Pandemic Poetry

Four Quartets: Poetry in the Pandemic
Edited by Kristina Marie Darling & Jeffrey Levine
Tupelo Press 2020 $25.95-$39.95

by Alexa T. Dodd

FOUR QUARTETS: Poetry in the Pandemic is an ambitious compilation of chapbooks by twenty established and emerging poets who offer their diverse perspectives on this year of COVID-19. The anthology is a meditation on suffering and joy, isolation and community, life and death, time and eternity. While it centers on the pandemic, its concerns radiate outward to encompass the multitude of events—issues of racial injustice, police brutality, and political discord—that have made 2020 such an unprecedented year.

In the middle of this timely and well-edited anthology, a collection of photographs by B.A. Van Sise offers a compelling visual companion to the poems that frame it. Taking only one photograph a day, Van Sise captured aspects of the pandemic across the American South and Southwest. These pictures bear witness to an unfolding history, a kind of mythic Americana still in the midst of becoming myth. Van Sise explains, “A photograph, a poem, a memory, these are thieves of time: the taking of a temporary instant to turn it into permanent ephemera” (143).

His assessment offers an applicable interpretation of this entire anthology, as he writes, “In this year of trials, perhaps, the memory of the exhausting world is not what anyone wants, but might be what so many need: to be forced, yearning in isolation, our hands and mouths and lips and hearts six feet apart, to find the poetry in the pain and carry it on with us” (143). Van Sise reminds us that all of our moments—even in this year of pain—are fleeting. They are “present ones,” as he says, but he invites us to live in that present.

Thus, poetry, like these photographs, is a particularly worthy medium with which to approach the pandemic and 2020. By its very form, poetry invites us to meditate on the fleeting nature of all things while simultaneously providing a permanent space for this meditation. Poetry, particularly the poetry in this anthology, does not “make sense” of our existence, but dwells in it, finding meaning, even peace, in the uncertainty. And in a time of such uncertainty, perhaps poetry is what we all need most.

All of the poets in this anthology explore this uncertainty, though in a myriad of ways. Mary Jo Bang, in a vein similar to Van Sise’s, dives into the minutia of life in quarantine in her chapbook “The Present Now.” Each line of her collection begins with “Today.” This repetitive present becomes a kind of Purgatory—fittingly, also, the poem the speaker is trying to translate throughout. But throughout Bang’s collection, she balances the excruciating grief of the virus’s toll with the unexpected comforts of pandemic life—a Zoom call with friends, for example. Furthermore, using “X” to stand in for various people and things, Bang allows readers to imagine themselves in the speaker’s place, making universal the personal.

The poems throughout range from the highly personal to the public, even epic. Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “Poetic Prayer,” for example, uses the repeated and startling image of buffalo as a kind of metaphor for the virus, intertwining the legendary character of the buffalo with existence in the age of Corona. Ken Chen’s “By the Oceans of Styx, We Knelt and Wept,” is a profound reflection on mortality, giving mythic language to the events of our times: “…so ashamed of our failed nation / we hide our faces behind masks” (93). On the other hand, Dora Malech’s “Time Trying” focuses more on the personal and mundane. She makes poetic the difficult conversations parents must have with children, “We can see them again soon, / meaning each missed / someone.” (130). Similarly, A. Van Jordan’s poem “How You Doin’?” in his collection “At This Late Hour” is a beautiful meditation on how social distancing has given deeper meaning to our interactions with others:

So, when I think of my encounters with others,
who are quarantining, sheltering in place
social distancing to stay alive, I ask them
and—is it possible, for the first time?—
I truly wanna know. (212)

Thus, the collection repeatedly allows us to see the beautiful in the everyday and the epic quality even in the mundane of our current situation.

read Dora Malech’s poem 

“After ‘The Day After My Father’s Death’” a selection from her chapbook, “Time Trying,” in Four Quartets: Poetry in the Pandemic (130)

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