This November morning,
the bleak view out my window is the definitive study
Leaving me unsure whether to renounce the whole world
or fall in love with it forever.
Sleet wants to be snow. But snow would be the easy way out.
These leaden mornings grant us permission to bury our feelings
beneath heavy blankets.
But the toll is ultimately levied,
the brutality of these months,
at full bore,
waiting to unleash all.
This November morning,
The myriad charts and graphs of CoVid cases and deaths are numbing. But they all come down to this: one person. One person lost forever to the ones who loved him.
It is dizzying,
Numbing in truth,
Front page of Sunday’s New York Times,
One thousand names, printed in rows.
They blur together.
We shut down when faced with such staggering loss.
Among them, this one,
New father Israel Sauz, 22. Broken Arrow Oklahoma,
Who will never know the face of his son.
Israel Sauz, 22,
whose boy will take his first step without him.
And his first turn at bat.
Who will ask about the father he never knew,
To learn they shared a love for poetry,
And a mean curve ball.
That his father batted with his left hand just like him.
His father, Israel Sauz,
Whose poems went unwritten,
Who never held his son.
There is no glory in suffering.
Father Blackwell got it all wrong.
Ask the young martyrs
How much good ever came from their deprivation,
Their unspeakable deaths.
The suicide bomber looking up at a cloudless blue sky on his final walk.
What is his family’s honor to him then.
My father, grasping at air for his tissue paper lungs,
What greater good was ever served.
The faithful dog who licks his master’s hand
Only to be beaten again.
The teenage mother who surrendered her baby girl from her hospital bed,
When she passes a young woman in a stairwell years later,
And stares into a face hauntingly like her own,
As her heart breaks yet again,
Who did as she was told,
Where is the glory now?
This is one in a series of pandemic poems I’ve written since my initial quarantine. Many of the pieces that have resulted are unlike anything I’ve written before but it’s entirely understandable, of course. These times are unlike any we’ve known before.
The title of the piece is “Captive Audience” and stems from a dream I had a few nights ago. My dream held the seeds of the ideas and images I express here but as ever it is an inexplicable combination of elements that conspire to inspire. I wish it was as simple as just recording a dream I’ve had, which has happened to many writers. Amazingly, Kubla Khan came that way to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Here is the text of the poem:
The world is sharing a recurring dream.
Every night we fall asleep
and take up the very same challenge.
All of us are running for our lives
across a parched landscape,
shoulder to shoulder
in an endless line.
An elusive shape pursues us from behind.
We know not why.
All we hear as we race forward is the person next to us,
and the thunder of our thousands of feet
pounding the ground beneath.
Some of us tire more easily, falter, rest,
We are united in a common purpose,
In knowing there is nothing for us
but the outrunning of this,
Every time we glance backward
the specter looms closer,
changing shape with each turn of our heads.
One minute a tumbleweed six stories high,
made not of brush
but of thick snarled barbed wire.
Next, feral beasts snarling at our heels,
then, above our heads, out-sized birds of prey filling the skies,
circling ever closer.
Tomorrow night our predator will reappear,
In this same dream
all of us share a wish.
To awaken in our beds tomorrow morning,
having returned to the world
we once so blithely shared,
each of us knowing
all of it,
only a dream.
Michelangelo said the work of art awaited him beneath the slab of marble, the task for him being merely to uncover it.
In my own small way I understand that mentality as I write these days. The poem I know is “possible” waits patiently beyond the first tentative lines of a succession of drafts, across a murky divide, and with luck and patience perhaps I will reach it, reveal all that it might be. But it is fleet footed and elusive and a task master, each and every time.
Here is one I wrote recently that felt exactly like that.
I should have bought gold.
Written that idea down.
Paid more attention.
I wonder lately where everyone has gone.
Why the most important never
quite makes the list.
And why enormous changes are so often required
at the very last minute
with no chance to catch our breath.
