Requisite Words Episode 18 – “The face of all the world is changed, I think”

Content note: A brief discussion of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Also contains a dog. Transcript follows the embedded player below.

Anxiety and similar conditions can be exacerbated in times of uncertainty, so future episodes during the pandemic will feature content warnings where relevant. While the poems shared may remain directly or tangentially relevant to the global situation, mention of Covid-19 will be avoided after this episode.

Two of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s works feature in this episode, recorded from self-isolation.

Episode Music:
Be Chillin’ by Alexander Nakarada |
Music promoted by
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Photo is by Dominika Roseclay, courtesy of Pexels |…dachshund-895259/

“The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole
God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,
And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear.
The names of country, heaven, are changed away
For where thou art or shalt be, there or here;
And this … this lute and song … loved yesterday,
(The singing angels know) are only dear,
Because thy name moves right in what they say.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Okay, so it’s a sonnet about love – the 7th Sonnet From the Portuguese, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But it might serve to remind us that poetry is often intrinsically about a shifting view and experience of the world, often brought on by external factors.

The Coronavirus pandemic has been described as a black swan event, but that isn’t really a fair assessment. We knew. We knew, for centuries, that lowered technological barriers to migration brought with them the easier spread of disease. Ask any indigenous people how we learned this. We know that pathogens evolve. We know that a less predictable climate puts more evolutionary stresses on all organisms.

We knew, in short, that it is only ever, in this context, a matter of time between pandemics.

And nations prepared, to different extents. Communication protocols and health infrastructure. Scalable plans for managing populations.

But population and people are not interchangeable terms, as we’ve been learning, and people don’t always like to be managed.

People react, in times of pressure, and those reactions are sometimes at odds with the best-considered plans. Change can bring out the irrational and the selfish in any of us – but it can also challenge us to be better, and we’ve already seen many selfless and considerate examples through these early months.

My wife and I are in voluntary self-isolation this week after recent travels in the US – but unless an incredible streak of luck intrudes, Aotearoa is going to step up measures to continue slowing the spread of the virus. So, like much of the world, we’re looking at the possibility of several months with limited interpersonal interaction outside our household.

I wanted to acknowledge the situation, but during this time – health permitting – I’m planning to record more frequent podcasts, sharing poetry that represents the better aspects of humanity in the face of adversity and change.

One practical strategy my wife and I have implemented is taking time away from news feeds and social media each day, to prevent, or at least reduce, obsession over elements of the pandemic that we can’t change. Phones away, we play a board game, discuss a random topic, make art, read, exercise, or watch something. We’re trying to make those choices conscious and deliberate, so we don’t get stuck in a routine that feeds less healthy habits.

In a similar vein, this is a difficult time for many people with anxiety, so I’ll be prefacing each coming episode with a tone advisory, and avoiding direct comment about Covid-19 from here on.

I can’t promise every poem I choose will be uplifting, but I’m hoping to share an eclectic mix of works ranging from the outright entertaining and humorous to the introspective.

The second poem today is another piece by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that runs this gamut.

Before you panic, there is a comma in the title. It’s called To Flush, My Dog.