(I appreciate when other folks provide content warnings on their writing so will strive to offer my own going forward.)
Last month marked many grim anniversaries in our indoor year of pandemic-time. I biked past Lincoln Hall with its marquee reading ONE YEAR DARK. I listened to Indoor Living by Superchunk a lot, and I made daily attempts to claw my attention span back from the phenomenon of pandemic-induced wet-noodle brain: I read poems and novels and one very outstanding novel by a poet that contains a dedication to one of my many outstanding coworkers.
It's an honor and a pleasure to think about poetry and how it can live online for a job these days. I still believe that poems can be useful as well as beautiful, that poetry is for everyone, that it is a fine art that can happen anywhere, made as it is of nothing but language in intimate relation to time.
And so here is a poem about time that has been kicking my ass six ways from Sunday: "Not This" by Olena Kalytiak Davis.
Published the better part of a decade before our indoor year, it's a perfect distillation of how time has passed for me in this long strangeness. Folks I’ve read it to or quoted it at across Zoom windows have remarked on its prescience. "What a year, it sucked / it flew" indeed. It reminds me of some of my favorite other pieces of media about time: a song by the Books, this speech by Paul Ford that remains one of my favorite-ever essays on and about the internet.
And the part that truly floors me in "Not This" is:
i raised my kids, they
grew i lost two pasts–i am
not made of them and they
Have you ever seen such a portentous line break as that first one? Anything could happen to the precious "they," in this formation. I am thinking (today, all week, perpetually) of every child who didn’t grow: Adam Toledo, who lived in a neighborhood I biked through every day for the 5 years I worked at the food bank, whose life was taken from him and his loving family when a Chicago police officer murdered him in the street. Ma’Khia Bryant, murdered this week in another midwestern city. Saying their names is a way of bearing witness. Two pasts lost.
Pasts can be many and simultaneous, seeping up into the present like groundwater. Any tragedy, any trauma can reemerge in your body. There's a striking image for this in Mairead Case's book Tiny:
Once, Tiny went to a birthday party and the horror of mourning lowered around her head like a hood. She hadn't expected it. It blocked out the streamer colors and all of the sound.
Grief happens when you're severed from a significant thread - a loved one, a place, a belief. A loss of the past, of something that forms you. I love this poem (and Tiny) because they refuse to make time tidy. They’re documents of life and love emerging reshaped from lost eras. What is the future? Not this. I've begun quoting a sign my friend saw in a coffeeshop where we stopped on a bike ride:
The future is where we'll hold each other close about the feelings we've moved through in the present.
Another beautiful grief-but-not-just-grief poem (which, like "Not This," was recommended by a coworker) is Ross Gay's "Burial." I haven't read much of Gay's poetry although his Book of Delights was a blessing to the early months of my indoor year. Wow oh wow to "the nation of simple joy," to the transformation of a body's end into a juicy plum's blossoming and beginning and taste.
My father's birth mother died last week; another complicated grief. When we are together around a meal, my family holds hands and my dad says "We are all connected." The connection is more than blood and more than presence. It's everything. Having just joined the happy ranks of the fully vaccinated, I'll hug my family and be comforted about the pasts we lost this year.
May those who've left the living rest in power; may their memories bless us and their names sing out for justice.
In solidarity and sorrow,
PS: the subject line is from my problematic college-era fav P. Larkin if you were wondering.