Pandemic Journal 1/4/2020 – of unicorns and contagion

I: Reading Phyllis Webb’s “The Days of the Unicorns”

As a fairly recent retiree, I was an early adopter of staying at home having followed the sorrowful and ruthless pandemic’s progress through China and Asia and then Italy and Spain and Europe and now the hapless USA and Canada and Mexico and on through India – and, well, all around the globe. Such a long and torturous road.

I can’t remember how many weeks I have been inside save for walks of my dog. My neighbours came back from Surinam, France, and Vietnam. All have finished their two week quarantine and I began my home stay many days before.

High pressure low spirit pandemic day today. The room tone is “deflated” as in who sucked the air out of this living room after how many weeks of social/physical isolation when I managed to busy myself into good spirits.

At the same time, our elected leader of Alberta, Jason Kenney, fired 26,000 education workers while making a controversial expenditure: “we” bought the Keystone pipeline going nowhere fast for billions of our money. What money? The teacher’s pensions he took over? Who knows? A disaster in the making. On top of all the other catastrophic choices Alberta’s UCP government has masterminded of late people in the province are split between cult followers and the horrified citizens. I paddle a leaky canoe among the latter.

I know this is scarcely credible now

as we cabin ourselves in the cold

and the motions of panic

and our cells destroy each other

performing music and extinction

and the great dreams pass on

to the common good.

“The Days of the Unicorns”

On that note and without further ado — in the hope that poetry is contagious (we know it is therapeutic) — here is a poem by one of my very favourite poets Phyllis Webb, long-time resident of Salt Spring Island on the wavy west coast edge of Canada’s Pacific Ocean.

The poem seems so much a part of this present moment the way great poetry time travels until it finds an opening to speak through. The poem in the video is voiced by yours truly. Behind the voice, you will sense the pandemic hum of the oven baking salmon for dinner, the whirr of the computer cooling down, the buzz of the furnace heating up as the temperature drops to -22C shortly after a snow storm. Such is a lucky life at latitude 53.


Reading Phyllis Webb’s “The Days of the Unicorns”

Phyllis Webb, a remarkable woman and writer, was the co-creator and Executive Producer who in 1965 brought into being the wonderful CBC radio programme Ideas that has inspired and entertained generations of Canadians over decades. In 1949, she ran in a BC provincial election for the  Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the precursor to our NDP — at 22 she was the youngest person to run for legislative office in the Commonwealth. In 1954, she was published in a Raymond Souster poetry collection with Eli Mandel and Gael Turnbull. Mandel, a wonderful poet and critic in his own right, was my PhD supervisor so my introduction to Phyllis Webb’s work was through someone who knew her distinguished poetic history through their long rapport.

Pardon the autobiographical turn, but now that I am in the mood for death cleaning – clearing out the house in case I die or the garage robbers return, I’m nostalgic for the long ago. Thus the story…

As part of my research for my dissertation, I travelled in 1985 to visit Phyllis and Daphne Marlatt and P.K. Page on Saltspring Island and in Victoria, B.C. The interviews became part of my Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers (UofToronto P, 1993). Phyllis was a reluctant interview subject, but generous in the end. I was so nervous that in advance of our meeting I disappeared to a nearby island beach cove and practiced yoga for a half hour to calm my nerves. As a graduate student, I was an inexperienced interviewer and managed to not record the first attempt. Utterly embarrassed and apologetic, I embarked on a second interview and happily the recording worked. In the end, it was a truly splendid experience, and to my mind, a fascinating interview. I visited Phyllis for a number of years afterwards and spent a month each spring in a small cabin near Fulford Harbour where she lived at the time. Sadly over the years we lost touch. But at 92, she still lives on beautiful Salt Spring Island. Her many readers and admirers were excited by the 1915 publication of Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems (Talonbooks), a welcome and expansive Phyllis Webb volume edited by her long-time editor John Hulcoop.


The Days of the Unicorns
                  - Phyllis Webb

I remember when the unicorns
roved in herds through the meadow
behind the cabin, and how they would
lately pause, tilting their jewelled
horns to the falling sun as we shared
the tensions of private property
and the need to be alone.

Or as we walked along the beach
a solitary delicate beast
might follow on his soft paws
until we turned and spoke the words
to console him.

It seemed they were always near
ready to show their eyes and stare
us down, standing in their creamy
skins, pink tongues out
for our benevolence.

As if they knew that always beyond
and beyond the ladies were weaving them
into their spider looms.

I knew where they slept
and how the grass was bent
by their own wilderness
and I pitied them.

It was only yesterday, or seems
like only yesterday when we could
touch and turn and they came
perfectly real into our fictions.
But they moved on with the courtly sun
grazing peacefully beyond the story
horns lowering and lifting and
lowering.

I know this is scarcely credible now
as we cabin ourselves in the cold
and the motions of panic
and our cells destroy each other
performing music and extinction
and the great dreams pass on
to the common good.

