Article-2 (5.2)

Teesta Review: A Journal of Poetry, Volume 5, Number 2. November 2022. ISSN: 2581-7094

Tracing Covid-19 via Darwin to Mumbai-Delhi routes: a collaboration between Adelle Sefton-Rowston and Sunil Sharma 

--- Adelle Sefton-Rowston and Sunil Sharma

Editorial Note:

This article contains four poems, two by Adelle Sefton-Rowston, and two by Sunil Sharma, followed by each poet’s reflective commentary on the other’s words and ideas.

Poem One by Adelle Sefton-Rowston: ‘The Source of his Infection’

Mr Jones of the Manor Farm 

has locked the hen-houses for the night  

but was too drunk to shut the pop-holes. 


Health Minister Natasha Fyles

is fronting the media to put to bed

rumours about a lockdown. 


“Critically we do not know

the source of his infection.

This is a very serious virus and must be taken seriously.”


Frightened though they were, they did not want Jones back. 

The importance of keeping the pigs in good health

was all too obvious. 


“There are concerns about the man 

being in close contact  

With a Darwin taxi driver.”


Our vulnerable population  

Travel predominantly via taxis. 

And the new case was asymptomatic.


It’s impossible to venture out of the shelter 

But none of the old dreams had been abandoned. 

And the whole thing would be over in a fortnight, they said. 


Old Major cleared his throat and began to sing… 

and it was a stirring tune,  

something between ‘Clementine’ and ‘La Cucaracha’. 


And when the human beings listened to it,  

they secretly trembled, 

hearing in it a prophecy of their future doom. 


“The entire sector is under workforce pressure 

due to the breakouts the nation is experiencing

and it is necessary to begin saving up again.”  


But if there were hardships to be borne,  

they were partly offset by the fact that life nowadays had

a greater dignity than it had before. 


Let us face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short. 

And liberty is worth more than ribbons.

But already it was impossible to say which was which.


They had nothing to go upon except Squealer’s lists of figures, 

which invariably demonstrated that everything

was getting better and better. 



Poem Two by Adelle Sefton-Rowston

“We are attempting to aggregate information 

So it is easy to find”.

(Critical Resources – Northern Territory Secure NT) 


Napoleon approved of this poem 

and caused it to be inscribed on the wall of the dog barn,  

at the opposite end from the seven commandments. 


Napoleon himself was not seen in public  

And has been taken to the Howard Springs 

Quarantine Centre. 


“Many of you know the devastation this particular variant causes 

Serious harm, prolonged recovery, 

Intensive care and death.”


Territory authorities have sought to  

Restrict people 

From any non-essential shopping. 


“Hardware stores will only be open for  


And not for the purposes of browsing”. 


There was need of paraffin oil, nails,

string, dog biscuits, and iron

for the horses’ shoes.

Foolish and wicked rumours had been circulated

that the van which took Boxer away

was marked ‘Horse Slaughterer’.  


The outbreak has delayed  

the highly anticipated trial 

of a NT police officer 


Accused of murdering Aboriginal teenager 

Kumanjayi Walker 

In the community of Yuendumu.


Several of them would have protested

if they could

Find the right arguments.


Their sole wish now, and in the past,

Was to live at peace and in normal business

relations with their neighbours.



Poem One by Sunil Shama: ‘Scorching Bonfire’


This summer is unlike any other. It burns holes in the

mind and heart—and scalds the tiny veins of skin. There is

death in the air and smoke hangs heavy. The dead

are piled up in sheets, waiting—while the undead

walk the deserted streets, benumbed; streets under

curfew, joy gone out of lives. Wailings of the sirens of

the ambulance or

cop-cars, unsettling, while the birds fly off in

the coppery vault, taunting; the sun is angry!

The spectacle is on, as usual, grim, grimmer!

TV blares the predetermined lines of

sterile arguments and rackets, while

the hospitals and homes gasp, in quarantined

gated communities, across the geographies.

Like a noir film, the shadows whisper, in semi-lit

alleys, with dead ends, ruins.


the dead, memory-keepers claim,

will sure rise up together soon,

like an army of leaping spectres, hungry

—as Rome did; a Rome when Nero watched and it burnt down, in scorching fires that have left a long trail in history; a trail that cannot be erased—

for answers from the living!



Poem Two by Sunil Sharma: ‘Infernos Burn Slow and long here’


Once sylvan, the city’s innards remain wounded and critical; bleed profusely.

