Four Quartets: Poetry in the Pandemic is an anthology of works related to COVID-19 that are a response to the collective, horrific events of the past year globally, but particularly to events lodged in the US psyche: the failure to successfully confront the pandemic; a K-shaped economic recovery that has left the rich, richer and the poor, poorer; persistent food and housing insecurity; a failing democracy and polarized citizenry; and systemic racism, embodied by the ongoing blatant murders of black men and women by police.
The work of twelve poets was solicited by the publisher; four entries were selected through open call. I sent in my own poems when the call came, as did more than 1000 others. By that point, I had already read scores of pandemic writings pulsing on the internet, in print, on YouTube, and on zoom events. For many artists, the creative drive is strongest in desperate times.
Among the luminaries here are Jimmy Santiago Baca, Mary Jo Bang, Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Rick Barot. Of the nearly 300 pages in Four Quartets, this is a sampling of what these poets had to say.
From a biographical note at the Poetry Foundation, Jimmy Santiago “Baca’s work is concerned with social justice and revolves around the marginalized and disenfranchised, treating themes of addiction, community, and the American Southwest barrios.” His contribution to the anthology, Poetic Prayer is an extended rhythmic metaphor of injustice and ignorance, past and present, represented by lament, supplication, and dance. These are poems in which spirit buffalo speak of “where we // once roamed”:
Buffalo are coming
smashing homes and hearts,
waking people, stirring them to think
to feel again, to do away with profit margins.
Buffalo are coming
Baca uncovers every flaw in the system contributing to our current crises, yet in closing, offers this hopeful possibility:
it was almost like, in the midst of the pandemic crises
people remembered they were human, had time to think
again, had time to spend with kids,
had time to evaluate their lives
and believe it or not, buffalos appeared
in parks to graze—
I was mesmerized by Mary Jo Bang’s day-by-day reportage of the dreary alphabet of living during the pandemic that is spelled out in her contribution, The Present Now. Entirely unlike Elegy, a 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award winner, where monthly journal entries perform the relentlessness of grief over her son’s death, here, the isolation of living through the pandemic seems to be numbing and terrifying in equal measures. Each undated entry starts with “Today,” and names and places are represented anonymously by “X” as in:
Today, phone call today from X saying Dr. X wanted to know how I am.
Today, email from X who says he’s overwhelmed.
Day after day, unspecified names and places reveal the drudgery of time’s passage. We commiserate at glimpses of how Bang’s vulnerability is tested daily. The litany forms a rhythm, a saga, an artifact. Bang continues to work on translating Dante, while obsessing on the daily numbers (as if hoping to win a lottery against the odds) and “just being worn down by the weight of it.” Work is “a relief” unlike the anxiety of “long phone calls comparing how one reduces their risk.” And of course, there are the inevitable touches with deaths. We are reminded that almost anyone in NYC knew somebody who was sickened or died of the virus during the first wave:
Today, Dr. X sent a message, saying the office was closed and
he was home with the coronavirus.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ contribution, Flesh and Other Shelters, transmits a deeply personal and potent account of living during the pandemic through her lush language and lyricism. She offers an “In Memoriam” at the start of her section, naming five persons known to her, ages 57-80 years, who died in 2020 from COVID or cancer. Griffiths herself survived an episode of illness early in the pandemic (“One hundred and two and rising. One hundred and three.”); has lived in NYC during the lonely months of shutdowns (“my body is trapped in New York’); and even released a new book in pandemic times, “Seeing the Body” (W.W. Norton, 2020), that itself is an elegy of loss. Releasing any new work in 2020 was an experience in tandem with so many other artists who mourned, in addition to all else, the loss of a live, in-person audience.
Griffiths is moved, and moves the reader, with “Flower,” a tribute to “Tanisha Brunson-Malone, a forensic technician in New Jersey, who places daffodils on body bags in the hospital’s morgue and refrigerated trucks.” Daffodils are among many symbols that blaze in this work, that show what is indescribable, yet possible.