II: Lunatic Unicorns

The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn by Martin Schongauer, 1489.

The medieval beastiary told tales of the ferocious mythical wild unicorn, a difficult prey. In order to slay the small one-horned being, hunters would leave a virginal girl nearby. The unicorn would be pacified by her presence, lay its head in her lap and fall asleep. And the hunters would kill their prey.

Betye Saar To Catch a Unicorn (1960)

The brilliant visual work of two women artists revises this narrative. Betye Saar’s powerful etching To Catch a Unicorn figures a strong and sensual woman side by side with the companionable unicorn. Hunters are nowhere to be seen. Los Angeles-born Saar was one of the co-creators of the 1960s Black Arts Movement that developed parallel to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and included some of the most remarkable writers and artists of our time.

Rebecca Horn Unicorn (1970-72)

German performance and installation artist and filmmaker, Rebecca Horn created a brilliant horned sculptural headpiece and bodice, the feature image for this blog post. In the performance Unicorn (1970/2), unicorn and woman are one. I remember watching one of her films about 25 years ago and marvelling at the elegant estrangement that she created with her work.

While classical representations of the unicorn are often interpreted as figuring the virginal, the fertile and the feminine, these two unicorn creations and companions are inhabited by female bodies empowered by lunar mutability.

And isn’t that what saves us during our time of pandemic cabin fever? The knowledge that no matter how often we are visited by dystopian nightmares and anticipatory daydreams, manic highs and depressive lows, change itself promises creative transformation through our days living outside the life we left behind.


III: On Being Here Now

A sudden awakening at five in the morning. Unfathomable tragedies around the globe. A million deaths to grieve. Individual and collective economies shattered. Journalists visit with vulnerable people in Hong Kong and the Phillippines and reveal the lived and unequal relations that are at risk around the world:

For some, sheltering in place and social distancing mean home workouts in front of large-screen smart televisions, cooking up a storm with groceries ordered online and more time in their backyards.

Elsewhere, it means confining a family of four in a 110-square-foot space while children struggle with e-learning on a poor Internet connection. It means a devastating loss of income for families who now forage through trash, and crippling loneliness for those already on society’s fringes.

“I am so afraid….” Washington Post 27 March 2020

When will it stop? No critical timeline marks an end as my imaginary trajectory into the future towards more of the same in June or a pacified return to it in September or next February.  Is there a sense of an ending beyond lives uprooted and lost among social and economic collapse?

A call to being, an invitation by a friend to simply attend to the moment doesn’t cut it for me during a global pandemic. I realize the kind intentions of the entreaty. And the virtue of the practice: during a difficult period of my life I lived in an ashram and the rigid discipline, yogic practice, and communal life carried me through.

Pardon the complaint, but being held captive #StayHome beyond society and beloved family and friends save for long distance shouts across the meadow or a video call can have damaging effects. It hollows out what it means to be in the world into a “kind of” living death. Admittedly, the  “kind of” parataxis animates my breath – being – here -now. 

Separation from the proximity and touch of an interactive collective acts like a drop kick to the middle. Breathless, I am old though still in good health. Unlike those proliferating homely and awkward corpses zipped into faceless white suits hoisted by fearful men into anonymous blank refrigerator trucks. I am tempted to write “the ghoulish new show on Broadway.” But I won’t.

I watch my friend’s disorienting video that shows his schoolboy friends in India now successful grown men risking their lives on the street handing out meals one by one to a processional line of Delhi or Mumbai migrant workers expelled by government fiat from the cities. Subject to contagion, they march in a column leading nowhere. Slow enough to keep pace with millions. 

And here the simile “like” or the phrase “kind of” a living death masquerade the brutal epicentered elsewhere of this pandemic. My living room is nothing like New York. Or Gujarat. Or Lombardy. Or Madrid. Or Wuhan. Or a beached camp on Lesbos. Or a house-less tent pitched in the nearby Edmonton meadow this frigid night. 

I am sobered by the plight of others. A Spanish professor who works at a Scandinavian university, formerly a graduate student in my department, writes: “I check the news about Spain once a day (apart from talking to my parents every day) and things are incredibly hard. The country just registered 950 dead people in the last 24 hours. When is this nightmare going to end.”

Here in Alberta, a family man returns home from the oil and gas industry “mancamp” where he lives cheek by jowl with “essential” workers in a north Alberta wilderness. Home again, he presses his face against the cold of his front storm door. His tiny daughter’s warm hands stretch towards him, a mere touch away on the other side of the frigid glass. Just beyond him on his driveway, he has pitched a tent at -22C where he will sleep to keep his family safe.

The talented University of Ottawa lawyer and biomedical scientist Amir Attaran sees this father’s ethical and emotional dilemma as key to our pandemic’s course: “We have to remain distanced long enough—and much harder than we are already, …to choke off viral transmission in the community. People must stay at home. Non-essential workplaces must shutter. We absolutely must lock down almost everyone in Canada until community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 plateaus and declines to virtually nil.” 

