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Odes to Touch

Antony Huen

[1]

The vintage-filtered music video of Harry Styles’ latest hit ‘Watermelon Sugar’ features a Hippie-looking group led by Styles himself, who are caressing, kissing, and eating slices of watermelon with unwashed hands. The video was shot back in January, but when it was released on YouTube, it was prefaced by this message: ‘This video is dedicated to touching. May 18, 2020’. The added statement fittingly reframes an otherwise cinematic campaign for physical joy in the middle of the pandemic, and such a self-aware dedication to touching now reads as an important moment in the age of physical and social isolation.

Over the last few months, we have been hit by a wave of artistic tributes to physical touch, and Taylor Swift’s latest album Folklore, created in quarantine and released in late July to universal acclaim, is a representative example. The surprise album is packed with poetic tunes that weave a past made of textile and tactility. The lead single ‘Cardigan’ features ‘an old cardigan/ under someone’s bed’ as a metaphor in a remembered fantasy (‘You put me on and said I was your favourite’), and in the song ‘August’, summer romance is recorded as an image of cuddling in bed (‘I can see us twisted in bedsheets/ August sipped away like a bottle of wine’). The singer-songwriter’s latest works are multi-sensory, expressing a particular attachment to physical intimacy but strikingly looking at it through the nostalgic prism.

The obsession with fabric, the tactile sense, and personal memory peaks in ‘Invisible string’. The song describes ‘my past mistakes’ as ‘wrapped’ ‘in barbed wire’, and ‘wool’ as the means ‘to brave the seasons’. ‘One single thread of gold/ Tied me to you,’ the speaker goes on to say, adapting the East Asian image of a red thread that represents the connection between those who are destined for each other. This adaption situates comfortably with Swift’s uses of a group of words related to fabric and sewing (‘wrapped’, ‘wool’, ‘thread’ and ‘tied’) to metaphorically represent self-acceptance, self-empowerment, and the emotional and physical bond in a relationship.

The song ‘Invisible string’, where Swift croons over gentle guitar chords, represents what it describes, being addressed to the other end of the string (‘All along there was some/ Invisible string/ Tying you to me?’). The songs in Folklore consistently build a sense of longing for a person, a past, and strikingly, physical intimacy. Even when Swift offers a snapshot of the work of healthcare workers these days, she focuses on the moment of an attempt to replicate physical contact: ‘Something med school did not cover / Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother / Holds your hand through plastic now’.

Swift’s lyrics are refreshingly poetic in the mainstream music landscape, and her sixteen-track collection might be the most popular but certainly not an isolated poetic creation that speaks to our nostalgia for physical contact and intimacy. Since June 2014, Rattle, an American poetry magazine, has included an online-only section Poets Respond®, publishing poems ‘written within the last week about a public event’. ‘How to Date During the Pandemic’ by Rayon Lennon, a Jamaican-American poet and frequent contributor, is one of the latest poetic responses. The poem is suffused with a kind of dystopian sarcasm: ‘Meet at a rapid/ Result testing/ Site’, and ‘If you’re both/ Positive, hug her like she is/ Your wife’. A hug is ironically impossible for a married couple, but only those tested positive for a contagious disease are said to enjoy it. The challenge in connecting with our loved ones is also echoed by each line punctuated with several unanticipated breaks.

Poets have been catching up in making timely responses to current events in the age of digital reproduction, and Rattle’s poets constitute part of a global poetic community that is now actively addressing the current pandemic and its implications for no physical touch in our social life. Apart from individual poems published in magazines like the how-to poem on dating, there have been projects curating poems that have arisen from the pandemic. Published in April by Willowdown Books and released digitally via Amazon, Poems from The Lockdown is one of the first of these projects. The anthology, edited by Trevor Maynard, includes the works by 115 poets from ten countries. The opening poem is by Andreas Fleps, based near Chicago, and it captures the spirit of the time: ‘Tomorrow, I hope we feel less/ fear, because it cripples the hands we use/ to catch each other’. The hope for a better tomorrow, time-specific as it is, is clearly counteracted by the extensiveness and intensity of the ‘fear’ it describes, as if there were a kind of collective haphephobia, which ran parallel to what the poem describes elsewhere as ‘collective grief’.

