“Inside Endless Epidemics in America” – FOUR QUARTETS: POETRY IN THE PANDEMIC, a Tupelo Press anthology edited by Kristina Marie Darling & Jeffrey Levine, reviewed by Amy Strauss Friedman

As of this writing, over 420,000 Americans have died from Coronavirus, to say nothing of the suffering of millions of others. “They died breathing the country that failed them. They died without the hands that should have held them at the last breath. They died in nobody’s arms,” Rachel Eliza Griffiths tells us, a truth that lands like a thud in the heart. Jimmy Santiago Baca prays for something better to come our way tomorrow: “Lord, / during this period of quarantine / and social distancing, / let me swirl my poetic concoction / and brew up an elixir / that’ll mount an attack on ignorance / and enlighten the disbelievers.” He focuses on the positive, on the essence of what matters, remarking that “it was almost like, in the midst of the pandemic crises / people remembered they were human, had time to think / again, had time to spend with kids, / had time to evaluate their lives and the choices / they made, and change came about.” We have distilled what is important down to its essence. We’ve had to. It is up to us to turn that into our life’s blood as our country limps along this deadly path toward a vaccine rollout.

This year has been dotted by the presence of royalty of the worst kind, and the most deleterious effects that any monarchy could inflict on its people. Corona, Latin for crown, is an object none of us aspire to wear. Its virus has ravaged communities, decimated families, shuttered businesses, and made the simple but necessary act of human contact all but impossible. President Trump, unaware or unwilling to understand or accept that United States presidents are merely temporary stewards of a democratic republic and not kings, has ruled rather than governed. He and his cronies have left the most vulnerable among us to fend for ourselves, when leadership and compassion should have been the way of things. We’re in desperate need of a bridge between the powerful and the powerless; instead, this administration has walled itself off from all responsibility.

We the people don’t have that same luxury. While we quite literally try to stay alive, the pandemic has sharpened focus and gaze on the other endless epidemics this nation faces, or rather, doesn’t. The viruses of racial injustice, political and social corruption, educational inequity, a broken healthcare system, the war on truth, and so many others have been laid bare. In the midst of this isolation, this pain, this forced quarantine, sixteen poets have penned portfolios that make up the anthology Four Quartets: Poetry in the Pandemic. These writers speak to the agony of this moment, and of all the resulting moments the pandemic antagonizes.

Two months into the unrecognizable landscape we now find ourselves inhabiting, George Floyd was murdered in Minnesota. His killing reignited a racial justice movement in the streets, the more than four-hundred-year-old cry for humanity, for survival for Black Americans. Like most of the country, I watched the horrid scene on tape; it took me four tries to get through it as I screamed and cried. Commentator after commentator remarked on cable news that George Floyd had died in the street like a dog. And every time I heard that, I shuttered in abject disagreement. We wouldn’t do to a dog what former police officer Derrick Chauvin did to Mr. Floyd. As a nation, we would never tolerate police slowly torturing an innocent dog to death in broad daylight in the middle of a street as it yelped and begged for its life. But we tolerate it when it happens to a Black man. We always have. (It wasn’t lost on me, by the way, that the police officer who murdered Mr. Floyd is named for another type of hatred toward another group of people: chauvinism.) Denise Duhamel reminds us that we know all of this already, that the battle is not so much in the knowing, but in the redundancy of our reaction:

We know that almost half of all those with an inferiority
complex—and the majority of those police acquitted for their
transgressions—do not display prior symptoms (asymptomatic
or pre-symptomatic cops). Those police can be shedding
violence into the environment for up to 5 days before the actual
bloodshed begins.

This epidemic has been allowed to continue unabated. Cries for racial justice have gone unanswered, generation after generation. As we collectively struggle to breathe, struggle to get through each day, we must contend with the fact that George Floyd’s lack of oxygen came not from the deadly Coronavirus pandemic, but from the deadly epidemic of racism. Ken Chen reminds us that Coronavirus did not kill Mr. Floyd:

No, another man pressed him
to the street, he famished him for air.
Recite over alerts and pressers,
past phone notifications and the wet noise of coughs!
Shout over the police who have prohibited even breathing.
We shall erect sad mythologies, let us pour
a postscript foundation, set frame for the astral mausoleum
of those who left owning only their names.

Chen begs for mercy for us all, and for all that oppresses us. “How strange that the death of so many people has now become public when it should be private, or perhaps private when it should be public, when we should all know the havoc that the silent systems hide,” he pleads. Instead of conventional weapons, “we need a grief nonproliferation treaty!” Until such a thing is negotiated, America’s troubles will always persist, and inevitably dovetail. “The weapons land, as most of them ever do in America, on the black & brown bodies this nation has marked for easy murder. For my people, it is ever wartime” Rachel Eliza Griffiths asserts. Anyone willing to live in reality knows this to be true, knows that a Coronavirus vaccine will hardly cure all that ails us.

So, what’s left? In the end, we have only each other. And Coronavirus is working to rob us even of that. “I want to make you, layer by / layer, into a person who doesn’t rot,” Lee Young-Ju, translated by Jae Kim, tells us. A. Van Jordan laments the loss of human contact, “The way the heart deadens and then wakes ravenous / through long periods with no expressed love in the flesh.” Like so many Americans, I have friends who haven’t been hugged by anyone since March. Dora Malech reminds us that we remain “embraceless despite the over-armed police.” We are alone in our collective grief and questioning. And while Zoom has its merits, it hardly substitutes for the ardent actual of in-person connections.  “What’s the new stand-in for human skin?” Traci Brimhall and Brynn Saito ask. If only we had answers.

Four Quartets makes us feel less alone, makes isolation inch just a tiny bit away from abandonment. “Today I thought, time has totally stopped. There is no / foreseeable future and the present so overwhelms the past / that it hardly exists,” Mary Jo Bang says, ruefully. We recognize ourselves in this statement. To stop the multiple epidemics we face, we must also recognize ourselves in each other.

Four Quartets: Poetry in the Pandemic, edited by Kristina Marie Darling & Jeffrey Levine. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, November 2020. 296 pages. $25.95, paper.

Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018), and the chapbook Gathered Bones Are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Rust + Moth, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere. Amy’s work can be found at amystraussfriedman.com.

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