Public message (18) May Day in Plague Time

Olivia Sudjic
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‘Social distancing’ is what Corona experts advise, but ‘social nearness’ is what we aim for with our literary events. Passa Porta wants to keep connecting authors with their readers. Over the coming weeks, we will therefore be asking writers, from home and beyond, for a personal “Public Message”.

Olivia Sudjic lives in London and immediately stood out in 2017 with her debut novel Sympathy, a highly intelligent and disturbing story about digital communication, obsession and intimacy. Sudjic was a writer-in-residence at Passa Porta in the spring of 2018, an experience that left clear traces in her essay Exposure. In the poem that she wrote for our ‘Public Messages’ she reports on life in an "exposed" London.


May Day in Plague Time

May Day in plague time
Leaving my flat
I lose muscle memory
Like I lose passwords, forgetting I cleared history
My shadow dislocates on the kerb
Blue gloves with ghost fingers
Shedding invisibly
I step off the pavement — into nothing

Suspense is old news warmed up
Now it is summer, revision season without end
Young royals make zoom calls
And police dye the water the colour of hearses
Polyglot Prime Minister speaks his dead languages
Quotes Cicero
Makes sacrifices
Of unskilled workers
Refrigerated vans, some carrying bodies
Wait at unpeopled crossings

Lambeth walking, straight talking city in negative
Bus shelter advertising cum archaeology
cum has been around for centuries, so it’s not necessary to italicise it
I come to the river for rhetoric
Bird parliament
St Thomas’ Hospital
Like our blonde body politic
Gold sovereign, now tender
Baby daddy is clapping so he has immunity

Under railway arches lined with mosaics
Past Europe: A Prophecy
That glittering snake likes to lie in the sun
Now it seeks cover, cold-blooded
You know the Blakes sat here naked, under their apple tree
Catherine the ‘clean-hands operative’ when William’s were inky
Illiterate, she signed her wedding contract ‘X’, like a ballot
Out of the tunnel and into the light again

An ambulance rests
Soft head on the wheel
Behind railings they are still sleeping in tents
The sights are the same but my senses are changing

In Archbishop’s Park the playground is netted
An alien like in the Pentagon videos
Another headline is breaking, speaking in tongues
Invisible friends call to each other
So much birdsong in urban environments

Is it only that we have been muted
Or are there more birds singing than sirens?
We’re no prophets — stopping to listen without understanding
Still as the sun sets behind Old Paradise Gardens
Stop working, pens down

My Yugoslav grandmother left me a small jug
Held in common
No other instruction
It was an instrument for speaking the language of birds
Learn a new language this lockdown!
Fill this with water and put your lips to it

Olivia Sudjic, May 2020

Olivia Sudjic