As the title suggests, A Pandemic Poem is rather an ambitious project: a piece of public art rather than a routine documentary about the Covid crisis. Perhaps, like the political (and the clinical) response to the coronavirus, the artistic response to what we’ve all been through – famously “unprecedented” – is bound to be flawed. Still, the BBC, filmmaker Brian Hill, and Britain’s poet laureate Simon Armitage have done as much as anyone to place it into some sort of perspective, and to memorialise our sense of loss. The sheer scale of collective bewilderment is encapsulated in the very title of the poem, “Where Did the World Go?” – a rhetorical question, of course.
The poem, mostly spoken on and off screen by Armitage, his northern tones drenched in gloom, acts as a narrative for the personal testimony, home videos, news archive footage, reconstructions, and music and dance sequences that make up this almost unrelentingly grim exercise. What we hear is upsetting, as you’d expect. Without being mawkish or prurient, it is gripping to hear how, for example, two identical twins in middle age were hit by Covid at the same time in the same place, and how one managed to emerge in seemingly reasonable health, while the other remains gasping and barely able to move with long Covid.
There are other traumatic losses, from Covid or exacerbated by it – Alzheimer’s, a termination, breast cancer, a man who lost everything when his 200-year-old family business failed, the pub landlord who resorted to selling meals for a penny, a refugee suffering from mental illness. At this point – and it is far from over – maybe it feels too early to reflect on the miseries of the past, because we are all still touched by them. Perhaps we are at the point where we’d rather forget about it for a while – not out of a lack of respect (far from it), but because it is still raw.
Some of the sequences combining poetry and dance are graceful and work well; others, like ballerinas in a suburban street, are just eccentric. Usually Armitage has an acute Victoria Wood-like eye for the absurdities of lockdown: “How many ways can you bake a banana cake?”, or “The hour of the home haircut draws ever nearer, my son / No rest ’til you’ve varnished with antibacterial gel.”
Other times, though, it doesn’t rise to the occasion, and it’s more William McGonagall than Wilfred Owen. There’s one especially bad passage, where they rope Sophie Raworth in to read it out in the BBC newsroom, over the images of a raid on a club:
“No room at the inn,
A tier-three nativity scene
Police in attendance
Dispersing the crowd for breaking the Rule of Six
The lamb and the camel sent home
The ass and the ox both issued
With on-the-spot fines
The three wise men turned back by Border Control
And Mary and Joseph all thumbs on Teams or Skype or Zoom
Forgetting to unmute
A software update delaying the virgin birth.”
Raworth does her best, but that’s really quite an embarrassingly bad bit of would-be satire, veering a bit too close to the “scamdemic” cranks’ world view. Indeed, the whole hour-long work is generally uneven, but more than anything, it feels like the timing just isn’t quite right for A Pandemic Poem. Too soon, Simon, too soon.