COVID Summer: Against Dystopia

They ask her if this is the end,

Armageddon, Ragnarok—is Jesus

Going to come sort this. Can it get

Worse. Winston Smith knew

Dystopia is not drama but grind,

The constant scrape of fear.

We’ve tried dramatic speeches

(Appalling, sublime); it’s time

To get on with the slow business

Of building, growing from seed,

Rejecting the martyr for the maker.

 

July 31, 2020

COVID Summer: After, Now

There will be rooms of people

You’ve never seen before.

And won’t again, strangers,

Brazenly loving music,

Eating dumplings, browsing scarves.

There will be breaths let out,

Unchecked; there will be strange air,

Strange beds, cafe tables

That wobble as you write.

There will be spontaneous outings.

You will linger in the ice cream shop,

Not hurry out to lick your cone

In the street; you will rush

Between drinks and a show,

Take a cab, hug a friend. Now

There are calculations, comparisons,

Care. Familiar walls and making do,

And it does. But only for now.

 

July 31, 2020

Escaping in a little boy’s play.

It’s been some cold four months. Even though our heaviest rainfalls happen between March and July, and are always chaperoned by intense heat, these months have been cold ones. Somehow, the months had the biting loneliness and endlessness one only gets on cold nights. Living, for those of us that haven’t died, has been like lying in a large bed in December with no coverings, in a room with large open windows. Alone. Wondering when morning will come, if morning will come.

What I have done the most in these days and months has been watch. I watched because in watching you’re persons removed, you’re apart from the pains and the confusion. I watched my four year old nephew who got so little time to watch cartoons when we all soaked our eyes in Al jazeera resort to staging plays with his pairs of slippers, and cups, and sticks. I watched as people who once had full lives, who went to the gym and planned diets they knew they’d not stick to and holidays they could never afford became reduced to numbers and cases. When I went out to buy vegetables from the small market at a junction not so far from my house, I watched faces that knew so little of what was happening in the world outside their front doors and stalls forced to close up shop early or close altogether and go hungry without explanations or provisions… Watching was a lot of comfort but at the same time a lot of pain.

While counting the cold days from March to July, and watching, I wrote poetry. I didn’t write poetry because I wanted to bide time as my cousin did when he opened a Tiktok account to follow trends of short videos. I wrote poems because that was the only way I could stay sane. I wrote poems because I needed to stop talking to myself and I couldn’t stop talking to myself knowing that people who once had full lives, beautiful lives, sad lives, all kinds of lives were now nothing but numbers and cases.

The poems, all twenty of them, were imagined lives and significant others of the cases and numbers. Some recovered and went home others died and others faced agony within white walls and under bright lights and the stench of disinfectants, not knowing if they will live to go home or not. I hoped that these imaginary lives would add some warmth to the coldness of numbers.

When I wasn’t watching the news, wishing I could give those cold words and numbers the broadcasters called out a hug, I was watching my nephew, all William in his Globe, casting Romeo and Juliet, and having them live happily ever after. Thinking back now, I marvel at the escapism his plays offered him and I; creativity rescued me from the chill of numbers.

 

—July 30, 2020

Retreat, April 2, 2020

After Tim Lilburn’s poem, “Retreat.”

 

When I was in Desolation Sound, during the pandemic, holed up in that bay,

its mornings and green tides and ravens, reading Tim Lilburn, it was so cold

in the mornings I’d put on five layers, feed the woodstove

until the kettle started to tick.

I’d stack firewood in the afternoons, the alder bark with its islands

of sepia and grey overlaid on cream, like an antique map

but studded with woodpecker holes

like tiny machine gun bullet holes,

as though attempting to obliterate the memories

of the world we’d just left behind.

Then I’d go rowing out into the Sound

toward the Unwin Mountains, rows of blue peaks receding into mist.

Also, I was tucking into Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium,

literary values for future generations, his parliament on light

and the imagination. There was no hockey,

the NHL having cancelled the season, indeed, all seasons cancelled

except for nature’s, getting a reprieve with this new quiet,

fish now visible in Venice’s canals, the gondolas neatly stacked

across from the Basilica di San Marco.

