Turning to Poetry for Hope during the Pandemic and the Uprising
I am not one to shy away from talking about the limits of poetry. Poetry is many things, but it is not, for example, therapy. I don’t believe it’s activism. Poetry, this art at the center of so many of our lives, will not change who’s in office, won’t stop a virus’s droplets from using the air as highway from mouth to mouth. It won’t provide ventilators to those who need them, won’t build hospitals, is unlikely to change policy, can’t deflect a tear gas canister. What can a poem do to keep a cop’s knee from a Black neck? What power does the poem have against death, let alone pandemic?
In these moments of anxiety, of grief, when the vastness of what needs to be done feels so crushing, I see it all over Twitter: poets unable to write, poets feeling awkward or guilty about celebrating; our relationship to the work shifts, must be re-navigated. I tend toward disillusion: poems will not save us, and so I wonder if, in this moment, they matter. And if not now, did they ever, really?
Moving forward as a poet and a human starts to feel impossible. Like it would take a miracle, an ark to hold us above the flood. But then, poetry reminds me of the miraculous. Reminds me: I have felt so empty of possibility so often, so deeply, that to feel possible itself is miracle. I remember hearing sam sax perform at the 2016 Rustbelt poetry slam: “I don’t believe in miracles … but I know impossible things when I see them”—the poem then continuing to list other impossibilities, other miracles. And though two of those listed miracles—gathering and breathing—are currently under threat, there is still: “my hands have bad blood in them but they are my hands”, still: “the fact of your birth … must be a miracle.”
In the thick of shelter-in-place, before national attention began to focus around the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, this orientation toward possibility despite what feels impossible became my focus in reading poems, and it’s what continues to keep me anchored against the tide of hopelessness. I saw Instagram stories of friends’ nature walks and pictures of the still-present sky and was reminded of Deborah Landau’s Soft Targets (“Much trouble at hand, yet the lilies still.”) and Tarfia Faizullah’s “Because There’s Still A Sky, Junebug” (“I look up,/and the sky still flints with so many stars. Above me./Above you.”) On Zoom calls I wished and ongoingly wish to hug my friends and am led to Leila Chatti’s “Fasting in Tunis”, a poem I recently read to friends at the end of such a call: “Once, long ago,/I touched you,/and I will touch you again—”.
As my circle’s social media posts have shifted into memorializing, protests, thoughts on self-care, and calls to action, my reflections on the world we are working to create have led me again to Franny Choi’s poem “Field Trip to the Museum of Human History”, a poem that models for me the radical change of a better future I am sometimes too pessimistic to believe in. In the poem a group of children learn of police, a by-then antiquated institution of “intimidation, punishment, and force.” The students live in a world where handcuffs and nightsticks are only artifact; they leave the museum and go “wherever [their] good legs could roam.” The poem steps in where my imagination fails, makes me trust that we will get there, that we deserve a world without this violence and terror, that we, as in Karisma Price’s “My Phone Autocorrects ‘Nigga’ to ‘Night’”, are “revised constitutions” and “lambs worthy/of the morning.”
As for writing: When I sit down to the page and nothing wants to come, when I feel all this is too much for the poem to crest, I remember Danez Smith’s “It Doesn’t Feel like a Time to Write”: “it doesn’t feel like a time to write/when all my muses are begging/for their lives.” As I initially wrote this essay, the context of the moment from which that poem sprung—police killing Black people—was not in the national spotlight, though we know this violence is always ongoing. And alongside this conversation of police brutality, the pandemic has highlighted the racial violence of health systems negligence toward Black people and communities causing disproportionate death: also an ever-present weight. On top of, well, every other present struggle, spotlighted or not. But still, the poem highlights possibility with how it leans in and resists, acknowledges uncertainty as central to the process; the limits regarding writing and its role act as an arrow toward what poems can do, how they direct our attention and make us feel even when we doubt their usefulness.
I hold close the constellation of poems that reach toward various iterations of possibility within what might feel impossible. I return to Nomi Stone’s “Waiting for Happiness”, which opens: “Dog knows when friend will come home” and closes: “But it is almost five says/the dog. It is almost five.” Of course the dog—by extension, the speaker and us—cannot reasonably be certain the friend/happiness will return, and of course happiness refuses to operate on a schedule as predictable as a workday, and so one might expect the gesture toward hope at the end to feel empty. But I think that’s exactly the point, that holding of possibility: it has happened and so there’s the hope that it might happen again. The hope is granted an earnestness the reader can feel. The miracle of the poem dissipates all the logical follow-up questions that might arise otherwise, that would point me toward doubt.
In a similar sense, the final lines of Kaveh Akbar’s “Portrait of the Alcoholic Stranded Alone on A Desert Island”—which also serve as the final lines of Calling a Wolf a Wolf—somehow transform endlessness into something that feels to me hopeful: “The boat I am building/will never be done.” In one sense, being trapped, futility; and yet, I can’t help but glean from these lines a reminder of the present possibility of continued work: still, we build the boat.
