Author’s note: You might have to adjust the font or screen orientation to landscape mode for line breaks in the poems to be viewed as the poets intended them to be read.
This past weekend, I read Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, edited by Alice Quinn. The collection was edited and compiled by Quinn, onetime New Yorker poetry editor and recent former director of the Poetry Society of America. According to a synopsis of the book, she “reached out to poets across the country to see if, and what, they were writing under quarantine.” The collection was published in June of last year.
Initially last week, because of some personal “stuff” going on, I thought I might not want to read it right now. However, last Friday, I “tested the waters,” so to speak, and liked what I read, so Saturday and Sunday, I read the rest. Out of 107 poems, about a dozen really stuck with me, most of which were short like this one by Cornealius Eady:
These days, you want the poem to be
A mask, soft veil between what floats
Invisible, but known in the air.
You’ve just read that there’s a singer
You love who might be breathing their last,
And wish the poem could travel,
Unintrusive, as poems do from
The page to the brain, a fan’s medicine.
Those of us who are lucky enough
To stay indoors with a salary count the days
By press conference. For others, there is
Always the dog and the park, the park
And the dog. A relative calls; how you doin’?
(Are you a ghost?) The buds emerge, on time,
For their brief duty. The poem longs to be a filter, but
In floats Spring’s insistence. We wait.
Or this one by Susan Kinsolving:
My Heart Cannot Accept It All
Forgive yourself for thinking small
for cooking soups, ignoring blight.
The mind cannot contain it all
despite intent and wherewithal;
it’s little stuff that brings delight:
a book, a drink. Keeping thinking small.
A bubble bath? An odd phone call?
(Resisting all those gigabytes!)
Your mind will not embrace it all.
Quarantine is one long haul
as days grow long, so do the nights.
Forgive yourself for thinking small:
popcorn, TV, more alcohol?
There’s no need to be contrite.
My mind cannot believe it all,
My heart cannot accept it all.
And this one by Dean Rader:
Meditation on Transmission
The map on my
tv reddens the
way a wound
here, the earth’s
blue body brutally
infected, its slim
like a child waiting
to be picked up,
held, carried to its
bed and sung to sleep,
in its dreams, death
comes dressed as a
doorknob, a handle
on a bus, a button,
a bowl of nuts,
sky, a whisper, a kiss,
and it says breath
of my breath, and it
says take me inside
you, and it says,
teach me to multiply,
and the earth
says, Look, I am
living, and the
earth says, holocene
and the earth
says, if something
isn’t burning, it is
the waters do
not part, and
the sun does
not slide into
its black box,
and the stars
do not switch
off their light,
the rain does
not ask the
water and yet
with birds about
the air destroys.
Two others really struck a chord with me because of their subject matter: the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-Asian American sentiment and outright hatred and violence that has arisen because of the coronavirus.
The first is by Claudia Rankine.
On a scrap of paper in the archive is written
I have forgotten my umbrella. Turns out
in a pandemic everyone, not just the philosopher,
is without. We scramble in the drought of information
held back by inside traders. Drop by drop. Face
covering? No, yes. Social distancing? Six feet
under for underlying conditions. Black.
Just us and the blues kneeling on a neck
with the full weight of a man in blue.
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
In extremis, I can’t breathe gives way
to asphyxiation, to giving up this world,
and then mama, called to, a call
to protest, fire, glass, say their names, say
their names, white silence equals violence,
the violence of again, a militarized police
force teargassing, bullets ricochet, and civil
unrest taking it, burning it down. Whatever
contracts keep us social compel us now
to disorder the disorder. Peace. We’re out
to repair the future. There’s an umbrella
by the door, not for yesterday but for the weather
that’s here. I say weather but I mean
a form of governing that deals out death
and names it living. I say weather but I mean
a November that won’t be held off. This time
nothing, no one forgotten. We are here for the storm
that’s storming because what’s taken matters.
The second is by Sally Wen Mao, which I’m including from an Instgram post to attempt to keep the line breaks as they were written:
I did see some reviews online that said they thought they didn’t include enough on the Black Lives Matters protests last summer. However, the book was published in June of last year before a lot of the protests. I thought overall, it was still a good collection that captured the isolation and surreality that I think most of us probably felt last year. For that reason alone, I’d highly recommend it.