 

Early morning rain fat with snow, unusual for April.

I didn’t know exactly what I was lonely for.

Inchoate, this rite of passage into the world’s ruin.

 

It’s a Dark Time and I Try to Be a Light

I’ve been interviewing artists of various kinds in New Haven since March about their response to the pandemic, and I’ve been telling people throughout that my job as a journalist has often been a real help, because I’m telling the stories of people who are adapting, people who are still working on things, who are sort of doing OK. I’ve also noticed that it seems sometimes like they’re talking to each other, like they seem to be on the same page. What’s below is constructed from quotes from 22 different people.

 

This virus is a horrifying gift—a life-and-death gift—for us to examine our priorities for how we want to be in this world. The system was set up for us to work too much and forget as much as possible. This has made us aware, if we didn’t already know, of how on a wire our lives were.

 

It’s not necessary for us to be stressed for the sake of productivity. If everyone just had $1,000 a month coming in from a value-added tax, people might be able to stay indoors and not have to risk their lives to get groceries. How robust a system can capitalism be if it needs to be bailed out by socialism every 10 years? If we didn’t spend $90 billion on a bomb the size of Rhode Island, we could have a test kit in everybody’s mailbox.

 

We are not going to go back as a society to the way it was before. People won’t want to go back. We have to find out how to have the space to access that part of our brains and hearts, to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others. We got to lock arms and get through it together. What better way to uplift people’s spirits than to do what we love to do? It’s a dark time and I try to be a light.

 

I find a lot of solace in history as time goes on, because you see the patterns. This has happened, and people had to figure it out, and yet we’re still here. Things continued. This is all just sort of a trial run—working out the kinks for what you have to do with climate change—anyway.

 

The danger isn’t running out of stories; it’s not telling them. I didn’t have the time before to finish records, but now I do. Creatives always say that: We need more time. Now we have the time. We are understanding what a moment in time is. We can sit on a bench and think: light and leaves do that? Bathrooms are the cleanest they’ve ever been. They could be this clean all the time. People have a lot of time to work on stuff. Maybe we’ll all learn how to farm and cook.

 

I’m not afraid of dying, We’re all going to leave here; it’s just how we go. I truly have a deep, deep trust that there is a lot going on that we don’t understand, or can’t wrap our heads around. I think my whole childhood and young adult life got me to this point. We have one life on this earth. I’m in my 50s. I want to eat every good thing in every day. I have all this wood laying around—a lot of random, found objects. I have a bag of paints and glues. I got some papier-mache. So I’ll come up with something.

 

The future: We live there, it’s weird. Hey—what are you going to do? Part of being an artist is getting in touch with your humanity. It’s being vulnerable. We’re all facing an existential threat. Connecting with people—it’s why people keep showing up when it’s so imperfect. This is the thing that reminds us of what it means to be human. That’s what we want to capture when we get the chance, on the other side, when we’re face to face. Even if we’re six feet apart.

 

What do we see through the window? There was a nice day, and people were out and walking their dogs as if they had never been outside before. It is remarkable how good people are being to each other. Go outside and the spring is happening. The swamp maple is covered with little red furry blossoms. The iris is poking out from the ground. The daffodils are blooming like mad. Those are things that happen every year. This is not about the chaos. This is just Earth doing its thing. Every year it comes to life.

 

Don’t give up. Work on you. Do some self-reflection, because once this thing lifts, we got to hit the ground running. We got work to do. There are forces in the unseen that can help us if we’re open to them. There are ways of working that allow for repair to happen. Now more than ever, we have to reach out, figuring out ways of supporting each other. We have to reach out to something bigger than us. It’s the new growth after a forest fire. Make new things. We’re going into a new world. We need new songs.

 

—July 8, 2020

Love in the Time of Covid-19

Dear editor,

I am submitting the personal ad below as a letter to the editor in order to save money for any possible coronavirus-related financial hardship I may encounter. Thank you in advance for waiving, in the spirit of the times, the normal fee for classifieds.