Or, consider the final lines of Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s “The Sun Got All Over Everything”, which I find wondrously baffling: “Somewhere my mother was dying/and someone was skinning a giraffe./And I let it go. I just let it go.” During a recent class that had to be hastily converted from in-person to video chat, I attempted to explain my feelings about this ending to my students. I don’t think I did it well, but I’ll attempt it again here: the speaker, miraculously, able to, in the moment, let go, while still holding space for grief, and, somehow—in how the poem builds to this end—resisting apathy and despair both. Every time I read this poem, I feel deeply this simultaneity of holding and letting go of grief and am struck by how it convinces me of that possibility.
I love this poem too for how it holds personal grief alongside global crisis, an intersection of miseries. Different crises can lead us to similar despairs, though it can feel indulgent to try to take care of, let alone celebrate, the self when there are so many others to consider, so much work to be done. But I can’t help but connect the world’s uncertainty regarding a way forward to my own, connect my most-hopeless moments to other moments when hope might feel strained.
I don’t know if it’s fair to say poetry has kept me alive; it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty. But I do know how deeply I wanted to die, just a handful of weeks ago, and a doctor assumed it was anxiety from the pandemic, was shocked when she asked how long and I said “months”, and that was just the most recent bout. And it’s necessary to say the primary change from then to now is new medication, not poetry. But, I know also how deeply I wanted to die when I walked into the auditorium in college where I first heard Jamaal May read and thought, let me find a way forward, at least because of the possibility of how beautiful poems can be.
I know, too, how deeply I wanted to die the first time I saw a video of Hieu Minh Nguyen perform “Notes on Staying” and thought, let me find a way forward, at least I know I’m not so alone. Just as happiness continued to return to the dog, I have to believe that the pattern of poems as a door toward the way forward can repeat.
I remember the first time reading J. Bailey Hutchinson’s “J. Bailey Hutchinson Moves 658.8 Miles North and Tries to Make It Count”, and then returning to it, and then hearing it read in Arkansas, the final roadtrip I took before shelter-in-place, and then returning to it again and again in the past weeks: “Once, night-buttered, I … begged that something might unexist me. Here I go to get grateful nothing did. … I am so nearly doomed, but there is a woman I might be.”
I remember the thens I pushed through, and so I push through still, holding dear to the might of that looking forward, even in great uncertainty.
Czeslaw Milosz, in his poem “Hope,” argues toward this remembering, argues that hope, in part, is a matter of object permanence:
Hope is …
That all things you have ever seen here
Are like a garden looked at from a gate.
You cannot enter. But you’re sure it’s there.
Could we but look more clearly and wisely
We might discover somewhere in the garden
A strange new flower and an unnamed star.
… the ones who have no hope
… think that the moment we turn away,
The world, behind our backs, ceases to exist,
As if snatched up by the hands of thieves.
When, as now, we cannot enter through that gate into what may lie on the other side of this (of course, that is an act of hope itself, to even imagine the other side, to believe it is there), what a gift to imagine what we may there discover. We have seen the beauty in the world even if we struggle to see it now: I hope we remember those feelings, lest they be snatched away.
I know there’s still a hard truth I must here address: we will not all make it. Even as I write this, the fatalities from COVID-19 grow and our communities have already lost much. While much movement has already resulted from the uprising since George Floyd’s death, change is both a factor of what we make happen now and what will take time to reach. Lucille Clifton, of course, is right when she celebrates and calls us to celebrate with her—“everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed”—but not everyone will make it to celebrate with us. Often it feels impossible to hold space both for the celebration and for honoring who and what we have lost, may lose, as we (to quote Clifton once more) “sail through this to that”.
But I still, for myself at least, have to cling to hope—I’m not optimistic but I am hopeful. I don’t think that’s indulgent, to cling to and find things still worthy of celebration. Rather, it feels necessary. I celebrate seeing Jack Gilbert’s words about “a possible life” in Tiana Clark’s Instagram story. I re-read Aracelis Girmay’s “Kingdom Animalia” and hold close the line: “Oh, body, be held now by whom you love.” I do my best to hope the poem’s present “now” will be soon; I do my best to be realistic about how long it may take. I do my best to hold both at the same time.
I don’t think poems will save us—us, as in, this country, this world. But poems continue to save me. They help me look in the face of crisis and quiver but not break—not fully, not yet. They illustrate, to quote Ross Gay, how “we attend to the ways that we make each other possible.” I return to each and know I can do my best to attend to myself, to those around me, to the possible world; they fuel me so I can show up to do the work that poems can’t do. I can’t believe that’s not a start, and even, in itself, something. A possibility. To keep building (and blessing) this boat. Yes, we are so nearly doomed, but still: there is something we might be.
Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and currently lives in Minnesota. The author of the poetry chapbook Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020) and a graduate of University of Michigan’s MFA program, his work has found homes with Indiana Review, The Rumpus, Waxwing, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. You can find him online at marlinmjenkins.com.