Drifting from observation to observation as April unfurls and the walls close in, the speaker of Rick Barot’s prose poem “During the Pandemic” recalls a teacher who made her students memorize poems. “When we asked why,” he writes, “she said we might one day find ourselves in a wreck at the side of the road and we would recite these poems to stay alive.” Barot’s poem appears in a new anthology from Knopf, Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic. It is a collection in and of the wreck, calling readers back to the spring, when the anthology’s editor Alice Quinn summoned some of poetry’s brightest lights, from Jericho Brown to Li-Young Lee, Ada Limón to Fanny Howe—about a hundred in all. Published as an ebook in June, it has been released now in hardcover with an additional twenty-two poems that know the name of George Floyd, and know the anti-mask rallies, but do not yet know the 180,000-case days, or the 245,000-case days. Yet for all it can’t foresee, Together in a Sudden Strangeness still joins us in the ditch of January with the faith of Barot’s teacher in the ability of poetry to attenuate grief and sustain us.
In its imagery and mood, the collection feels distinctly April. The poems conjure senior shopping hours and empty shelves in the toilet paper aisle, how the supply chain seemed simultaneously to be drying up and overfull (“I’ve been / watching footage of the day-old chicks. / The hundred and sixteen / thousand buried alive, it seems we can’t afford to feed,” writes Linda Gregerson). They conjure the PPE shortage of the first wave, as when Suzanne Gardinier imagines a “rookie neurologist in the plague” who “fights without the ways to hide his face / he’d have if he were carrying a gun.” They call forth with horror and sorrow the refrigerated trucks parked outside the hospitals. Rachel Eliza Griffiths evokes Whitman, who himself knew something of the dead, having served as a nurse in the Civil War, when she “sing[s] the city electric” and tells the story of a real-life forensic technician, Tanisha Brunson-Malone, who placed daffodils on body bags in the morgues and trucks.
Joshua Bennett’s “Dad Poem” recalls the early prohibition of partners from doctor’s visits, the shifting, confusing rules of who could be in the room. “No visitors allowed / is what the masked woman behind / the desk says only seconds / after me and your mother / arrive for the ultrasound,” Bennett writes: “But I’m the father, / I explain, like it means something / defensible.” Seeing his baby for the first time as a wrinkled printout, the speaker asks the question that recurs in many of the volume’s poems: “what love persists / in a time without touch.” It is a question that appears in Amit Majmudar’s poem “An American Nurse Foresees Her Death.” Majmudar, a diagnostic nuclear radiologist and Ohio’s first poet laureate, writes of a nurse who steps “out of a killzone shaped like a bedroom” to go home and sleep in her garage. “This hand that sponged the fever off a body / waves at my kids through the living room window,” Majmudar writes in a devastating account of the sacrifices, the matrices of touch and no-touch, made by frontline healthcare workers on our behalf.
Several of the poems also comment on the Black Lives Matter movement, and they link the systemic racism underlying police brutality to the racism and classism that is manifest in the disproportionate COVID-19 deaths in Black and Latinx communities. Evie Shockley writes of the “contaminants” that “coat the surface of everything we / touch: doorknobs, compassion, healthcare,” and in her poem about George Floyd, called “Weather,” Claudia Rankine delineates the “form of governing that deals out death / and names it living.”
The collection thus pulls the reader back to the spring, and so many of its insights feel recognizable, not least of which is the awe that many of the poets express that spring has come at all (“How even now spring begins to / to fuss the crocus, miraculous,” writes Dave Lucas). I was not writing in March or April, but reading the anthology now has made me realize what my spring poem would have been: it would have been about how my breastmilk supply plummeted that last week of March as I pleaded with my seventy-two-year-old father from across the class divide to stop working his retail job, and how it started to come back when the governor locked down New York. I had no clarity of thought then; the meaning-making capacity of poetry was gone for me. It is wondrous to read Together in a Sudden Strangeness and know that these poets found a way to define form and feeling in the stress of the first wave.
But arriving now, as the cruel second wave crests and the vaccine starts to go out, there is something untimely about the collection. This untimeliness is present in the poems that speak of “our thirty days of lockdown” (Stephen Kampa’s “Mulberries”) and in the title of Susan Minot’s poem “Isolation, Week Two, Sixth Day of Spring.” There’s an Eliot line (which was originally a Dante line) in Grace Shulman’s “Gone,” but it’s not the one we expect, not the one the volume seems actually to bespeak: the one about April being the cruelest month. Reading these poems in January, we can only notice how the cruelty has gone on and on and intensified. Perhaps the saddest poem in the volume, then, is Kitty O’Meara’s “And the People Stayed Home,” which tells of how “the earth began to heal” and “the danger passed, and the people joined together again” after and as a result of the people staying home. It reads now like a prayer nobody answered. It’s hard to read the poem and not want to rewrite the first line (“And the people stayed home”): And the state abandoned the people, and some stayed home, and some didn’t, and some couldn’t.
In a sonnet, the line that represents a shift in the poem’s train of thought is called the volta, the Italian word for “turn.” In her sonnet “Concealed Host,” Jenny Xie places a question there: “How are we to know in which direction the ending grows?” It’s the question the whole collection seems to turn on now. But we’ve lived the months since April, so we know more about the direction of the ending than the poets did. We know, for example, that it is not true to say that “It wasn’t man undoing man / As he so often will / The reset of the world instead / Is quiet as a pill,” as Susan Minot writes. We know that indeed man has undone man. We know, too, that April was a phase in a much longer saga, and not even the first phase: “Some of us are already postapocalyptic,” writes the Indigenous poet and novelist Tommy Orange. It should be enough, though, that these poets were able to make some sense out of the shock of spring, for as much as we like to think of the imagination as “inexhaustible and transcendent,” as John Koethe puts it, “it’s as earthbound as we are.” Poets aren’t prophets, as much as we may want them to be.