 

CNM seeks CNW

 

Coronavirus-negative man seeks coronavirus-negative woman for social distancing, lockdown, self-isolation, quarantine, hospitalization, possible long-term relationship. Let’s avoid each other from the start! Especially interested in meeting compulsive handwashers and/or professional epidemiologists. Please, no asymptomatic super-spreaders. Attractive elbows a definite plus, though physical intimacy will be very limited for an unspecified period, subject to the dictates of government officials. Interested parties should transmit their astrological and vital signs to the CDC and await further instruction.

 

(s)James Treat

Silver City

 

—Originally appeared in the Silver City Daily Press, March 17, 2020

Each day the world grows smaller & larger

as we retreat to our homes (those lucky to have them),

stock up on what we think we’ll need—toilet paper,

hand sanitizer, flour, beans—begin to understand

what it means to hunker down. In public, try out

social distancing: smile, nod, nervous, wonder

is this six feet? when what we want is to embrace

every service person we meet: the efficient,

masked bagger at QFC, the weary pharmacist,

the stoic neighbor hobbling up the street.

The world now in our living room

and we watch in disbelief as bodies stack up

on nightly news, as doctors in Italy must choose

whose life to save. Meanwhile our phones beep

the rising Covid-19 count for our county,

new guidelines for gathering, from 250 to 50

to 10 in a week. Then tonight, on the news,

watch those exiled on ancient iron balconies,

the last common space, join their voices, reach across

what little divides—to fill the death-drenched air

with song: rock, arias, and last, their national anthem.

And from our living room, an ocean and a continent

away, we hear a voice, our own stubborn belief

in the human species, despite all the ways

we’ve bungled it, rise above the fear,

the uncertainty, the despair—join in.

 

—March 18, 2020

Times and Seasons and Vanity upon Vanity

I didn’t know I could stop and trace the roads

of my palm the way my baby does, and tell

myself that moving fast isn’t everything, that other folks had

walked this path, that Earth isn’t mine alone, that am

not as great as I assumed, that it doesn’t pay

to eat with both hands like crabs, that I’m vulnerable.

 

I didn’t know I could live without sports and pop

myths, the lure of sex and the wild, the fantasy

of Hollywood and the charm of yachts. I didn’t know.

Please, tell me again: why do you harm your neighbor

for the glory you met and will leave behind tomorrow?

 

I’m home now—the pandemic struck too fast for me

to shield myself as I always do when others mourn

the loss of the things they love. I’m quarantined from

all the things I bleached the ozone with my chimneys.

 

Reckon, there’s a time for everything: a time for pollution

and a time we’re chained from messing as we pleased,

a time to worship wealth and a time to croak

 

health is greater, a time for folly and a time

for duty, a time to crave the grandeur of greed

 

and a time to love everyone and everything as yourself.

 

—July 5, 2020

In the Flowery Countryside

Where shall we put the bodies, sir,

fifty thousand more today

and that is just at dawn

the cemetery’s gates are chained,

undertaker’s curtains drawn

 

curtains drawn good man? this will just not do

dig another trench, deep and wide;

but do not upset the people,

dig it out of sight

 

dig it out of sight dear sir?

the woods beyond the city are full,

there are few spaces now to hide

perhaps we should head further out,

in the flowery countryside?

 

in the flowery countryside? yes, good man, that might do

there is no time to spare

and do try to be good,

place them down with gentle care

 

place them down with gentle care, of course I want to sir,

but backhoe bucket does not allow

for gentleness in placing down;

perhaps some farmers will lend a hand

 

farmers might lend a hand good man?

indeed, this could save time,

now be sure to bury them deep enough

in the flowery countryside

 

in the flowery countryside is where I’ve been, sir,

and farmer’s time was loaned

we did run out of markers, but

we marked the places with stones

 

marked the places with stones good man,

that was very kind

sadly now, you must stay

away from the flowery countryside

 

the farmers cry, no more! no more!

and leaders claim this problem is not theirs

perhaps the only thing to do now, good man

is load the trucks and head towards the capital city’s front stairs

 

—July 4, 2020