Darkness descends. The sun disappears, furies are out, and ghosts

released into the shadows, near the River of the Sighs; soft moans heard now distinctly, above the noise.

The streets becoming open-air funeral sites, the heavy air pierced by the gasping of the dying, and the cries of the orphans and bereaved, walking in haze.

The tortured faces, praying hearts, helpless eyes – it is inferno, real time – new kind of living in a costly hell, 2021.

The fires were few earlier, slow-burning, sad, silent, unseen, in corners, away from the public gaze, now livid, hungry, these orange creatures rage across the streets, golden ogres gone mad, huge bellies and insatiable carnivorous appetites; the massive blazes roll down the avenues and

royal paths, once trodden by the colonial masters, and, now by the native lords. The conflagration, wild, uncontrollable, fuelled by the whispers of the dead, dying and in mourning, this fierce, red eyed monster

threatens to engulf the Forest of Deep Silence around the towers and

slums and destroy it totally, suddenly, by

cleaving a long passage, with the multiple fiery tongues, and soon, will reach the outer perimeters of the Citadel of the Iron King and his council playing dice, and

smash the thick, one-way mirrors and the stony walls that prevent them

to see and hear the general anguish, pain and mayhem,

being unleased by the hour, across a murky landscape, a collage of white shrouds and broken hearts and homes

infernal places do not fade so easily. Infernos slow and long

and melt solidifies. The dead shall rise up again

from the assigned margins, seizing centrality in the power narrative.

… and then the storm will erupt from

the dim underworld, demolishing every barrier in its route upwards!



Adelle’s commentary: A letter to Sunil from Alabama

Dear Sunil,

Hello from Alabama! I have started my placement here in America on a Fulbright scholarship, teaching literature and creative writing in prisons, and researching prison arts programs for reform. Since I have not travelled in some time, the long flights from Australia were rather overwhelming. I am not allowed on campus at Auburn University for ten days in case I have been exposed to COVID, which is highly likely after passing through four airports.

So, analysing your poems is keeping me occupied and offering me (ironically given the topic) some reprieve from being in isolation. I first read your poems, however, to a friend before leaving Australia. She is an 'antivaxxer' and believes the pandemic is either a hoax or not really a big deal. Yet reading your poems to her helped point out the privilege one has here of choosing to be vaccinated in the first place. The alternative to not vaccinating is a risk of having to go to hospital and receive (top) medical care, another choice of privilege. I was left thinking, how many people in your beloved Mumbai would be so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to receive a free vaccination and avoid the hell fires of death and carnage that your poems depict.

Indeed, your first poem, 'An Exclusive for Different Truths' points directly at our differing experiences of COVID. My friend lacks belief that COVID is real because in her words 'People are not dropping dead in the streets'. My response, however, is immediate gratitude that this is not the case in Australia, as you prove the possibilities for COVID to rip through societies like a plague of impending torture and death that nobody can escape. The opening line: 'Once sylvan, the city's innards remain wounded and critical, bleed profusely' reminds me of the war zone you must be experiencing in India, hearing 'soft moans...above the noise' like a soldier walking through a losing battlefield of the dying.

Hence, 'An Exclusive for Different Truths' powerfully reflects the new way of life we must all endure. Even how one departs this life has changed, with 'open-air funeral sites...cries of the orphans and the bereaved, walking in a haze.' There is certainly an element of disbelief you capture in India, but it is the disbelief of how this pandemic has traumatically impacted so many people in ways that are even too grotesque for the eyes. My heart bleeds for your people, as you portray how even those left recovering from the disease, are tortured from missing loved ones, that they may wish they too were taken: 'Grief and death go hand-in-hand-anger muted.'

There is a portion of Australians, perhaps about ten per cent in the Northern Territory, who are angry too, but it is for very different reasons. Vaccination is compulsory, and without proof of up-to-date records, people are being stood down from their jobs, and cannot enter places such as clubs or movie theatres. People are angry at this level of power and control, and the loss of liberties they are experiencing for making a choice about their own body. People protest on the Esplanade in Darwin every weekend, chanting "people are vaccinating against a loss of liberties, not against COVID". Their faces too, are as you describe, 'tortured...helpless eyes – it is inferno, real time – new kind of living in a costly hell, 2021'.

