March 25, 2020
I thought that looking back upon this time,
I’d view it as the winter without snow.
Out for a walk the other day, I heard
The steady roar of a snowblower running,
Its owner burning off the tank of gas
He’d filled, in late November, when a trace
Of flurries made its feigning fall toward earth.
We do not always read the hour rightly;
The signs the times bear with them are obscured
As if by gusting snow squals in the headlights.
And now, it’s something else that falls. The virus
Is spreading through New York. A friend of mine,
Holed up in his apartment in Manhattan,
Sends photos out of cans of beans and franks,
Beef chili, paired with bottles of cheap wine
And Gawain in a tattered paperback,
All captioned with quotations from Defoe,
And laughing at the way he’s been marooned.
A decade back, I recollect, we shared
Bottles of Yellow Tail at a reception,
And talked of Auden late into the night.
We met the morning after, our heads pounding,
Just like Sir Gawain, knelt in winter snow,
Who waited for the Green Knight’s falling axe
That, with one swoop, both spared and chastened him.
The fearful flee that city like a flood;
The wealthy spilling out into the Hamptons,
Where all the year-round residents, who pour
The drinks and scoop the ice cream through the summer,
Are saying, now, don’t come, we cannot take you.
They’ve covered up the welcome signs, would raise
The bridges if they could, the hospitals
All full, the groceries emptied, far as Montauk.
I was supposed to catch a New York train
Today myself, but that, of course, is cancelled.
And so, I sat, this morning, on the couch
And read my boys the opening of Five
Children and It. Dear Panther and her siblings
Have fled the pestilential streets of London,
Where things are labeled with invisible signs—
Keep Out, or Do Not Touch, or Go Away—
And every bit of fun gets one in trouble.
They find themselves left at a country house,
Much like the Hamptons, if not quite so nice,
Its chief appeal a neighboring gravel pit.
While digging to Australia, one day,
Their errant spade turns up a Psammead,
Who startles with his gruff voice, snail-like eyes,
And furry little body snug in sand.
They little know that he will grant them wishes:
Such useless guineas men stare at like sores,
Or giant wings with which to beat the air
And rob a farmer’s plum trees of their fruit,
As if avenging angels sent by God.
James blasts his trumpet in the living room;
The straining pip-pip-pip of reveille
Flies unobstructed through my office door.
It is—oh, yes—Annunciation Day.
How little we expect the news we hear,
Until it comes upon us, brilliant, blazing,
Commanding we not feel the fear we feel,
And that we must unlearn all that we know,
So as to see the hour with new eyes,
And, what is more, to trust, somehow, we will
Endure that fate whose stroke has yet to fall.
-James Matthew Wilson