When the quarantine started, I felt ashamed of my initial reaction – which was relief. I’d been commuting every other month between home in San Antonio and work in DC. I’d ridden so many planes; I was out of Synthroid but too busy to make the doctor’s appointment, my taxes were overdue, I owed just about every friend I had a phone call. Like everyone, I was terrified, but for the first time in a couple of years I was also “at home.” I found myself waking hours before dawn – to watch the morning, and the sunflowers in my backyard- volunteers all—grow, grow taller. Never had the spring seemed so green and full of life to me. Not for years had I been constrained to observe it this way—the whir of cardinals in the wisteria, the fierce-looking grackles hovered protectively around the fig tree, even the pregnant skunk who had taken residence under my deck. Why had I not seen these things?
Ostensibly, I was waking early to write poems, but no poems came. Instead, I stared out at the yard, brooding about now and before. It occurred to me one thing about now is that we are living through a terrible trauma nested in a larger still vaguely inconceivable trauma. We have the pandemic and beneath that we have global warming. I said to an old friend that this was
what made these times different, but he said even back in the forties, when he was a boy, people were talking about just this. They weren’t using phrases like “climate change,” but they were speaking and writing about the trauma of industrialization, this new way of life that was not in tune, not sustainable. He said “We have never lived outside that anxiety.” And I thought about my own anxieties – losing my job, playing for healthcare, credit card debt, and beneath that the truer more generalized anxieties — how there be so many cars on every road, how can we all have cell phones we throw away after a couple of years–what does it mean that people in China poison themselves mining “rare earth” so I can hold a new cellphone in my hand?
Now my city is slowly opening, though there is no particular evidence that the virus numbers are going down. The governor of my state, Texas, sees more danger in letting the economy fail, and the Lieutenant Governor has actually threatened to sue my city if it tries to delay. When I go to my local HEB, I see crowds—even more people than usual–but everyone is wearing a mask. When you go through the checkout line, there are new flimsy Plexiglas shields erected between you and the cashiers, but all around, up and down the aisles, the workers are moving—stacking cans, helping customers. Just as the mining of rare earth in China supports my cell phone, I would not be able to quarantine without the work of these people, our so-called essential workers; who do the jobs that are the least well paid; yet are the ones most exposed, expected to bear the burden of risk. Some of these people will die so I can stay home. Recognizing this is yet another nested trauma inside the trauma of the pandemic, the trauma of global warming.
In a recent Financial Times article, Arundhati Roy said we must see the pandemic moment “as a portal.” At 4 am when I wake up, I go outside, because, for some reason, going out into the yard has become my new routine. I don’t pretend I’m going to write a poem anymore but I still brood about poems and poetry. Can a poem ask the questions to unlock the terrible gap between our immediate need and how we want to live? Part of me fears the depression that is coming, has come, will only lead to further racism and economic inequality, more of the brutality already endemic in the US, the world; part of me thinks we might make some correction—in what we use, in the contracts we make with each other and even with the planet. Part of me thinks we still have time.
Watching the yard, I realize another feeling now that I have finally stopped moving – an almost jilted sadness. After all we have done to the planet. the planet has finally turned against us—the virus, the outside, grown hostile through extremes of weather; except that it does not feel that way, not at all, when I sit in my garden—tender buds on branches, small pockets of silence that fill endlessly with birds. This is one of the most beautiful springs here in Texas I can ever remember, and the beauty is as real and palpable as the grief and isolation all around. I hear of a friend’s husband in the hospital with Covid-19; another poet friend, who lost her mother, quickly, unexpectedly, unable to say goodbye. I am not sure what language we will find to describe our new precariousness expect that I think it will relate to our old precariousness. Perhaps out of this pause, this collapse of what we know, we will be better able to see and articulate where we were before or confess that where we were had the quality of dystopian fever-dream long before the pandemic arrived.
Of all the poems I have turned to in this time, the one that has most resonated with me is a poem W.S. Merwin wrote back in 2005 – called “Thanks.” It is officially a poem about “Thanksgiving,” and if there was ever a subject that would seem to lend itself to lies or empty sentiment, it would be that one, but Merwin skirts this. His is a poem for desperate times, of desperate times, and yet he delivers a vision that is not despair.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
Their mouths full of food, these people race out to give thanks. These nameless people, who seem helpless in the face of their actions to maim the planet, nevertheless to go out to speak their gratitude. Merwin seems almost to argue that our rapacious hunger is the other side of the coin of our potential wild generosity, imagination; in short, that we must face what is the worst in us in order to bring out what is the most capacious, transcendent. The poem ends:
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
One would expect a poem about the potential end of us in the planet to make one feel desolate or dead inside, but Merwin’s poem does the opposite. Once you read it you may feel a little weepy, but you will also—if you are like me—feel gripped by a strange energy, a kind of exhilaration. In this radical juxtaposition of apparently contradictory thoughts and feelings– the joy of the world in the midst of dread of/for the world – I think we arrive at what Arundhati Roy means by portal—we cannot discard or lie about what brought us here; but we can look at it nakedly and, in that naked regard, we can perhaps begin to imagine or reimagine our world on the other side of this trauma, which is not small, which is not something that can be explained away or dismissed or mediated but is the mystery of how we live now— of how we keep living.