‘This is not a Warning, it is a Threat! Happy new year!’ So tweeted the American President before launching a missile strike in Iran that almost began World War Three. The American President (for separate reasons) was impeached, and then he was acquitted. Australia burned and did not stop burning and in the middle of that national crisis the Australian Prime Minister flew his family to Hawaii. He was an Australian being an Australian, and if we, like him, keep on being Australians, we will, as Australians, get through this. (This not being the national crisis of the past but the international crisis of the present.) Unprecedented rain flooded the North of England at the same time as new-normal rain emptied biblically into East Africa, quickly followed by a plague of hundreds of billions of locusts, forcing Somalia to declare its own national emergency. The Indian Prime Minister revoked the articles in the Indian Constitution that protected the safety and autonomy of the Muslim state of Kashmir, and, in Delhi, mobs burnt Muslim homes and lynched the people who lived in them, while the government and the police stood by and watched, and, in some cases, participated. The United Kingdom was paralysed by the extended death throes of Brexit, then Megxit – following one on the other like a fever dream of Empire’s end. And then came the collapse of our global health care system, a cataclysmic failure that held capitalism to the light like a soiled white cloth.
We started reading for this issue in December and finished in the middle of March. In those three months, the world changed so drastically, so definitively, that many of the poems here took on an urgency we never could have foreseen. A cataclysm creates its own velocity. It leaves in its wake broken lives, deserted cities, the ongoing futile paroxysms of grief, and a residual nostalgia for time passed, not a previous century or decade, not last year but last week.
Zadie Smith, in her essay, ‘Elegy for a Country’s Seasons’: ‘People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: ‘The new normal.’ ‘It’s the new normal,’ I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over.’
In the face of the catastrophe that has transformed our days, we mourn the normal. We mourn the loss of our old way of life, the world as we’ve always known it. We mourn the sudden loss of lives, a loss so abrupt we go slack with the shock of it. Strange to think that only two weeks ago, from the time of this writing, we were saying to our friends that we weren’t worried, that this too shall pass as everything passes, and we met them for brunch and touched their hands across the table, and shared our food from each other’s plates, and kissed their children on their heads, necks, cheeks, and paid for our meals with real physical money standing as close as we wanted to anyone. In a little over a month, when this issue goes to publication, how abnormal will that old normal feel? Because now we know the nature of the new world order created by business houses and political figures, those shadowy or showy operatives unaware of, or oblivious to, the true cost of their rapacity: the world is an arrangement of dominoes, each community is dependent on those beside it, and if one topples over like a beloved pear tree, then so will another, and another, until there are no trees left standing.
Despite this edition being unthemed – the 77 poems here unified by nothing but our own aesthetic persuasions – what emerged at the end was an anthology of our times. During these four months as editors, and as a part of the human community, we watched as the world hurtled towards disaster – pandemic, plague, a new Depression – and that made it difficult to look at these poems, to read them and read them aloud, without being struck by a sense of the biblical, the apocalypse, the end of days.
We’ve asked ourselves whether it was the timing, that so much happened while submissions were open, or if it was us, subconsciously reading for those words that would help us process the moment we were living in. It may be one or the other; and it doesn’t matter, not really, because this much is clear: themes emerged, bold and uncanny, in lines about the climate, about god or the absence thereof, about love and dread, the persistence of memory, the uses of humour as a weapon against power, and, again and again, the mechanisms that vivify the divisive, corrosive heart of our current historical moment.
If poetry is where we go to lick our wounds and whisper to each other the ancient sounds that will heal us, what you have in your hands or on your screen, dear reader, is a prayer or incantation, an amulet against the unravelling.