Yayoi Kusama. You know her. You took a selfie in the Infinity Mirror Room at the AGO. You’ve seen her polka dots all over the Internet. You’ve seen her sobering gaze, her blunt bob.
On April 15, Kusama wrote a poem telling the Coronavirus to disappear: “A Message from Yayoi Kusama to the Whole World.”
Since physical distancing came into effect on March 16, I have turned into a stoner, a birder, a tree identifier, a computer musician, and what we would call a “mess.” I have not been able to write poems regularly like I used to, and I have not been able to dwell in the century-spanning-dream I must enter to finish my novel.
When I learned of Kusama’s act, I remembered what words have done for me: they have brought me back into relation from pain. Pain makes us turn inward, it makes us turn away from the world. It makes us think that no one has ever experienced what we are feeling, that others are incapable of understanding our pain, that we are alone. Pain silences.
Kusama’s poem is a gesture that works against our collective pain: our anxieties and fears about Rona. It dares to believe in the ability of words to do something.
I have to admit that I’ve felt powerless since the virus arrived. I have experienced a rollercoaster of emotions in the span of a month, shifting from despair to bliss sometimes within a few hours. My body shakes with anxiety despite my exterior calm. I have not felt okay. I have felt my way of being threatened: each day is an assault of words from the news, and then the fake news.
Kusama’s poem reminded me that words have power, that they can heal.
Kusama’s poem reminded me of prayer.
The second-last stanza of Kusama’s poem reads:
To COVID-19 that stands in our way
I say Disappear from this earth
We shall fight
We shall fight this terrible monster
Kusama commands the virus to disappear: “I say Disappear from this earth.”
Her poem is childlike and earnest to me. It reminds me of my childhood salawat, repeatedly said when I feared for the lives of my family. In those prayers, I remember my implorations shifting to commands at the pitch of despair, which took on the quality of a bright, blinding hope. I remember my irrational belief in my prayer.
The last place I visited (grocery stores excluded) before physical distancing was the library. I was reading a nonfiction book called Denial: Self-deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower.
The authors say that when we evolved, we developed self-consciousness and had to find ways to deal with our awareness of death. And so, the intersection of faith and fiction. Belief in the afterlife was one way that our ancestors came to terms with our impermanence.
In another book from the library, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Brian Boyd says that true stories are necessary for survival: “we reap obvious advantages from informing one another about the activities of others in the group, about recent challenges or opportunities […] Gossip and history make immediate biological sense.” Then he asks: “but why do we find fiction just as compelling? The “appetite for the true” model ‘spectacularly fails to predict large components of the human appetite for information.’”
According to Boyd, true stories fail to meet our need for information; true stories are not enough. Our need for fictions is a need for vast possibilities of passed-down experience, both lived and imagined, which we can learn from to survive.
We need fictions because they make the future possible.
Kusama is making the future possible in her poem. With her words, she is making her reality and a reality for all of us, one where words do things – where words heal; one that allows us to see ourselves in it.
For those left behind, each person’s story and that of their loved ones
It is time to seek a hymn of love for our souls
In the midst of this historic menace, a brief burst of light points to the future
Let us joyfully sing this song of a splendid future
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Shazia Hafiz Ramji's writing has recently appeared in Best Canadian Poetry 2019, THIS magazine, and is forthcoming in EVENT, Gutter: the magazine of new Scottish and international writing, and Maisonneuve. Her poetry and prose have been nominated for the 2020 Pushcart Prizes by Poetry Northwest and carte blanche, respectively. Shazia is the author of Port of Being, a finalist for the 2019 Vancouver Book Award, BC Book Prizes (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She is at work on a novel.