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I've been looking all year for words that speak to the current moment. Not new words, but old, recycled words put to dynamic use. Perhaps I'm looking for language with a kind of sustainability.
In this moment, we do need critical news that informs us about the current COVID-19 crisis, but we also need a creative poetics to sustain us through the pandemic. I've pulled together three of my favorite poems that we've published over the years that I think help externalize some of the internal complexities percolating through our minds and histories.
When I first read Emily Brown's poems "I'm Overreacting" and "Other Possible Lives," I described them as "apocalyptically quiet." I didn't know that a year later we'd all be living through the apocalypse.
"i asked my plants
how can i better serve you today
and they told me
delete your whole life…"
After what feels like months of one unending Zoom call, I really do want to log off. Permanently. I've taken to sitting on my roof after work to unwind. I listen to the human-silence through which the birds are singing new songs, or perhaps singing old songs with newfound vigor. So many other things thrive while humankind is sequestered. Spring, unhurried by Atlanta traffic or pollution, expands to her full dimensions. I watch the cherry trees shake free their pinks and reds. For a few brief minutes, I manage to do what Emily tells me and I "don't worry about death."
"… Do you remember
when we met How no drugs were administered…"
Lines in Xandria Phillips' "Black Body as Told By The Stirrups" harken back to the mid 1800's when J. Marion Sims, "the father of modern gynecology," performed gynecological surgeries and experiments on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Black, brown, and poor communities remain without basic medical necessities like protective gear, tests, access to hospitals, and affordable healthcare, the similarities incise like a scalpel.
"The hands are still
ice and white melting into her folds"
I thought about Xandria's poem as I received calls and texts of more Black folks I know dying from complications with COVID-19. Black and indigenous folks should be prioritized in terms of treatment and testing for COVID-19 because race is an index for so many pre-existing health conditions that leave people especially vulnerable to the disease. (The effects of racism are themselves pre-existing health conditions.) Yet there's simply too many stories of folks with symptoms being turned away for testing and of drive-through testing centers in Black neighborhoods sitting empty for weeks.
I'm tired of our "trickle-down DNA blotting the hissing sheet."
"I suck it all up. With death as occupation, I take it all in like the pleasure of the earth is my feast:"
Many of our communities are still waiting for the transmission rate to peak. It's too easy to read the opening line of Maeve Holler's poem "Self Portrait As Black Hole" from the perspective of the coronavirus, which seems insatiable as it devours the most vulnerable among us. Its only occupation, death.
But if we hold the speaker of the poem to be human like us, another outlook is available. We have the opportunity to recall the sumptuousness of everything we took for granted: sunbeams through fog, the drunken stagger of a friend, grass stains, the naked pleasure of touching and being touched.
The hope in Maeve's poem and the hope in this current moment is mangled but alive, as light in a black hole is present though bent to invisibility.
When asking about the just possibilities for our future after this pandemic passes, we see they are already here—tangled inside our present communities and looking for an exit. I'm looking for exits these days from solitude, from quarantine, and from the cycles of oppression and white supremacy that overflow the morgue again with Black bodies.
"Are you wondering where I put it all? It's all stored inside of me, dormant & twisted until the lavender day when it will be birthed again. Maybe the light will be a better version of itself."
Maeve reminds us that the light has more work to do.
I think poems like these do the work of turning each of us into exits for the light. Perhaps a million human-sized blackholes is exactly what we need, forces that bend, swallow, and rip the present status quo into portals so that a future more luminous than this one can be born.
See more poems we love:
- For the difficulties of social distancing : 'Leaving & Cleaving'—Brandon Jordan Brown
- For mourning those we've lost: 'And A Great Part of Me Will Escape The Grave'—Andres Rojas
- For when we need more than prayer: 'Absolution'—Amanda Rodriguez