Together in a Sudden Strangeness

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:

Corona Diary

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
might spread
across skin,
here, the earth’s
blue body brutally
infected, its slim
shape shrunken
somehow huddled,
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,
the sun-stroked
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
incubating, and
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
ocean for
water and yet
above a
chorus of
clouds bristles
with birds about
their work
reminding
not everything
moving through
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.

Weather

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.

Pandemic Poetry & Quarantine Playlists

This weekend, I’m continuing to read poetry as I mentioned last Sunday.

This past week, I read Twisted Shapes of Light by William Jolliff, one of my professors in college and who ignited my own interest in writing poetry. I plan on sharing my own experiences with contemporary poetry, including a few poems from a reading I did about 20 years ago at a small venue in suburban Philadelphia where we lived at the time.

This past week, I also read Whale Days and Other Poems by Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States from 2000 to 2003. Both books were very good, but I enjoyed Dr. Jolliff’s book more, probably because of the fond memories it brought back of having him teach me poetry. It didn’t hurt that I found a concert of his online and a short lecture from him that was part of a series on suffering and faith at the university, where he now teaches.

This weekend, I plan on reading Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, edited by Alice Quinn. I’ll admit that I did have reservations about reading the collection edited and compiled by Alice Quinn, onetime New Yorker poetry editor and recent former director of the Poetry Society of America. Mainly, my reservations were internal in that this week has been a rough week personally with a couple of family and friend issues, and I didn’t think I wanted to read something probably depressing.

But yesterday, I decided to read a few poems from the collection and I changed my mind. The poems that I read were, and are, good. So I’ll continue to read the collection.

I’m pairing my reading with two playlists I found via an article from The New York Times.

I won’t be watching any pandemic-related TV shows or movies, although for those of you interested I saw a trailer for a new movie Songbird that might fit the bill. Or if you want to “escape” into “a world of outlandish emergencies” that “are oddly comforting in a terrifying time,” you might want to turn to these TV shows, according to Alexis Soloski in The New York Times.

For me, though, that will be a hard pass on all of that. I’ll be content just to read pandemic poetry and listen to quarantine playlists, thank you very much…

…and (adding this Saturday night) drinking wine and getting takeout. It’s sort of like last year but I went to the store to get the wine tonight instead of ordering wine by mail from the Finger Lakes of New York and, bonus, no existential dread.

Almost every Sunday since mid-May 2020 with a few exceptions, I have been taking my own personal Sabbath, where I tune out of the news and social media and turn off my ringer and all notifications on my phone. Throughout the day, sometimes the day before, and/or sometimes the next day, I share what I am reading, listening to or watching during my Sabbath. This is my 38th Sabbath and also is part of The Sunday Salon, hosted by Deb of the blog Readerbuzz.

Ah, poetry!

Almost every Sunday since mid-May 2020 with a few exceptions, I have been taking my own personal Sabbath, where I tune out of the news and social media and turn off my ringer and all notifications on my phone. Throughout the day and/or sometimes the next day, I share what I am reading, listening to or watching during my Sabbath. This is my 37th Sabbath and also part of The Sunday Salon, hosted by Deb of the blog Readerbuzz.

For tomorrow’s Sabbath, I’m taking a break from the Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri, which I have been reading since the start of the year. Instead, I’m going to dip into a little poetry. The impetus to read poetry right now was buying a book of poetry by one of my former college professors this past week. One of my college roommates asked my wife about him during a phone conversation, and I Googled him, found the book, and immediately bought it on Kindle to read. The book is Twisted Shapes of Light by William Jolliff.

From there, I went to the Free Library of Philadelphia and filled my virtual bookshelf with poetry books. A few authors I had heard of, some I had read, others I’d never heard of or read. Here’s what I picked up:

  1. An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo, the 23rd and current Poet Laureate of the United States.
  2. Whale Days and Other Poems by Billy Collins, a former Poet Laureate of the United States (2000-2003).
  3. Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez.
  4. Hybrida by Tina Chang.
  5. Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, edited by Alice Quinn.

All of this poetry talk got me thinking about how I came to fall in love with poetry, especially contemporary poetry. Over the next couple of weeks, and coincidentally corresponding to April being National Poetry Month, I will explore that, including my own poetry that I wrote and even had a reading several years after college. But for now, I’ll leave you with a snippet of a poem by my former professor:

It may be as close as an old man in Michigan
comes to the sound of the sea. Call it thunder
if you want, but it’s not thunder, not at all.
It’s more like the rush of semis on a freeway

This is the start of his poem, “Rain on a Barn South of Tawas,” the rest of which can be found on The Poetry Foundation website.

This month is the 25th National Poetry Month started by the American Academy of Poets in 1996 so it is only apropos that I am reading poetry.

Where I am right now…

…is in a good place.

I’m off from work until this coming Thursday. I’m celebrating Easter, my wife’s birthday on Tuesday, and receiving my second COVID-19 vaccine shot this past Thursday.

Yesterday, I went to the Good Friday service at Washington National Cathedral and then received the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession/absolution) from a priest via Zoom. This isn’t to brag. It’s just that I like to attend Good Friday services…and I haven’t been to confession in several years. It felt good.

Today, I plan on continuing to read the Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri. I’m now up to the 12th in the series, The Track of Sand. I also am getting together tonight with a former college roommate Joe to play board games online.

Tomorrow morning, I plan on attending the Easter service at Washington National Cathedral too. Then in the afternoon, I’ll probably read more Camilleri.

I also plan on getting out for a walk this weekend, probably both days since the weather is finally clearing after a little snow on April 1.

The last three days of my holiday/vacation/celebration will be spent mostly with my wife. Even though I am off from work, I will be attending a staff meeting Tuesday morning. As for me and my wife, we have no plans other than to eat, drink, and be merry.

Happy birthday, hon!