A Poem of the Pandemic, David M. Katz

Blog post written by David M. Katz, reproduced with permission. David will be one of five readers on Zoom, Saturday 10th April (8PM UK, 3PM New York) please do join us & sign up in advance on Eventbrite – Arrival at Elsewhere – New York Zoom Launch.

You might well say that Carl Griffin, a poet and editor from Wales, has a quixotic side to him. On March 25, 2020, almost a year ago now, I received an email from Carl offering me and many other poets the chance to take part in what seemed a deliriously ambitious project: to create a single poem consisting “of many voices and styles that will hopefully all fit together” about the pandemic.

“I’m trying to form a book-length poem of fragments about the coronavirus, with as many voices (writers) as possible,” he wrote then. 

With the benefit of a year’s hindsight, I think his elevator speech about the project has turned out to be a bit more than a little prophetic. “In case this ends up being like the plague or the fire of London (by which I mean an infamous historical event), I think it would be great to have the best writers’ poetic perspective on it, while it is happening,” he added.

In fact, Griffin’s outlook had been cautious.  While the 1666 Great Fire of London was a tragic catastrophe, levelling the medieval center of the city and claiming a small but still undetermined number of lives, it was a benchmark that was rapidly and exponentially exceeded by the Covid-19 global pandemic. As of today, 117 million cases of the coronavirus and close to 3 million deaths have been recorded globally, including about 29 million cases and 524,000 deaths in the United States. 

Within these numbers and beyond them, of course, there are myriad individual experiences. Many cases have proved widely available information wrong: mask-wearing people who have been at home throughout the plague still come down with it; young people thought early on in the pandemic to be relatively immune to it have gotten terribly sick and died; elderly folks have come off ventilators to cheering hospital staffs and lived to tell the tale. 

While most of us have yearned for the physical presence of family and friends, others have gathered with others online more than they normally would and discovered the benefits of nature and solitude. The emotions of front-line workers and the apartment dwellers leaning out their windows to cheer and chant for them are different–and the emotions within each of those groups are different as well.

Wisely, Griffin has assembled a multi-voiced long poem that focuses acutely on individual perception and experience. The result is Arrival at Elsewhere, an amalgam of the verse of 97 English-language poets that amazingly, hangs together, flows smoothly from beginning to end, and provides a group portrait of how a variety of people were experiencing the first three or four months of the plague.  (Proceeds from sales of the book support the U.K.’s National Health Service.)

While the volume is packed with strong, uniquely voiced poetry, it’s not an anthology. Instead, it benefits from being read straight through as a single poem. The abundance of sharply drawn imagery and the absence of impeding rhetoric yields a cinematic sweep to the whole. Griffin refers to himself as a “curator,” but I think he does himself a disservice there. 

A curator solicits and selects discrete works of art for an exhibition. But here, this Swansea-based poet has gotten his editorial hands dirty, plunging them into a mass of verse he solicited, cutting out and juxtaposing fragments that appealed to him, and–perhaps most importantly–inventing a form that could make the whole thing fit together. 

It’s a fascinating method for editors and poets primed to embark on similarly ambitious crowd-sourced efforts. In his introduction, Griffin writes: 

“When I cut the best fragments and began to spread them out on my dining table, the table quickly filled, and I still had loads of fragments to make room for. I held on to a piece of advice one of the contributing poets, John Sewell, had sent to me a few weeks before: ‘In my experience, what starts to look utterly impossible to pull together suddenly finds a way through which seems, in retrospect, inevitable.’ I repeated that mantra to myself, and read every fragment over and over, slotting them into this section, that section, until a few patterns emerged that I could use as my starting point. I can also confirm the last line of John Sewell’s advice, which read: ‘That is such a beautiful moment.’”

But how to connect beautiful moment to beautiful moment, fragment to fragment, so that the verse flows powerfully and seamlessly through an entire 92-page book, not only to keep the reader engaged, but to achieve the dimensions of a coherent long poem?

