Guest series by James Matthew Wilson.
As news began to spread of schools, colleges, and businesses shutting down across the country, and as my own plans were upended or simply ended, thanks to the emerging threat of the coronavirus, I kept noting uncanny things. The events of our public life were echoing and rhyming with those of my own private life and that of my family. This is to be expected—why would it surprise us?—and indeed comes as a matter of course in simply being a part of a society. But what seemed most remarkable was the way public events not only rhymed with, but also interpreted, our domestic lives, and, conversely, the way our daily dramas seemed to have a certain resonance with all that unfolded around and beyond them and added to them a kind of depth and mystery.
While in the silence of my study, I found myself jotting down lines of verse that reflected these convergences of the haphazard. Before long, I knew I was writing a poem, and would write a poem of an undetermined length: for, it would go on as long as this strange, convulsive, unhappy episode in our history went on. I had, on an impulse, begun writing something called Quarantine Notebook.
A poem is typically published only after it is finished, and not only finished, but many times revised and polished. I have worked on poems for twenty years before getting them right, and even then I have my doubts. Such was my intent, here, from the moment I realized a few stray lines of verse in my notebook might wind up as a poem. But, as I continued writing, I found myself wanting to capture the partiality, the uncertainty, the experiential dimension of things as much as, perhaps more than, to record any kind of seasoned reflection. That made me think perhaps these poems that are accompanying me through our national emergency might also be found fruitful for others, as a way of reflecting on and contemplating their own experience through the words of one who is inevitably sharing in it with them.
In hope that this might prove to be the case, Dappled Things has agreed to publish these poems, as I write them, however raw or uncooked they may be. I hope these poems will indeed prove good company in the days or weeks ahead; that they might add a little desirable richness to the challenges and sorrows that face us; that they will be greeted the way poems ask to be greeted (“merely meet it,” Father Hopkins says), but also as a running commentary on the daily lives we live together as a people. You can expect one, perhaps two, poems a week, until such time as seems the poem has brought itself to completion. We’ll learn when that is exactly, and why, together. It is just one of the many things that we do not yet know, but in which I hope you will join me.
-James Matthew Wilson
March 25, 2020
Sunday, March 15, 2020
The great tree in the neighbors’ yard has bloomed,
White blossoms hang like egg shells in the air,
While down the road the restaurants shut their doors.
The rising noise, the swish and fade to silence,
Of traffic by our home grows less and less.
The schools have closed and all the nearby houses
Sit stout and quiet, ready to erupt.
But, while some stores stay open, I take off
To find my season’s load of hardwood mulch
To blanket black the dormant garden beds.
A friend of ours was in Milan last week.
His father died. He’d gone to bury him.
The last flight out of there was his. He’s back,
But shut in solitude for fourteen days,
His wife and children’s voices calling through
The flimsy barrier of the bedroom door.
He must still hear the grief of Lombardy,
An echo of the heavy bell against
The stone of narrow streets too late deserted,
The guarded stillness of the Duomo square.
Our shops are being ransacked, shelves stripped bare,
Even the fruits and vegetables are gone.
And all because of some sharp woman’s panic
(Her years of playing activist on Facebook,
With all those postured sentiments, give way
To hoarding claws and serious, darting eyes),
The cunning of some man who sees his love
Ends quite precisely where the fence line runs.
But I return home with the car’s rear end
Weighed low with seven musky bags, and toss
Them one by one like limp, resistless bodies
Along the walk. I take up rake and shovel,
Begin the small, familiar, yearly tasks
That after a long winter one must do
To overcome its slow decay, to greet
Old life’s new start, and ready all the house
For what may come that we cannot yet know.
-James Matthew Wilson