

If You’re Going To Amsterdam…

Amsterdam of the 60s, 70s, and 80s is often considered the city of hippy dreams, lost souls could wander around for ages, sleep everywhere in the city center, take their hits in the bright warmth of a summer day, while greeting tourist with an orgasmic flash. Yes, yes, yes (read in Dutch “ja, ja, ja”), there were a lot of alternative communities in the Netherlands in the 1970s with every recreational “visitor” sleeping in the Vondelpark. Fine.

Those stories of freedom were told over and over again to a whole generation of (then) youngsters, and some of the locals love to keep the myth alive. The reality that Dutch politicians saw in front of them was less romantic.

The heroin epidemic that began at the same time, that we nowadays consider past history, was sowing chaos in the streets. In some areas of the city center of Amsterdam, such as Nieuwmarkt, it wasn’t safe for anyone – not even for the residents. The other problem was the “cost” of those thousands of addicts.

Other places all around the country had to manage the same kind of circumstances. The Netherlands, which was at the time just crawling out of an economic crisis, wasn’t prepared, and politicians weren’t eager to take action.

Mellow Yellow by Michael Delaney

Fuck Authority

The friction between the political sphere and civil society wasn’t only one of economics. In the 1960s some movements that saw themselves as apolitical, were criticizing the dichotomous choice between democracy and communism. Both were equally authoritarian to them.

The Dutch politicians, who first tried to respond with force, were quickly put under pressure as new parties made their appearance, but most vanished in the decades thereafter. The D66 with Hans van Mierlo (created indeed in 1966) was among the few to remain. This “Democrats 66” was created in a period of confrontation, but they used a moderate and “reasonable” tone. Their values were based on liberalism, with an extended place for freedom of choice that included choosing to do drugs.

The motivations behind their wish for a legalization policy, instead of repression, were practically dictated by the dominant ideology. It was to keep the democratic values safe that some drugs needed to be legalized, not because taking drugs was an important issue in and of itself to them.

In 1976, the “Opium-law” (Opiumwet), mostly a repressive tool of 1928, was opened up and extended with a new distinction: hard and soft drugs. Coffeeshops, such as the famous and now closed Mellow Yellow in Amsterdam, were already open in the early 1970s, and because they were exclusively handling what are considered soft drugs they continue to exist durably – a contrast to the old-time speakeasy’s, where all kinds of substances could be purchased and consumed.

Instead of the romantic idea of a typical Dutch “way of life,” the coffeeshop appears to have been a pragmatic solution born out of circumstantial needs. People getting stoned inside designated areas, were less of a burden than junkies in the street. Still, to Dutch politicians, the drug culture was already becoming a shameful particularity, one which they tried at all costs to silence rather than defend in front of the international community.

The Netherlands: Tulips, Cheese & Compromises

Without trying to cover the political system of the Netherlands in its entirety, it is necessary to know a few things.

Since the creation of the Dutch House of representatives in 1848, power has been decentralized in the government. One hundred and seventy-one years later, the Dutch prime minister – ‘minister president’ or ‘premier’ –  consequently doesn’t have the power of other global leaders today, such as May, Macron, or Trump.

VVD, CDA, CU, and D66. Those are the four factions governing the Netherlands for just over a year now sharing ministries, political responsibility, and decisions. Only one of them is the “great architect” behind the Dutch drug policy.

The VVD (liberal right) party of the prime minister Mark Rutte, with 33 seats in the parliament (“second chamber”) ate the once great party of the country, along with the CDA (center/right-winged Christian democrats) with only 19 seats, they are traditionally against a regulated drug policy. For them, prohibition and repression are the best answer to the situation. The CU (center/left-winged Christian democrats) are also against it, but with only 5 seats in the chamber, they represent a small (but not negligible) political force. D66 (center liberal democrats) is thus the single ruling party then and now in favor of regulating drugs.