Griffin, rather than trying to hatch a structure intellectually prior to the poem, seems to move by feeling and association through a preset form of his own choosing. “You will see straight away the pattern the poem uses, with two groups of 9 lines (2-2-2-2-1) per page, with the occasional dream-sequence page in-between which has 8 couplets,” he wrote me in an email.

He has chosen his pattern extremely well. With its widely varying line lengths, the form allows for movement among multiple moods and tones and expressions, speeding up when the poem needs to and slowing down to render deeper interludes. The poem seldom lags, while the fixed pattern provides the sense of a single, coherent work. 

The effect is faintly reminiscent of “The Waste Land,” especially if you recall that Eliot’s much longer original version had a working title of “He Do the Police in Different Voices” before the poem came under the deft hand of Ezra Pound. Eliot’s original title suggests an intention similar to Griffin’s assemblage of voices, though I’ve no intention of comparing Arrival at Elsewhere, a fine book in its own right, with one of the greatest long poems ever written.

That said, this poem of the pandemic has a certain Eliotic mood hanging like a London fog over much of it. “Unreal city,” Eliot wrote, a perfect description of the perception of the situation by many urban dwellers in the early days of Covid. Suggesting what has come to be seen as a new sense of reality, Griffin focuses on a time of  deprivation: “What a letting go this Lent has been,” one of his poets writes. 

But the semi-Biblical images of isolated figures we first see in the poem–a pregnant woman in “high-heeled/silver sandals,” a wandering deer who may have died, “a homeless man/in The Gap” whose smile is “incandescent as a late-century Christ”–resound with a greater and wider deprivation, the loss of contact with other people. “Beautiful world,” one of the poets plangently writes, “I cannot touch you enough.”

As it proceeds, the poem explores with acute precision the changes in perception fostered by the plague. In those early months, Yeats’s refrain from “Easter 1916” kept running through my brain: “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.” In 2020, a poet expresses it this way:

The faults are in my perception:

I see the area about me, wild garlic 

and ground elder, the climbing roses,

limestone cliffs, but each part seems apart,

as if it is alone. I cannot agree

with how the consonants go with the vowels,

how plants may feel the pain

of outcrop, how the river’s fullness

qualifies the trailing bough of ash

how beech buds hold the pattern 

of the water’s shape

I’ve seen you many times

but not like this.

Although the change is painful, it’s not all for ill. As with the first glimpses of early spring, a little bit of a pleasure long deprived is all the more delicious. Reading the lines “peregrine falcons taking flight//from the tower of Riverside Church,” I experienced a frisson of recognition, since I live nearby. A few lines on, I smiled with recognition of the familiar cadences of my dear friend and neighbor, the poet John Foy:

Three unempowered men–

no jobs, no homes–

sit outside Tom’s Pizzeria

closed now and up for sale.

How are you, man?

When this is over,

we’re gonna go get a drink

at The Craftsman.

I’ll buy the first round.

Now that there are signs that such rounds of drinks together will be possible someday soon, Arrival at Elsewhere is a resonant reminder of what it was like when such hopes were disorientingly hard to come by. 

More than that, it’s a monument to what poets can achieve during times of crisis. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” Eliot wrote near the end of “The Wasteland.” Besides shoring up our fragments, Carl Griffin has magically rendered them as part of a whole that looks forward to less ruinous times. 

I’ll end with my contribution, written when the fevers seemed a palpable threat at our doorsteps. I was inspired by “An Inspector Calls,” J.B. Priestley’s play about the crumbling of a prosperous British family in 1912. I call the piece “The Great Displacement.”

In the evenings, a kind of dread set in.

Was it possible that the paradigm

for their entire life together would change,

the gyroscope drop to a stop

on the green felt table

that had been the centre of their lives,

cigar smoke rising above his white collar?

That was a thing he could now contemplate,

as the brandy thickened in his forehead,

a thought he could only entertain 

when the fate of the human race was at stake,

and his little life wasn’t all there was

to be lost. She had started to sicken,

the ivory slope of her nose reddened

at the sides. The boy too, had a leaden cough.

Was this their great displacement?

katz
David M. Katz

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