I would like to believe this poem is a daffodil
placed on the lid of a language that is trying to speak
about the world. Let this poem be a stinging like beauty
in our eyes. O city, we are living on our knees.
Rick Barot also released a new book, The Galleons (Milkweed Editions) in 2020. During the Pandemic was also released by Albion Press as a microchap that sold out in eight hours. In his anthology entry, From During the Pandemic, Barot offers a set of thirteen numbered musings, each starting with “During the pandemic, I,” followed with an action verb— “watched,” “fixed on,” “read,” “lost,” “listened” and so on. The repetition is soothing, like the days. We know where we are and what is going on, and yet the text is drenched in distancing and creating metaphor as poultices against the virus. There is tedium that could break a person, but there is also tedium that demands attention and precision. I read this work as instruction for how to sustain a creative life during calamity.
During the pandemic, I followed each impulse as it turned into a procedure. I bought a can of peaches because I read a novel in which it figured as a metaphor.
I looked at photographs and suddenly understood that a photograph was a letter to someone in the future.
Of course there is much more here to imbibe. All of the folios in Four Quartets: Poetry in the Pandemic were produced by gifted artists; written, often entirely, in real time; and cross boundaries of place, content, style, craft, form, collaboration, and emotional resonance. Most, including Photography from The Infinite Present, by B.A. Van Sise, are documentary or reportage, giving us a glimpse of lives lived during 2020—the first waves of the pandemic. There is prayer, anger, complaint, grief, and introspection throughout these pages. Indeed, this is a remarkable collection of poets and photos, worthy to be read by many and taught now and in the years to come.
Most of these stories echo a common experience of many Americans over the past year: isolation, distance, fury, annoyance, monotony. In his contribution, V.Van Jordan expresses this ordinary yet bewildering experience that many of us face:
Amazing how the sun rises as if nothing untoward is going on,
business as usual, “just another day at the sky.”
The anthology was produced soup-to-nuts in a few months and released in the midst of much more to come. A rollout of vaccinations had not yet commenced. The dramatic and traumatic results of the 2020 election were yet to come.
I’m looking at COVID-19 today from the perspective of April 2021. In the US alone, the number of cases (greater than 32 million) and the numbers of deaths (nearly 600,000) continue to be a forward moving target. Global deaths are now greater than 3 million. Presently India’s health care system is on the verge of collapse under a fourth wave of infections. Numbers such as these challenge our comprehension.
And of course, some voices are inevitably missing from this anthology. Here in the US, we live in a condition in which most of us have been confronted with the illness and deaths of only some of us. We know that the elderly and nursing home residents are a large portion of the deaths. We also know that black, native, and latinx persons continue to be disproportionately represented among both cases and deaths. We also know that health care workers, grocery workers, nursing home aides, farm workers, poultry plant workers, and teachers are among the most vulnerable; they risk illness and death in order that we may eat and (hopefully) send our children to school; that our elders may be cared for. Intersections of systemic racism and wealth inequality have been long present in the US, but have been intensified and highlighted by the pandemic. These unequal burdens of some were certainly acknowledged within these pages, yet some of the most critical voices were missing. Rachel Eliza Griffiths gives the only direct account of having survived the harsh penalty of the virus, the grief of losing family members. As a nurse, I’d hoped to hear the voice of someone working directly within the destructive forces of the virus—the overburdened doctor, nurse, respiratory therapist, medical assistant, maintenance worker.
It is a challenge to pin down the historical footing of an anthology that was produced in the midst of this crisis. Released in the thick of the second wave of COVID-19, with cases and deaths inexorably swelling into the future and no clear end yet in sight, it is perhaps enough to say we were here; we observed, suffered, and mourned. We wrote.
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and curator at The Poetry Café. She has published six collections of poetry, most recently the full length collection, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition.