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Some Poems to Help Survive the Current Pandemic

by David Shaddock

This regular column for Poetry Flash looks at poetry to illuminate issues relevant to health, mental health, and coping with our lives today.

YESTERDAY AT THE FARMER'S MARKET (quite probably the last we will have for months), "Tonal Recall," a gray-haired tie-died cover band, kicked off their set with the Dead's "Uncle John's Band":

Well the first days are the hardest days, don't you worry any more

'Cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door

Think this through with me, let me know your mind

Woah-oh, what I want to know, is are you kind?

I thought to myself, through tears, the you they're addressing is all of us. (I am less apologetic about my Dead-obsession since Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, put Robert Hunter, the Dead's lyricist, in the same league as Cole Porter.)

These are still the first days of this pandemic. A tiny string of RNA, the messenger polymer that carries all life's instructions, has gone rogue. My own thoughts veer wildly between "God help us all," and "I hope they at least keep Peet's open." I've been wondering for several days if I could write a "Poetry and Healing" column that offered some consolation to our despair and anxiety. Probably not. But here at least is a hodge-podge of some "comfort food" poets and poems.

In a book of late interviews with William Carlos Williams, he was asked about the lines from "Danse Russe," about him being "lonely, lonely." He answered, "Hmm. Well I think the artist, generally speaking, feels lonely. Perhaps his very recourse to art, in any form, comes from his essential loneliness." As we all practice social isolation, perhaps we might keep this in mind:

if I in my north room

dance naked, grotesquely

before my mirror

waving my shirt round my head

and singing softly to myself:

"I am lonely, lonely.

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!"

If I admire my arms, my face,

my shoulders, flanks, buttocks

against the yellow drawn shades,—

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

On the other hand, if you want something that mirrors, rather than antidotes your dark mood, you can't go to wrong with Phillip Larkin, "…Being brave / Lets no one off the grave. / Death is no different whined at than withstood." If you obsess, as I did instead of sleep last night, over the CDC's recommendation that the only hospital visits allowed will be one to say goodbye to the dying, perhaps Larkin's "Aubade" will give the first light a paradoxical comfort:

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,

Have always known, know that we can't escape,

Yet can't accept.…

It's hard these days not to keep an eye out for a red heifer, and of course when one thinks apocalypse one goes quickly to Yeats's "Rough Beast." But thinking of my kids and grandkids, I am moved to pull out his "A Prayer for My Daughter": "I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour / And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower." Yeats concludes his prayer that, despite his own failings and the anger and vanity of the world, his daughter might develop the strength to be "…self-delighting, / Self-appeasing / self-affrighting." A catalog that the developmentalist in me hears as a prayer for his daughter to have great skills in the self-regulation of her mental state. In particular, may she have a way to bring her mood up (independent say of news and screens), comfort herself when she's upset, and mentalize, e.g. realize how much of her world view is a product of her own thinking. A great gift for our kids to have, considering the world we are leaving them.

Speaking of prayer, if, as I do, you have a religious bent, and Peet's Coffee is in fact open, a bit of caffeine might clear your thoughts of survival enough for you to ask, "Does this all have any meaning? Where if anywhere is God?

"There is anger abroad in the world, a numb thunder, / because of God's silence," Denise Levertov writes in "Immersion," from her posthumously published collection This Great Unknowing: Last Poems. "But how naïve," she continues,

to keep wanting words we could speak ourselves,

English, Urdu, Tagalog, the French of Tours

the French of Haiti.

Yes that was one way omnipotence chose

to address us—Hebrew, Aramaic, or whatever the patriarchs

chose in their turn to call what they heard.…

Instead, she continues,

…God is surely

patiently trying to immerse us in a different language,

events of grace, horrifying scrolls of history

Even, "the poor grass returning after drought, timid, persistent" is a kind of prophecy she maintains. Stop fucking up the planet is how I would translate this particular scroll of history.

I hope there is some comfort here, though I imagine that many of your anxieties are as unruly as mine. In any case perhaps this column will convince you to try "poem hunter" rather than the Times when the night terrors hit.

David Shaddock PhD is a poet and psychotherapist. His new poetry book is A Book of Splendor: New and Selected Poems on Spiritual Themes. Poetry and Psychoanalysis: The Opening of the Field is forthcoming from Routledge. He is the author of two books on relationships and couples therapy, lectures widely on those topics, and maintains a private practice in Berkeley.

— posted MARCH 2020

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