He speaks directly to tweedle dum and tweedle dee Rob Ford and Jason Kenney: 

“The holdup now is that some provinces are sabotaging social distancing for their pet industries. Ontario has declared all manufacturing and construction is essential, as if all goods are in equal demand and quarantined Ontarians cannot live without home renovations. Alberta considers the oil sands essential, although bitumen is being sold at a loss, and tens of thousands of employees from across Canada are stuffed into work camps that are superb incubators for acquiring and then dispersing infection and death to every corner of this country. 

These lagging provinces and industries, and others like them, need to be given 24 hours to change their minds, or Ottawa must use coercion including the Emergencies Act or even new emergency legislation to rein in their operations because they are putting all Canadians in danger.”

Meanwhile Premier Jason Kenney oblivious to suffering snuggles down with his lover in a comfortable Calgary room with a view after he fires 26000 education workers. Let them eat cake in social isolation. Beleaguered remote-working parents home-school thousands of students let out of school. They make their own way with teachers through the term.

Meanwhile Health Minister Shandro and his wife shamble down the street towards a neighbour doctor to shout enraged insults across their front lawn as they profiteer from the UCP privatization of our health system. The lot of them revile and rip up the contracts of the doctors. Have a hate on for the nurses. Could care less about teachers. Or the poor.

All this melodrama, a tragedy for Albertans who are diminished in the interests of corporatist billion dollar pay outs. In the midst of a global pandemic. 

The psychic drama of this outer political friction scorches my cloistered domestic world reducing me to a soundless cry. Why soundless? In social isolation, the poodle has heard it all before. 


IV: Dear Reader,

Dawn again and I imagine a walk through the ravine. I think about breakfast. Or perhaps I’ll eat dinner instead. Who cares? The meal a diversion from addressing the front door and the fact of social isolation that dictates I will not go out to encounter a collective life. The fridge is full when a delivery person kindly drops off this week’s supply of veggies on the front porch. He no longer picks up the cardboard bin – too much potential for contagion.

I have no appetite but appreciate his visit. He calls to me from half-way down the sidewalk. When he hears my voice, he speeds off at a clip to make his rounds before the hard dark of our April fool’s winter night.

The images document entrances we cannot cross. Our “staying in place” disorients us. We run along beside ourselves, conscious of how we live.

Imagine we develop a new way of looking during this global reorientation. A new version of peripheral vision. Ordinarily our eyes anxiously flutter back and forth leaving out what stands in front of us. The erasure, an act of longing and will. 

The front door itself marks the boundary opening up the private property gap between my solitude and those without – like, say, the people who broke into my garage the other night.  I hope someone enjoys the view from MY chairs or MY bike or travelling nowhere with MY suitcase or whooshing across a field on MY trusty cross-country skis. MY MY MY.

Mine. I have all the privilege in the world. “Luck” obscures settler history and “the White possessive.”

And still, we suffer and sing and talk and laugh together, apart.

Walking in the afternoon with my neighbour is a welcome outing. We yell across our social distance though our dogs play havoc with each other on the ground. Nonetheless the garage invasion flummoxes me. 

I appreciate how my friends call knowing how fragile a life can be. My brother stands in his Annex garage talking me through beefing up garage security. By the end of our talk, I feel like breaking out my dusty drill and hammer. But the resistor in me is the one who likes to lay around, do genealogy and write. Apparently during a pandemic, the house cleaner in me goes on strike

Eudora Welty has some advice for me. My writing is an anchor and the words a chain of hours pressed into “one long sustained effort.” Welty describes how it can become “the act of being totally absorbed …which seems to give you direction. The work teaches you about the work ahead, and that teaches you what’s ahead, and so on. That’s the reason you don’t want to drop the thread of it. It is a lovely way to be.”

So I spend most days these days writing. Moving words around. Fixing sentences. Researching, and reading, and staring into space.

I awaken. Bathe. Or not. Throw on something comfortable for the day or drape a sweater over whatever I wore to bed. Like a sled on a slick slope, the writing, a good friend, can run away with you.

I began my home stay so many days ago. As soon as the California governor said 64-year-olds should stay home, I feel justified in my quick uptake of a pandemic reorchestrated life.

Once in 1995, I gave a series of talks on Canadian women writers to a several women’s universities in Seoul. I also travelled inland and visited another university. Afterwards, students took me on a walk up a beautiful mountain. Half-way, the sound of bells announced the Buddhist monks gathered. All were women in this sublime and tender environment that made me want to return. 

“When I’m old… when I retire…” I thought at the time. 

That day has come and apparently my mountain retreat is my great grey sofa where I stretch out with laptop and ipad taking turns researching and writing in between. Not quite what I had in mind at the time. But even during a pandemic (for what it is worth and with a terrible awareness of others’ suffering), I am often serenely happy — “…when I retire….” 

Rebecca Horn The Feathered Prison Fan (1978)

The Story So Far



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