Parties in the House of representatives, their number of seats and their attitudes toward drugs (the parties mentioned previously are starred):

Party Political orientation(s) Seats Attitude toward drugs policy
VVD* Liberals/right 33 Repression, prohibition
PVV Populists/far right 20 Repression, prohibition
CDA* Christian democrats/centre-right 19 Pragmatic (soft) prohibition
D66* Democrat-liberals/centre 19 Legalization, liberalization
Groen Links Green social democrats 14 Pragmatic liberalization
SP Radical social democrats 14 Pragmatic liberalization
PVDA Social democrats 9 Pragmatic liberalization
CU* Christian democrats/centre-left 5 Pragmatic prohibition
PVDD Radical ecologists, animal activists 5 Pragmatic legalization
50Plus Party for older people 4 Pragmatic prohibition
SGP Orthodox protestants 3 Repression, prohibition
Denk Multicultural social democrats 3 Pragmatic liberalization
FvD Nationalist conservatives 2 Repression, prohibition

* Parties forming the government since 26 October 2017. They have altogether a total of 76 seats.

Is The Netherlands A Friend Or Foe In The War On Drugs?

The 1970s and 80s were surely not the right moments for “western” countries to liberalize their drugs policy. The biggest global players at the time were the US, the European Economic Community (the predecessor of the EU, which the Netherlands was already a member of), and the UN. In 1961 in New York, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was signed, including by the Netherlands, and prohibition became the international standard.

The heroin epidemic, which was raging throughout the west and somewhat more acutely in the US, was creating an atmosphere of panic. After the “war on drugs” was declared by President Nixon in 1971, the Netherlands was at risk of becoming an enemy with its lax policy. Politicians in The Hague were well aware of that but still developed a durable attitude of turning a blind eye to some drugs.

Aside from narco-tourism, this tactic seemed to be successful for a while. Even though many addicts were still on the loose, the “drug areas” were slowly becoming cleaner and safer. Coffeeshops were opening everywhere. Amsterdam was saturated, with a peak of 450 coffeeshops in 1995, pleasing thousands of Belgian, French and German tourists living nearby.

Officially, the rule was always 5 grams of weed per person, but nobody was actually enforcing it. Some coffeeshops were selling large quantities, helping the black market develop in other countries. Fortunately, the Dutch government was also profiting from the situation and using that money to invest in society thanks to all the tax money that came in.

Just kidding, it didn’t and still doesn’t tax the weed industry.

No Money, More Guns

That’s the whole magic of the “we don’t know anything about it” policy chosen by Dutch politicians. They changed the law in 1976 to make their cities safer, spare health care costs and ultimately obstruct the development of drug-related criminality, but refused to make a fully functioning policy out of it. Eventually, the first two objectives were met, however, when it comes to criminality, it is tempting to speak of a total failure. But what does the law say about coffeeshops exactly?

Establishments with a special license are allowed to sell small quantities, up to 5 grams per person, but the production is illegal. They are allowed to have a stash, but only up until a certain amount. Officially, the law forbids all purchasing of weed, which essentially gives coffeeshops free reign to choose their illegal suppliers, as the production isn’t regulated either. The objective is to allow the product to be processed without legally recognizing its existence, making taxes impossible.

The stash still had to be produced, and here shows how naively policy was built. No income taxes and a free pass for criminals.  Illegal activities didn’t disappear but instead became even more organized.

Small dealers, since the end of the 2010s, are almost nonexistent, but organizations – such as different local, Eastern-European and Asian mafia groups – have been well established since the 1980s. Thanks to the Dutch policy those groups are also the ones providing coffeeshops with their stash. Some coffeeshops do keep control over the whole process, becoming important suppliers and blending into the creme of international criminality.

The region in the south of the country, North-Brabant, also plays an important part in this story. Most of the weed production is situated in this agricultural region. Farmers are forced to lease their barns to criminal organizations, family houses are used as warehouses; the whole area became, and still is, an industrial pole for the cannabis industry. In total illegality.

Ivo Opstelten (VVD) former mayor of Rotterdam and Minister of Security and Justice

Please Mr. Opstelten, Lead The Dance

In 2010 the government was composed of the VVD and the CDA, but because they had a minority, they were backed by Geert Wilders’ PVV of (populist, far right). Beside the post of minister-president, the VVD also had important ministries, most fondly the Ministry of Security and Justice.

