Paul Dawson

Paul Dawson’s first book of poems, Imagining Winter (IP, 2006), won the national IP Picks Best Poetry award in 2006, and his work has been anthologised in Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013) and Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1888-2008 (Puncher & Wattmann, 2009). His poetry and fiction appear in journals such as Meanjin, Southerly, Westerly, Island, Overland, Cordite Poetry Review, Peril Magazine, Australian Poetry Journal and The Sydney Morning Herald. Paul is currently an Associate Professor in the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales.
Thanks for the poems, Covid-19

Here’s me, face-masked in a supermarket
swamped by white people, who are
angry all over again about the yellow peril
now an invisible airborne enemy speaking in tongues
through the inscrutable hospital-blue fabric
that obscures my features, that signals its silent intent
while I peer at the shelves, ensconced in the conch-shell

of my mask – until the bald, wobbly-eyed face of a
Woolworth’s worker appears suddenly beside me
and barks: ‘Social distancing still applies in here!’
Oh sorry, what was I doing? SOCIAL DISTANCING
STILL APPLIES IN HERE he repeats, as if I can’t hear
as if English escapes me, as if this is groundhog day
as if his words were a talisman to keep the threat at bay.
Yes, I say, but I don’t know what I was doing?

And then, from behind, a woman’s voice chimes in
to explain that she had complained because I
was blocking her path, now averting her gaze
as she swerves her trolley past, and I am left
with my own trapped breath, watching the worker
move on to stack shelves within hugging distance
of a white couple, within a whisper of their faces
as they contemplate trays of beef mince. I refrain
from repeating his talisman back to him

because really I want to scream it hysterically in his face
because I take it personally, because I’m not from, and have
never been, to China, because I know that’s the wrong response
and maybe this had nothing to do with race anyway
and why the fuck did I wear this mask in the first place?
And I can’t help but think of Pauline Hanson, circa the turn of the millennium
and all the incidents like this, which I thought had been eradicated

as if the trope of Asian contagion that lay dormant
while Islamic terrorism helped fashion Hanson’s comeback
has now been revived in a virulent new strain
that cannot be warded off by hoarding toilet paper
for this behaviour is every bit as Australian
as our coming together to battle the bushfires
that tear across the nation, and to be Asian-Australian
in a pandemic is – like hoarding – to be suddenly

un-Australian, where one minor encounter can unmask
the searing loss of belonging, the sense of
impotence, the persistent second-guessing
of one’s own thoughts, that typically present
as asymptomatic on all those inscrutable faces.