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.

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steele yourself!

Ah, breakfast with Van Gogh. What could be better?

A crunchy bowl of Ben Steele’s Earrios will get you off to a great start. What’s that? You want more? Can’t say I blame you.

Once you’ve seen one Ben Steele painting, you crave another and another . . .

Ben in his studio with some of his product inspirations.

Originally from Washington state, Ben relocated to Utah when he was in his teens. He earned a BFA in painting and drawing from the University of Utah, then moved to Helper, Utah, where he studied under the instruction of David Dorman and Paul Davis at the Helper Art Workshops. He recently converted a vacant bottling and beverage distribution warehouse into an enormous studio that will accommodate large scale work.

Ben’s paintings are a unique mash-up of art history and pop culture, a wide-ranging oeuvre that includes landscape, still life, portraiture, and other things in-between. He calls himself a “pop realist,” an artist with an ever evolving style who’s successfully imbued classic techniques with a contemporary sensibility.

With equal measures of playfulness and nostalgia, Steele taps into America’s collective imagination by incorporating iconic brands such as Crayola, Coca-Cola, and Campbell’s Soup. Referencing the American West, Hollywood legends, and major figures in American history (to include several Presidents), his art resonates across generations with its social, political, and cultural overtones.

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pat schneider: “and what is more generous than a window?”

Today I am grateful for brief yet meaningful encounters.

Three years ago, I ordered a signed copy of Pat Schneider’s Another River: New and Collected Poems (2005) via her website. When it arrived, I was surprised to find a note from Pat with a gift copy of her chapbook, The Patience of Ordinary Things (2003).

I fell in love with the title poem, and was honored when Pat gave me permission to share it here. Though we only exchanged a few emails, I was touched by her kindness and generosity, totally in awe of the 83-year-old poet, author, playwright, teacher, and Founder/Director of Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA).

At the time, Pat’s poetry was new to me, and I knew little about her early years in Missouri, where, as the child of a single mother, she lived in tenements and an orphanage until she received a scholarship to attend college. “Those early experiences deeply influenced her writing and fueled her passion for those who have been denied voice through poverty and other misfortunes.”

Recently, while looking for more poems to share for Poetry Friday, I thought again about Pat and visited her website, where I was saddened to learn of her passing in August 2020. I read many tributes, listened to her reading her poems, and watched several interviews, awestruck not only by her professional accomplishments, but her abiding faith in human potential and creative genius, as she encouraged all to find and amplify their authentic voices.

I love hearing hers.

“Moon Balloon” by Sokol Selmani
THE MOON. TEN TIMES
by Pat Schneider

1. Round cool face of forever
    float free
    for me

2. Saucer without a teacup
    without the tyranny of 
    of tea

3. Owl eye without a pupil
    blind
    to contradiction

4. My white balloon
    has lost its string
    and me

5. Round, open mouth
    of the goddess
    of light

6. The night sky's
    exclamation:
    Oh!

7. Puppeteer
    of tides
    rock the shore of the world

8. Bright frisbee
    the dog star lost
    in the night

9. Perfect pearl crown
    of cornfields
    and night watchmen's hair

10. Bellybutton
      of God

~ from The Patience of Ordinary Things (Amherst Writers & Artists Press, 2003)
Art by Lee White
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loving gary bunt’s rural whimsy

I’ve been a diehard Gary Bunt fan ever since stumbling upon his wonderful paintings of English rural and village life over a year ago. His work is easy to recognize and even easier to love. Just look for the old man and his faithful dog. These constant companions really know how to tug at your heartstrings.

Once you’ve seen “Bert” and his dog in a few different scenes — sitting side by side atop a hill, strolling through the woods, or cozied up in their country kitchen — you can’t help but feel an instant connection.

There’s a certain sense of comfort and reassurance seeing them digging in the garden, feeding ducks just outside the barn, watching sheep in the meadow, bicycling down the lane, or watching the snow fall.

Bunt is wildly popular and beloved in the UK and all over the world; perhaps his wide appeal has to do with his ability to make ordinary life feel magical, even sacred. His unpretentious style makes his work infinitely accessible as it brims with quintessential British charm.

Born in East Peckham, Kent, Bunt (a self taught artist) has been painting for as long as he can remember, and since his school days, has also been keen on poetry, literature, and music. In his teens he taught himself to play the guitar, joined several bands, and wrote songs.

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a Sarah Kay poem and a sweet treat for Valentine’s Day

You know what they say. When it comes to love, opposites attract. Spoken word poet Sarah Kay gets us into the mood for Valentine’s Day with her grin-inducing, soft bristled verse (no gargling required).

THE TOOTHBRUSH TO THE BICYCLE TIRE

They told me that I was meant for the cleaner life;
that you would drag me through the mud.

They said that you would tread all over me,
that they could see right through you,

that you were full of hot air;
that I would always be chasing,

always watching you disappear after sleeker models—
that it would be a vicious cycle.

But I know better. I know about your rough edges
and I have seen your perfect curves.

I will fit into whatever spaces you let me.
If loving you means getting dirty, bring on the grime.

I will leave this porcelain home behind. I’m used to
twice-a-day relationships, but with you I’ll take all the time.

And I know we live in different worlds, and we’re always really busy,
but in my dreams you spin around me so fast, I always wake up dizzy.

So maybe one day you’ll grow tired of the road,
and roll on back to me.

And when I blink my eyes into morning,
your smile will be the only one I see.

~ from No Matter the Wreckage (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014)

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Clever, refreshing, quirky, unexpected. This poem made me an instant Sarah Kay fan. Love the extended metaphor, the fearless puns. I admit I hadn’t considered love between inanimate objects before, but that’s precisely why Sarah’s work is such a joy. You may not know where she’s going to take you, only that the ride will be worth it.

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