But your poem reveals, to many who should perhaps read it in Australia, that the costs of COVID are more than economic, it is a cost of human life. 'Orange creatures rage across the streets...massive blazes roll down the avenue.' Those poor souls from the slums, there is no expensive funeral for them, bodies are burning in barrels on the side of the road, keeping up with the death rates, fuelling the 'insatiable carnivorous appetites' of flames in burning barrels. This likeness to Dante's 'Inferno' makes the inconvenience of a compulsory vaccine seem trivial and profusely insignificant. Society here has been divided on the issues of liberty for the cost of economic growth, but your poem presents a different truth in paradoxical symmetry: 'The dead shall rise up again/ from the assigned margins, seizing centrality in the power narratives.'

Similarly, your second poem provides the reader an even more sensual experience at this challenging time in India, inviting us to a place around the burning barrel, when you write: 'There is death in the air and smoke hangs heavy'. In this even more vivid description, bodies are described as being 'piled up in sheets, waiting – while the undead walk the deserted streets'. I can relate to this macabre feeling of impending death and imagine the vultures circling in the thick smoky haze above. Here in the Northern Territory body bags were sent to remote communities before there had even been one death. The horror these community members felt, as if they were the walking dead, angrily pleaded with the government to send cleaning products instead. In your beloved India, it is easy to understand why even 'the sun is angry' and perhaps the setting sun is all there is to watch from behind the helplessness of 'quarantined gated communities, across the geographies.' There doesn't seem much hope in seeking warmth from a fire of burning bodies. Through your poem however, I am there with you, even though I could never be. Your emotional guidance through hells as a lyrical labyrinth is just as you describe it: 'Like a noir film, the shadows whisper, in semi-lit alleys, with dead ends, ruins'. I want to be there in solidarity at an open-aired funeral, but, it is a dead end.  

Paradoxically I sit in my unit in Alabama in a time when tourist VISA's in India would never be permitted. But through this poetic exchange there is an intimate opportunity to hold each other, and the whole world. The meaning of the word 'essay' is 'an attempt' and through this literary commentary, we can at least attempt to meaningfully capture 'a long trail in history; a trail that cannot be erased – for answers from the living!'

All my very best, stay safe and well.

Yours, Adelle. 



Texts, places, politics and pandemics: Reading Adelle Sefton-Rowston, a commentary by Sunil Sharma

Constructing a place, its history, geography and politics – in short, societyout of a given text is a challenging job at the best of times, and, worst at the worst of times.

You have to “read” a given society, a timeline and context, as signs embedded in a textual document. If that happens to be in the mode of poetry, the “view”, the “evidence” is very limited. A formal reading consists of words scattered as strings on a white surface; words, paras that evade the mind/eyes, like the virus terrorizing the world through its many mutations.

Words as your only feeble guide to the capturing of a culture looming in the background.

From text-to-context; context-to-text – it is a pendulum and a reader has to be a literary Sherlock Holmes!

Besides that, serious writing has got its own subconscious and echoes of many ages and dimensions can be heard and recorded.

Again, it is slippery terrain. Any act of hermeneutics involves a tenuous reading and interpretation that can get challenged by any contemporary or subsequent reader.

But the joys of reading are many. A supple text yields multiple meanings and to decipher its dim contours needs a special kind of training…and listening.

While reading poet Adelle’s two representative poems that deal with a grey landscape of pandemics, I become acutely aware of the many textual surfaces operating in these two marvellous poems and their tonal varieties, colours and voices – poems as critique of a society and its politics; poems as repositories of many voices, tones and perspectives and, above all, the hidden voice of the poet as an observer, playful, sympathetic, satirical, direful.

A close reading made me aware that the poems are deceptively simple. Going below the sounds and verbal surfaces, you can hear, strangely, the tone of Mark Twain, an echo among other echoes at the level of the subconscious. I hear Gogol and Toni Morrison submerged somewhere. Or is it my mind projecting them as my favourite traditions of signatures questioning the status quo and silences through humour, satire, pathos and activism.

Writing that is political.

Writing that subtly questions the official versions of realities of a given era – and hypocrisies of the folks, part of that social structure.

Writing as resistance – open or subtle.

Coronavirus has exposed many schisms in the world and its politics. It has badly exposed the governments and nations divided along the questionable economic category of first and third world.

The fact remains that the pandemic has exposed the double faces of the populace and their chosen masters. It has also urgently brought into focus the sterile debate of pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine followers, while deaths and diseases continue to dog a beleaguered humanity, the poor as the most vulnerable sections.

The first poem, “The source of his infection”, deconstructs skilfully the lyrical and swift movement of the voices and POVs of the shifting scenes. It is playful, humorous and satirical, bitter, sad, angry and appalled by the anti-humanism of the opinion makers of an isolated society.