The Ministry of Security and Justice is not only one of the most important government organs, it is also the place where most of the political decisions on drugs take place. Under its VVD minister Ivo Opstelten, repression had to once again become the main vision on drugs policy.

Opstelten and the VVD tried to introduce the infamous “weed pass,” which was intended as a first step to preventing tourists from buying weed in coffeeshops. The municipalities and coffeeshops refused to introduce the pass, arguing that it would ultimately disturb public order. Together with the courts, the parliament backed the municipalities and asked Opstelten for better guarantees than his own political opinion before voting on anything else related to drugs policy. Independent research institutes had to produce reports on the subject.

Conveniently, the conclusion of those reports confirmed the vision of the minister: further liberalization of the Dutch drug policy would be detrimental to social safety and health. A repressive system was the only solution.

Under newly mandated Opstelten, coffeeshops were closing quicker than they were being built. First in Maastricht and Rozendaal in the south, then everywhere else even in Amsterdam, where the number of coffeeshops went down to less than 200 after 2015.

Falling And Rising In The Drug-Political Realm

Fortunately (or not), things can go wrong in political schemes. A few words will be written about it in the next issue of Pandemic, but still, ask Theresa May.

Opstelten, this warrior of law and order (as he used to present himself) was beaten at his own game, and ultimately forced to step down in 2015. Turns out he was covering up a money laundering deal between the state prosecution and a drug dealer dating back to the mid-90s. In the years that followed, some information leaked about the famous drug policy reports that the minister presented to the parliament. Although every parliamentary report is meant to be independent of any political influence, the minister gifted himself the privilege of deciding on the cannabis reports’ conclusions and hence could influence the whole policy.

In the meantime, the international situation changed too starting in 2012 when two US states legalized weed for recreational use.  Uruguay was the first country to legalize weed for recreational use, while countries like Portugal, Switzerland, Spain, and Germany liberalized their drug policy, pushing even further what the Netherlands had started. As of 2018, Canada has also joined the list.

In North America, cannabis-entrepreneurs are incentivized to commercialize the whole chain; from production to sales. There are also limitations, mostly due to the ambiguity of the federal US policy, which is officially against any kind of weed legalization. But still, in just a matter of 4-5 years, both Canada and the US are far ahead of the Netherlands when it comes to cannabusiness.

Rushing Solves Nothing

We may say that the Dutch take their time. For the impatient ones among us, it would be better to consider the political game in The Hague as one of compromise and, thus, patience. D66, which participated in many coalition governments within which, even with opposition stacked against them, they had some influence in the lawmaking process.

In 2017 one of their parliamentarians, Vera Bergkamp, introduced a legal proposition for an “experiment” with the municipalities, to see how production could be regulated. At the same moment, D66 was participating in the formation of the actual government, which meant that they had the possibility of “winning” on some subjects, and, of course, of losing on others. Bergkamp’s proposition, having been approved by the parliament, left open the question of how the government would implement this.

From the beginning of 2019, some chosen municipalities will let coffeeshops experiment with production. Everything will be organized and monitored from The Hague, but nobody knows what the results will be.

The first problems are already being discussed. For example, how can coffeeshops continue to sell if they have to change from illegal to legal suppliers overnight? And what of the criminals, who is going to take care of them? Who is going to control everything, the state, the municipalities, or independents organizations? Those questions need to be answered adequately. Otherwise, future governments may turn the machine of impractical pragmatism back on again.

Change Grows Slowly

Changes that aren’t wanted, but needed, might have to go slowly, sometimes almost invisibly. Whether it comes to pragmatic or idealistic choice, the Dutch cannabis policy demonstrates how institutions tend to handle issues only when confronted.

First denial and then reaction – mostly quite late. Maybe this is caused by the suddenness of change, a sensation that surprises the lawmaker.

As far as coffeeshops are concerned, time will tell how complex this cultural, social, economic and political transformation really is, and how society will react to the next emergent political reality. For now, let’s enjoy a chalice of delicious hashish on this late winter day.