This poem is alive. 615 Albertans who had COVID-19 are not. As more die, the poem will grow.
EDMONTON -- The newest writing by Edmonton’s poet laureate has something in common with every single person in the world right now: COVID-19. But it also has something that the hundreds of Albertans who have died from the disease don’t: life.
Nisha Patel’s writing, titled “432 - 615 - ?,” will live to see another day, and more days after that.
It’ll see vaccines distributed in Alberta, and perhaps case numbers around the world lower.
It’ll mark triumphs and likely more losses.
And it will grow older, more informed, for Patel will add one word to it for every death to COVID-19 in her home province.
She says the piece was born on Nov. 15 out of a feeling of powerlessness and a sense of collective grief. That day, Lewis Hamilton became the first Black man to win a seventh Formula 1. A day earlier, Alberta had reported for the first time more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases in 24 hours. As of Nov. 18, COVID-19 had claimed the lives of 432 Albertans.
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“There’s only so many relatives I could talk to and encourage to stay home and stay safe and stuff like that… There was only so much I could do,” Patel told CTV News Edmonton.
But as a writer she could – and as the city’s poet laureate, she is tasked to – chronicle Edmonton’s history.
Her poetry comes from the perspective of a young, queer, disabled woman of colour watching COVID-19 spread across the planet and her municipal and provincial governments scramble to react.
“My mother cancels Diwali while my relatives return to work for the 270th day in a row, packing food and Christmas flyers, and staffing emergency rooms in infested hospitals,” the poem reads. “The premier takes to radio shows to blame everyone but himself, asking for me and my people to wake up, and neither my city councilor nor my Mayor defend us.”
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All the while, life goes on for Patel: George Floyd is killed. He is not the first, nor the last, nor one of a few Black or Brown people to die by a police bullet, and the conversation about police funding enters City Hall. Some Whyte Ave businesses ooze onto sidewalks, while other shutter for good. COVID-19 patients fill the hospitals, emergency rooms and nursing homes Patel’s family work at.
“What was my everyday experience like of living with this huge disease, which is so personal and so impersonal at the same time?” Patel explained.
On Monday, she read the poem – then 615 words long – to Edmonton’s councillors, people from whom she expects more.
“It’s one thing to rely on funding and direction from the province or the federal government, but my genuine belief is that the city has always had the most power to help people out,” she told CTV News Edmonton.
The councillors were quiet after Patel finished reading.
“Please keep us posted as you add words to a poem that should be finished,” Mayor Don Iveson told her.
She plans to update the poem every few days as a record of “what’s going on and how people are feeling.”
Patel hopes it helps people grieve publicly and recognize what their own impact could be over the holidays. She said her family will be celebrating online from their own individual homes: “We know that sacrificing quality time with each other now is going to pay off when none of us get sick or lost.”
“I, too, wish the poem could end today,” Patel said. “I added almost 200 words in a matter of two weeks, so it’s an extremely chilling, I think, poem and reality for people right now in Alberta.”