Caitlin Grace McDonnell’s new full-length, Pandemic City, is just the poetry book we need right now. We are moving into a (hopefully) post-Covid world, but the virus is still very much with us—and throughout the world. McDonnell’s book is both a powerful reminder of what life was like during the dark days of the pandemic in New York City and a portrait of a deeply feeling speaker managing her way through the challenges that none of us expected or had any roadmap about how to navigate. If this sounds at all grim, oddly, it’s not! McDonnell’s speaker acknowledges the pain, but possesses an indomitable spirit that can’t help but stimulate and inspire.
The book is dedicated to New York City and its cover is a stunning painting of the skyline by the artist Jessica Nissen. McDonnell’s style is conversational and keenly observed, reminding me at times of a female Frank O’Hara navigating Covid New York. The speaker is a woman who will not allow herself to be cheated by life, pandemic be damned. And not in any entitled, pampered way, but the way of someone fully alive and determined—who lives life on the border of recklessness, but is glad of the risks she takes.
All the poems in the book are titled “Pandemic With . . . X; for example: “Pandemic With Water,” “Pandemic With Disco Lights,” “Pandemic With News Cycle.” The poems detail the speaker’s daily interactions with her daughter, her mother, lovers and friends. The poems are rarely expressly political, but the long shadow of “the cartoon villain” who has “taken over” America (“Pandemic With Sleep”) hovers in the background.
The first poem, “Pandemic With Love,” expertly sets the stage. It begins:
Hungover from two Zoom cocktail hours in one night.
The rain says, Let me make this easy for you.
But I don’t do easy, so will get wet.
My lover says, We can’t, then we can.
Each hand is 100 hands.
In “Pandemic With Inventory”, McDonnell’s trademark humor peaks through, the speaker declaring:
Some things have become
clear in quarantine. She doesn’t
tolerate gluten anymore, or men.
McDonnell captures all of the pandemic hallmarks in the course of these poems: Zoom, masking, sirens, separation from loved ones, Covid fear. But all of it is earned. She doesn’t fall back on lazy tropes. It’s felt—and the reader feels it, too.
In “Pandemic with Pipes,” the speaker worries about water from the toilet carrying the virus. In “Pandemic with Happiness,” she worries about children playing too close on a playground and observes how odd it is to see people touching in pre-pandemic TV scenes. In the course of this onslaught, an understandable hint of fatalism seeps in when the speaker closes her eyes for sleep and “asks the world/to do what it will.”
The search for love, or even affection, appears repeatedly throughout these pages. The speaker in “Pandemic with Exes” texts sentimental photos to an ex in hopes of tugging heartstrings. The ex is not receptive, saying that she’s seeing someone else seriously. The speaker can only interject, in anguish, “Bowl full of bees,” a brilliant evocation of the feeling. McDonnell observes that for lovers “the pandemic /creates monogamy before/they would have.” (“Pandemic with Tefillin”) The desire, and need, for intimacy is palpable throughout the book, and the speaker is not one to shrink in a corner in the face of this desire.
McDonnell’s speaker is, in the end, indomitable and endearing. We root for her as she navigates this unexpected morass that compounds all of the pre-existing hardships of life. A speaker who feels like she’s holding up the world (“Pandemic with Partial Resurrection”), but has the strength to tell her daughter to “head toward the sun.” (“Pandemic with Elvis In The Building”)
In “Pandemic with Birthday,” she pays tribute to a loving friend and recounts how they would prepare food together:
We cook sweet potatoes and
thick leafy greens, adding
raisins, because fuck it,
there is no reason to separate
the sweet from spice.
No reason, indeed. This is a book that finds the sweet in a most challenging situation. But fuck it, it doesn’t lack for spice. Not one bit.
Anthony Cappo is the author of the forthcoming poetry book When You’re Deep In A Thing (Four Way Books, 2022) and the chapbook “My Bedside Radio” (Deadly Chaps Press, 2016). His poems and other writings have appeared in THRUSH, Prelude, Entropy, The Rumpus, and other publications. Anthony received his M.F.A. in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. He lives in New York City. His work can be found at anthonycappo.com.