I intended this poem to be read in two different ways, commenting on two very topical societal matters.
The first is the inner turmoil pertaining to our separation from loved ones as a result of the second national lockdown. The poem’s speaker is so close to their loved ones, physically and emotionally, but is unable to cross over to them and be with them wholly. The chosen form of a sonnet (a form archetypically associated with love poetry) automatically implies the love of one’s family and friends that we are currently separated from. The enjambment used mimics the way that the sheer amount of love one has for their family is overflowing, spilling over into the following lines. However, the sustained stringency of the pentameter in the poem represents the way in which the speaker’s movements are restricted, confined to isolation from loved ones.
The slight shift in the sonnet form does give a hint of hope, as the mood changes following the volta in the poem, developing from a Petrarchan rhyme scheme into a Shakespearean one. This development mirrors the gradual lifting of social distancing restrictions, just as Shakespeare remoulds the rhyming restrictions of a traditional Petrarchan sonnet. The regular iambic pentameter throughout (the meter that is arguably most similar to the rhythm of a heartbeat) echoes the simultaneous heartache of being kept apart, emphasised by the sonnet form (traditionally used for depictions of love) accentuating the strength of their bond. Additionally, it gives a regular beating heart to the poem, reminding the reader of why the personal struggles of this lockdown are so important – to keep the people of our country alive, and to keep their hearts beating during this crisis. The tone of the final sestet represents a reluctant acceptance of one’s current isolation, but there remains a slight twinkle of hope that we are progressing and, one day, we will be able to see our loved ones once more.
The second interpretation of this poem is the oppression of immigrants and people of colour (particularly those in America) and the struggle to get the message through to white supremacists. The octet exhibits the justified anger of the oppressed, and our protests and call-out culture fighting back against racism and xenophobia. However, the metaphorical ‘wall’ prevents the message from being heard, representing the defensive attitude one might employ when confronted with this topic, making anyone’s subsequent anger (however justified) futile. The shift from Petrarchan to Shakespearean sonnet here represents the development in how a country collectively tackles racial issues. Although the protests and the accelerating Black Lives Matter movement enhanced black visibility and amplified unity and solidarity among those who already believe in racial equality, it arguably had little impact on the attitudes of white supremacists; this is mirrored in the futility of the speaker’s anger in the sonnet’s octet.
Nonetheless, in the sestet, the speaker begins to calm. There are echoes of the shock that came with witnessing, through social media, the death of George Floyd (i.e. namely ‘My neck, your knee’ and ‘I breathe’) with iambic pentameter reflecting on his heartbeat which, although it eventually gave out, is honoured by the hearts of others who will continue to fight for justice for Floyd and all those who have suffered and died at the hands of racially-motivated police brutality. The calming tone here suggests that, despite being threatened with violence, the nature of this fight for justice is calmer e.g. voting in the 2020 presidential election.
The final couplet sparks the beginning of a conversation between the two sides of the wall, both agreeing that they each cannot get their point of view across to the other. Discussions such as this can be extremely difficult, especially when it is something so personal and fundamental as equality, but direct confrontation only makes people put up defences and become more resolute in their ways. While we can still vote and enforce legal change, by initiating open discussions we give ourselves the best chance of breaking down these metaphorical defences (i.e. the ‘wall’), and finally changing the opinions of white supremacists.
‘The Brick Wall’
I climb, I slip, I scramble, and I fall,
It crumbles as though my resolve I threw
Myself at this; this can’t be true.
I pound the bricks, but our cells are too tall.
I claw, I scratch, I thrash, I thump, I crawl.
With every smack and break and crack I knew
There was no other way to get to you.
Nor is there any use to this at all.
My throbbing heart melts to a puddle – dry.
I sink, I sob, I breathe – for you – not me.
Is it true from heartbreak one can die?
My neck, your knee; but I still hear your plea.
We whisper: ’tis my own exclusive gall,
That I cannot, to you, get through, this wall.
Image: by Lisa Ann Yount on Flickr