a pair of pandemic poems

Last November when I shared Pablo Neruda’s “Keeping Quiet,” I didn’t realize that a couple of weeks later, a new anthology would be released titled after lines from the same poem.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, edited by Alice Quinn (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020), is pure manna for the heart and soul, just when we need it most.

Last spring, while we were all frantically washing our hands, stressing over toilet paper and disinfectant wipes, and adjusting to lockdown restrictions, Ms. Quinn “reached out to poets across the country to see if, and what, they were writing under quarantine.” She was so moved by the response that she began collecting and curating the poems arriving in her inbox.

“Front Line Hero” by Olga Gouralnik (2020)

These poets voiced our collective shock, grief, fears, and hopes — an array of layered emotions many of us did not yet have a language for. From their unique, diverse perspectives, they were able to paint an intimate portrait of a world woefully attuned to this exotic moment in history.

Strange, to experience what could never have been imagined, to step into an altered reality.

Sudden, to have life, livelihood, routines, priorities upended in the blink of an eye.

The 107 poets featured in this anthology vary by age, gender, and sexuality, and employ different styles and poetic forms to unmask human fragility, vulnerability and resilience in trying times. Some of the poems were quite cathartic, moving me to tears.

Here are two that really spoke to me. The first describes precisely how I made it through the past year, and the second reinforces my gratitude for the power of poetry to heal, sustain, and connect.

*

“Contained At Home” by Zamurovic Photography
MY HEART CANNOT ACCEPT IT ALL
by Susan Kinsolving

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,

this vast and shocking viral sprawl,
infections with no end in sight.
Forgive me please. I'm thinking small.

My heart cannot accept it all.

*

“2020” by Laura Zoellner
HOW WILL THIS PANDEMIC AFFECT POETRY?
by Julia Alvarez

Will the lines be six feet apart?

Will these hexameters be heroic like Homer's?

(Will) (each) (word) (have) (to) (be) (masked) (?)

Will there be poetry insecurity?

Will there be enough poetry to go around?

Will poems be our preferred form of travel?

Will we undertake odysseys searching for Ithacas inside us?

Will poetry go viral?

Will its dis/ease infect us?

Will it help build up antibodies against indifference?

Will poems be the only safe spaces where we can gather together:

                   enter their immense silences,

                   see snakes slithering inside sestinas,

                   listen to nightingales singing on the

                       boughs of odes --

                   hark! a lark in the terza rima,

                   a hawk in a haiku?

What if only poetry will see us through?

What if this poem is the vaccine already working inside you?

                                           April 27-May 8, 2020
                                                Weybridge, Vermont

*

It’s interesting to see the mindsets of these two poets during the early days of the pandemic. Since then, they, and we, have learned a lot more about the virus while developing our own coping strategies. Hope is on the horizon, yet this story is still unfolding with uncertain end. What is oddly comforting is that whatever happens, we’re in this thing together, united against a common invisible enemy.

*

ALICE QUINN, the executive director of the Poetry Society of America for eighteen years, was also the poetry editor at The New Yorker from 1987 to 2007 and an editor at Alfred A. Knopf for more than ten years prior to that. She teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and is the editor of a book of Elizabeth Bishop’s writings, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, as well as a forthcoming book of Bishop’s journals. She lives in New York City and Millerton, New York.

*

Enjoy this video of Alice Quinn speaking with Ron Charles at Politics & Prose, with guest poets reading their contributions.

*

TOGETHER IN A SUDDEN STRANGENESS: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic
edited by Alice Quinn
published by Knopf, November 2020
Poetry Anthology, 208 pp.
*Also available as an Audio Book and an eBook

*

The lovely and talented Karen Edmisten is hosting the Roundup at her blog today. Take her a cup of freshly brewed coffee and check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week. Have a good weekend and stay safe.

*


*This post contains Amazon and Bookshop Affiliate links. When you purchase an item using either one of these links, Jama’s Alphabet Soup receives a small referral fee at no cost to you. Purchase via Bookshop to support independent bookstores. Thank you!

**Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

35 thoughts on “a pair of pandemic poems

  1. Jama, thank you for this post. Oooof do those poems speak to me. I’m so glad you shared them. “Will there be enough poetry to go around?” Love that. And, thank you for last week’s post. I went back and spent some time with Pat. I found that I had one of her books and didn’t realize that she was the author.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sometimes happens to me too — also, sometimes, I forget I already own a book and buy it again. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to read both posts! Have a nice weekend.

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  2. As I read through your post, I tried to go back to “before” & while I can remember intellectually, I’m not at all sure my feeling of that time that seems ages ago is there anymore. We have changed, haven’t we? Thank you for sharing about this anthology & the two poems. I’m sure poetry & reading through the year along with some family visits certainly saved me. “What if this poem is the vaccine already working inside you?” Yes, I imagine it is! Thanks like always, Jama, and Happy Weekend! March & spring are on their way!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely feel differently now than I did last March. It was all so scary at the very beginning since we knew so little, and of course, because we were being lied to. We know more now, but until we can achieve herd immunity we won’t be able to fully “relax.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you Jama for bringing this anthology of pandemic poetry to our attention. These poems are both timely and pertinent. The Susan Kinsolving poem reinforced the importance of valuing simple pleasures and small moments in times of great hardship.The Julia Alvarez poem cleverly employed many of the pandemic catchphrases to present a poem of much introspection and a reminder of how poetry can nourish the soul. Good choices both.

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  4. Thank you. Especially for the first, as we lower our flags to half mast and try to comprehend the enormity of half a million lives lost. Being spared lifts the bar for bearing witness and helping wherever we’re needed.

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    1. You are so right – it’s impossible to comprehend that many lives lost, such a grim milestone — and it’s not over yet. “Helping” also involves getting vaccinated to help slow the spread (read this morning that about 1/3 of military personnel have declined the vaccine for whatever reason).

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  5. What an amazing collection. Thank you for sharing it. Both of the poems you shared speak to me as well. And yes, we are in this together and hopefully the end draws near

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    1. I just wish everyone realized that we’re in this together — so that group effort, whether it comes to masking up, getting vaccines, etc., becomes our civic duty and is critical.

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  6. Thanks for the intro to this collection, Jama. Kinsolving’s poem was/is me…as we continue in our pandemic limbo. “popcorn, TV, more alcohol?” yes, please, but instead of alcohol, baked goods. 🙂

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  7. Thanks for recommending the book, Jama. Kinsolving’s poem is filled with the details of the early pandemic, how much we all relied on what was comforting as our minds adjusted to what was happening (and continue to adjust).

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  8. Thanks for sharing these, Jama – I was wondering when this book was coming out. I recall seeing the call for submissions last year and had wanted to send in something, but homeschooling, book writing, and so many other things got in the way, alas. I especially enjoyed Kinsolving’s villanelle!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad Alice published this anthology. I’m sure there’ll be others, as there’s just so much to process and poets will continue to offer their unique insights and perspectives about the pandemic.

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  9. THANK YOU, Jama, for this balm of a post. Morgan was reminding me this weekend that exactly a year ago we were on a mom-daughter trip to the Biltmore to enjoy the Downton exhibit… seems like a different world now, for sure. Love your art selections to go along with the thoughtful poems
    (& I do love a villanelle!) XO

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Whoo – the imagery and the poetry accompanying are an exploration of scars, jagged and real, on our minds and hearts. The first – villanelle – the form is perfect, as it repeats… and repeats… and repeats… turning the reader in a slow circle. That’s this whole year of confinement in a nutshell.

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  11. What great choices you’ve shared with us! I can’t wait to get my hands on this anthology.
    Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

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