Home Art & Culture A Raging Pandemic Inspires Poetry With Little Bite

A Raging Pandemic Inspires Poetry With Little Bite

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Jane Hirshfield writes about rescuing an ant. Stephanie Burt’s washing machine breaks down. Elizabeth J. Coleman, in the kitchen, posts this update on her internal Slack channel: “I hadn’t thought about how an orange is a miniature / replica of our planet until that afternoon.” Because both are round.

Credit…Cameron Blaylock

Wild is the wind, in Rigoberto González’s poem “Desert Lily.” He writes: “The wind arrives not because it’s called / but because it’s forgotten.” This arrives on Page 46, which is about the place where many readers will gently set this book aside, hitch a mask up over the ears and leap out the window.

The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, writers included; malaise is widespread, omnidirectional, multilayered. But because one’s body is not as free as it was, does it follow that the mind should be so fettered as well? The best poems in “Together in a Sudden Strangeness” speak from unusual promontories.

Danielle Chapman’s “The New Nice” beautifully scatters this book’s peaceful, easy feeling. Her poem is double-distilled, and composed as if from ice shavings and incivilities. “No longer must I be nice to anyone / except the people in this house,” she writes. “Niceness, it is obvious to me now, / lets out what should be hemmed.”

Mean people are not always good to know in real life. But they are wonderful to meet on the page. As if trampling this book’s egregious flower poems, Chapman looks down and thinks:

But this is my property. I’ve decided
these daffodils or tulips are mine to keep or kill.
Perennials rage up every May along this edge —
an edge I would prefer you keep your doggy off.

Diane Seuss, in her poem “Pandemicon,” thinks that the virus — “a little spiked red ball of death”— resembles a dog’s chew toy. Tomás Q. Morín, in “Vallejo,” thinks it looks like a pineapple upside-down cake. Both these poets are supremely talented.

So is Catherine Cohen, whose frazzled “Poem I wrote after I asked you if cereal can expire” contains piles of twigs like “I put the wrong kind of gas in the car and hate being alone” and “my children will type before they can walk.”

More good things: Jericho Brown wants to paint a mole near the dimple under his mask, so he feels more jaunty. George Green finds himself watching old biblical epics on television, to excellent effect. (“Rip Torn’s troubled Judas, a pathetic mook!”) Gail Mazur’s poem about unleavened bread, cosmic mistakes and cremation would be a keeper in any season.

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