If works of art created in the US, given the magnitude of the pandemic’s impacts in the country, best represent the influence of the pandemic on the arts, it is evident that the latest poetic creations are shaped by the pandemic in at least two opposite ways: to weave escapist narratives and recreate a time of physical connection and intimacy, when lovers were ‘twisted in bedsheets’ and metaphorically tied to each other; and alternatively, to be engaged in the moment and meditate upon the physical and social distancing during the pandemic.

Poets based in the UK, in contrast to their transatlantic counterparts, seem to have found a middle ground between the two polar opposites, reimagining the tactile moments in isolation. Spearheaded by Carol Ann Duffy and the Manchester Writing School, Write Where We Are Now is an online repository for poets to record what they have seen and experienced during the pandemic. One of the four featured poems is by Seán Hewitt, who has recently published his debut collection with Jonathan Cape. Hewitt’s poem begins by describing ‘the old whitethorn’ as ‘an artefact of fear,/ that a touch of the hand might/ bring a blight’, and the fear projected onto the plant is registered by the rhyme in ‘might’ and ‘blight’, and the alliteration in ‘bring’ and ‘blight’. Speaking of ‘celandines’ whose blossoming ‘might in turn open us to some/ invisible fracture’, the collective voice declares, ‘We have never wanted/ to be touched like this’. Hewitt’s old pun on touch, conflating the physical and emotional faculties, embodies a cauldron of anxieties that permeate the poem, and since the poem is in the present tense and voiced by ‘We’, these feelings notably resonate with ours in the time of hyper-fear and hyper-sensitivity. 

Hewitt is not the only poet recreating an encounter with nature. With his increasing online presence, the ever-prolific, Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes has contributed roughly a hundred poems to the digital collection, and ‘Vigil’, from his digital deluge of poems, is an account of a ‘dialogue’ with the wind that blows into ‘your’ bedroom:

Into your warm bed
creeps the cool breath of waking
night and settles in

beside you, lodging
its firm demands for comfort.
It’s the dialogue

These short lines, with the sound repetitions (most prominently, the sharp k sounds in ‘creeps’, ‘cool’, ‘waking’ and ‘comfort’), vividly depict a cool breeze with agency, requesting ‘comfort’ on the ‘warm bed’, and simultaneously, turning itself into a companion on a ‘waking/ night’. What might be a night alone in bed is reimagined here as a phantasmagoria of sensuality. Painting a scene of the present like Hewitt, Szirtes portrays a night spent with the wind, and if Hewitt’s ‘We’ can be identified with ourselves, Szirtes’ bedtime fantasy, narrated in the second person, immediately lodges in our mind as what we might experience in isolation in the middle of the night.

The times in quarantine have impelled poets and other artists to engage the senses and to engage with nature and domestic settings, as they explore ways to register and negotiate a nostalgic attachment to physical proximity. Likewise, our understanding of works of art from before the pandemic is now shaped and reshaped by our hyper-consciousness of what touch can do. ‘Death by Power Cut’, a poem from Szirtes’ 2001 collection An English Apocalypse, mockingly refers to touch as threatening: ‘Lovers moved apart, as if afraid/ of what touch might do. The old would grin/ and bear it’. Szirtes’ apocalyptic vision from almost twenty years ago feels eerily relevant, offering a perhaps characteristic perspective of the old. The pandemic commingled with the digital age has nudged us into unprecedented ways of connection and reconnection, and whatever comes our way, we might as well ‘grin and bear it’.

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Antony Huen [2] recently graduated from the University of York with a PhD in English, and is now a Lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.