Look at the opening lines that set the tone: ‘Mr Jones, of the Manor Farm, / has locked the hen-houses for the night, / but was too drunk to shut the pop-holes’.

See the official reaction to a dreaded virus: ‘Health Minister Natasha Fyles / is fronting the media to put to bed / rumours about a lockdown. / “Critically we do not know / the source of his infection. / This is a very serious virus and must be taken seriously.”’

The fast-paced movement of the poem from one to another scene/character and tone is breathtaking in its range and scope – a poetic montage!

This poem registers the surprise, denial, officialspeak, dread, and confusion.

The “they” do not want Jones to be there, being afraid of the farm-man and the taxi driver, the real drivers of the economy but most powerless: ‘Frightened though they were, they did not want Jones back. / The importance of keeping the pigs in good health / was all too obvious. / “There are concerns about the man / being in close contact / With a Darwin taxi driver.”’

The poem concludes with the ambiguity favoured by the state spokespersons everywhere: ‘“We are attempting to aggregate information / So it is easy to find”.’

The indifference and anti-humanism of the elites – still searching for the source of infection and relevant information – can be a telling indictment of a system sunk in apathy. Public health, decisive action, remedial medical interventions are lacking in the state apparatuses and scepticism of anti-vaxxers and religious divides further complicate the picture.

Social justice is evasive in a democracy, so is the finding of the right source of the infection which is riddled with delays and procrastination. It boils down to a lack of political will. Equity of medical care is skewed.

The State does not care beyond symbolism.

Who is the real transmitter of infections?

Mr. Jones or the State?

These are moot questions in this open-ended narration.

But the poet's sympathies can be easily located in this multi-tonal text.

Or are we as “readers” making up the texts and adding further to its surfaces and depths, in that gesture of decoding the verbal artefact?

Are we co-creating the text in a creative process?

Like Shakespeare being discovered by every succeeding era of readers as decoders of cultural messages and symbols?

The second poem, “Critical resources…”, carries on the same spirit of questioning and reporting the pandemic and allied things in a vein of satire and humour and pathos.

The opening lines set up a binary of a dictating authority-figure as the centre and dissident-writer as the periphery: ‘Napoleon approved of this poem / and caused it to be inscribed on the wall of the dog barn, / at the opposite end from the seven commandments.’ The poem is displayed on the wall of the dog barn! That conveys a lot.

Talking of the virus and its threat, Adelle says, summing up a national mood of fear and anxiety: “Many of you know the devastation this particular variant causes / Serious harm, prolonged recovery, / Intensive care and death.”’

Feeding on the collective fear, the authorities have put restrictions on the movement of the people – instead of finding a quick solution to the infection – and also taken a decision to postpone the trial of a cop who had killed an Aboriginal teen: ‘The outbreak has delayed / the highly anticipated trial / of a NT police officer / Accused of murdering Aboriginal teenager / Kumanjayi Walker / In the community of Yuendumu.’

This is the most political moment for me as a reader of this second poem – the mosaic of various scenes and movement of voices – that juxtaposes shifting scenes and voices. Protecting a cop as an accused and delaying the trial of a murdered teen who belongs to the margins of the State!

It concludes on a sterile note, reminding me of an Eliot-wasteland; a de-radicalised age: ‘Several of them would have protested / if they could / Find the right arguments. / Their sole wish now, and in the past, / Was to live at peace and in normal business / relations with their neighbours.’

Both the poems artistically paint grim realities of a pandemic-hit society and its many responses to it – political, official, personal and religious – and they unveil unsettling glimpses into the general psyche of a community under enhanced threat from an unseen virus. Every text – canonical or non-canonical – carries the unconscious of its creative mind and some submerged voices. Such supple texts get re-constituted and re-constructed by the other half of the writing process – reading that makes it complete, unless a new reading deconstructs it again and re-makes it in the fashion of the given age’s predilections and ideologies.

Adelle Sefton-Rowston’s poetic texts are rich documents of an age bewildered by an inner threat of Covid-19 and refuses to acknowledge its causes – late capitalist age’s excessive greed; destruction of climate; political and biological warfare; the ascendency of the rightist forces – and downgrading of the working classes.

Dystopia is no longer a sci-fi fantasy. It is happening, right here, real-time in Darwin, Mumbai and Toronto, and elsewhere, and a post-humanist dispensation and the powers that be refuse to take it seriously.


Interliminal Encounters: Indian and Australian writers in po(i)etic dialogue, eds Amelia Walker and Aden Burg