I wonder lately where everyone has gone
and why I stood by.
and this most of all
if even for a moment
I made someone happy.
A new dress, even if it had been my sister’s.
Helmet-like perms, and all of us
in soft white cotton gloves, with vertical ridges stitched in
above each knuckle, so they stood up,
like Mickey Mouse’s on Saturday mornings.
The matching hats were courtesy of Jackson’s Department Store’s bargain bin,
Fill a basket, five bucks out the door,
their out-sized pink and blue plastic daisies haphazardly attached,
head wear designed for the deranged.
Our conspiratorial looks as we were herded together
for the obligatory snapshot, sentries,
on the stone steps after Mass,
the sunlight harsh on a still-frigid April morning,
our flimsy ethereal dresses of Swiss dot, atop stiff crinolines
lofting in the wind.
Embarrassed by my sturdy white knee socks,
I yearned for the silk stockings
worn by my older sisters, who flanked me.
The three of us stationed solemnly behind
our younger brother, happy to form his own line,
quietly proud of his clip on bow-tie and tartan vest
and perfectly pressed little wool trousers.
Chins up! Stand straight! came the reprimands,
but not one of us listened.
At least one child would turn her head away that day
just as the shutter clicked.
Another would squint unbecomingly against the glare.
And the third, the face of the third girl
would show to the camera a look of such sadness
as is unimaginable in one so young.
Now the photo retrieved, scrutinized,
one of dozens piled haphazardly
in this battered shoe-box,
the sorting job no one ever took on,
these celluloid witnesses to our lives.
Its edges scalloped like icing on a cake,
bearing hairline cracks, some of our heads and limbs
the truest chronicle of those years,
forensic in its revelations,
bringing with it the simple message
that each of us might have done better
if we’d only known how.
There are always good people.
Mr. Rogers was right.
Just yesterday the man on the plane
who saw me struggling with the overhead bin,
jumped up, took over, smiling.
The mother of three across the aisle
handing out cleaning wipes,
her children willingly helping.
The flight attendant, struggling with her face mask,
joking with her colleague:
“If I hyperventilate behind this, you got me, right?”
The Customs official facing a sea of disgruntled travelers,
asking me if I had fever or sickness: I told him no.
“I’m happy you’re well,” he said, before sending me on.
Heads up, people.
We have widely different families and streets and seas,
but underneath it all
we share a beating human heart,
the same skies and sun,
the same bewitching moon.
I’ll pick up lattes from that place on 49th you like.
Some Cheese Danish, your favorite.
And stop at the newsstand for the latest rags.
We won’t talk. Promise.
Talk is overrated. Especially now.
Try not to think at all.
We’ll entrust time
to do what nothing else will.
What nothing else can.
To bring us back to life,
one shallow breath
at a time.
My gums are bleeding again.
There’s a stack of papers that need attention
But I can’t find my glasses.
My truck is making that funny noise.
I sleep too late
Because no one wakes me.
I don’t write
I feel it’s all been said.
Your point’s been made:
I am selfish and fickle.
Say whatever you like.
If it’s true
as grim neurologists now claim,
that our memory is far from intact,
that the very process by which we retrieve the past
is flawed, random, that it plays fast and loose with
fact, detail, even
colour. Then how exactly do I conjure
what was us.
If it’s all up for grabs,
all bets off,
what was true?
The way you looked at me that evening
on the boardwalk,
was it as tender as I picture it now?
And your kiss. As deeply felt?
Did you profess your love in three languages
or was it just two?
Before you round the corner do you actually
turn to look at me
one last time?
Are you in the blue shirt
or the red?
Are those actual tears?
But science falls short. It overlooks
the power of the human heart
which has a memory all its own,
where the moments of our lives never alter,
or grow old.
Where a look remains as tender
as when first it was delivered,
a heart quickens just as it once did.
Yearning as fervent,
passion as acute,
and in that special place
the moments worth remembering
lie in wait for us, inviolate,
undefiled by time