Thursday, August 13, 2020

A Splinter of Ice

There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer. I watched and listened. There was something which one day I might need: the woman speaking, uttering the banalities she must have remembered from some woman's magazine, a genuine grief that could communicate only in clichés.

— Graham Greene, A Sort of Life
"All my companions but not myself". Greene observes before arriving at his notorious image of writerly detachment...

This is the retrospective expression of a writer’s ambivalence. The world has come suddenly apart, split in two, into the inhabited and the observed.

Julian Evans on Graham Greene's worldliness and moral ambiguity

I was reminded of Graham Greene's quote as I found myself mining my own grief this past week, as a kind of exorcism by prose and poetry. There was an initial residue of conflict as I started writing my testimony. But then I acquiesced, and made my peace with it, for I have long been afflicted with the journalistic impulse. The words came easily, and I poured my soul into my tribute; I was told the end result was moving and much appreciated. A few days later, the prescribed ceremonies took place. By necessity, I could only watch from afar, so I simply observed and, while watching, wrote the following...

What more when one could view the spectacle
Of a Ghanaian funeral in a covidious time?
You could escape from your corporate battles,
And join in the trans-Atlantic mourning
Further, it was made so easy for you on that Saturday morning,
A WhatsApp message, one click, and a live stream appeared online.

And so you got a glimpse of what it meant as you had read
"All COVID-19 protocols and directives will be strictly observed"
But if the preacher's wife dies, it can hardly be a small affair,
Let alone for a woman as remarkable as her.


The images came forth.
This was your third zoom funeral
First London, then Philadelphia
This time the service and burial
Would be held at Sakumono in Accra
The previously onerous funeral restrictions that we'd suffered
Had just been lifted throughout Ghana

In the church they observed the dress code, it was quite the sight
The shimmering white lace and other fabrics in black and white
And the masks, you could see the sanitizer stations
Even as you caught the occasional glimpse of your relations


But then you'd notice the occasional few
Whose masks had slipped, sitting in the pews
It's no use wearing face shields and masks, all that money spent
It just takes one infected mourner to make this a superspreading event.


Thankfully they hadn't hired the dancing pallbearers
But this crew seemed like they were working up to it
To the eyes of this exiled chief mourner.
Who knows with this kind of practice, one day they'll catch the holy spirit


You noticed that everyone's natural impulse to touch
Had to be curtailed, it was all too much
And beyond the prevailing masks worn, styled with the church's logo,
The parade of unnatural public mourning wasn't bringing much relief
Perhaps it was best to be 6,000 miles away, offscreen with your private grief.

The only hugs that you observed in the hourlong broadcast
Were of a mother and daughter, your aunt and cousin.
Even then, you could see the pointed eyes on them
Why are they breaching the new normalcy?
Before understanding prevailed,
And the critical mourners saw reason
How you yearned to be there hugging them yourself,
You tried, but the screen held fast.


But then, you couldn't help yourself, you're a writer
And you hearkened back to Graham Greene's splinter
For in your watching, you made sure you snatched a few pearls
These are the scribbled wages of a detached observer
Even as indelible images of grief pierced your retina
There you were thinking that "I might get another stanza":


My aunt, I hadn't realized it was the night of your marriage
31st December 1981
That came the military coup that would cause us all such damage
Could it really be that you, ever since, had to celebrate that strife?
Irony is the key register of African life

See also: Dela

A Spinter of Ice, a playlist

As usual a soundtrack for this note, a musical meditation perhaps on detachment and solitude and the obsessive ironies of the creative process. (spotify version)

See also: The Joy of Small Things

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time.

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