Voices Amidst the Virus: Poets Respond to the Pandemic
Edited by Eileen Cleary and Christine Jones
Lily Poetry Review Books, 2021
Get at Bookshop.org
Black pandemic humor among writers: “But think of the books that will be written!” Sure, we guffaw as we struggle with jobs, families, health, community, and worry. Yet, the poems, stories, and novels are being written. In the past month, at least three anthologies of Covid poems have come across my social media feed, and I’m sure there are many more to come.
This time is unique in our lives. Unique in the world. How do we make sense of its grand sweep and its quotidian details? How do we chronicle the moments, facts, and emotions so that future generations might have a sense of living in this time? This particular anthology, the editors write, “is a breathing documentary. It is as much a book about hope as it is of despair, a peek through the blinds.” Consisting of 63 poems by 50 poets, this is one slice of our pandemic life.
Negotiations with literature pervade the anthology. From Kevin Prufer’s deft wrangling between the current situation and the Trojan war about which
we only receive
in literature…. In this way,
the war lives…. In this way
a virus hides.
To Meara Levezow’s interrogation of April:
I can’t deal with these daffodils—
they’re hurting my eyes.
Even with the mask, I smell
how eager they are. How smug.
Thus Homer and Wordsworth are brought to task in this current moment.
And there are poems inspired by etemology, like Mary Buchinger’s “Corona,” which examines the idea of that fiery ring. Or George Yatchisin’s plaintive poem responding to the sound of bells: “No one wanted epidemiology / to rhyme with sexy / but here we are.”
Poems of family members in hospital or nursing homes. Poems of “Remote Learning,” such as this by Carl Hobbs:
Prerequisite, I can tell my children how the world breaks without them,
how I abandoned our two class plants on my desk, un-watered for months.
Teletherapy, Instacart, the calculus of grocery shopping, furloughs, sourdough, face mask improvisations, the labyrinth of rent or mortgage relief, contact tracing’s impossible math….
Here at Broadsided, we considered long and hard before offering up a “Responses” feature to the pandemic, thinking about what, as editors, we’d want to read and and offer and, even more, what we did not want to amplify or offer. This led us to put out a call for submissions in response to a trio of highly structured prompts centered on to “A Sense of Home” in the current moment which, for those in urban areas, was largely confined/quarantined.
Out of this prompt, one of the beautiful poems we received was Jennifer Martelli’s “Cisoria.” Jennifer’s poem was created from a Frank O’Hara-inspired attention to the local, drawn from his “I do this I do that” poems, which move rapidly between subjects. Here, the scissors, an ordinary household object:
Here are the roots of scissors: the leaves
of a plant; the tooth of a comb; the cut and the strike.
I’ve been home for weeks, slicing cotton into strips
for masks: the terrible wind tries his breathing.
What creative work will survive beyond this moment? Right now: who cares. Our gratitude to all who are staying alert, observant, attendant to what this moment means and evokes. Our gratitude to those who gather such voices.
The Broadsided Poem:
Six Questions from Broadsided Press; Six Answers from Jennifer Martelli
Bsided: How did you come to be part of this anthology?
Jennifer Martelli: I follow Lily Poetry Review and Eileen Cleary, so I saw the call for the anthology. I had been writing some Covid-related poems, not only as a response to the pandemic, but also, noting the horrid similarities between this virus and the AIDS pandemic in the 80s; specifically, the tragic non-response from the federal government.
The poem Eileen and Christine Jones chose for inclusion, “Cisoria,” had found a home at Broadsided Press. Now, it has another beautiful place to reside! Two homes!
Bsided: Do you see similarities in the themes of the anthology with the work you created in “Cisoria?”
Jennifer Martelli: I loved writing this poem; it had so many moveable parts to it: length, quotes, images, metaphors. And of course, the focus on insignificance, on the homely item in my house that I “discover” during quarantine. So, I didn’t write “Cisoria” with the anthology in mind. I think it does fit in with the more interior poems–the poems that speak to the obsessiveness of isolation and the cruelty of indifference. The poem was satisfying because there was a “plan” to it, that I could complete or not; that isn’t the reality of this pandemic.
Bsided: Having read the work of other writers, what most strikes you?
Jennifer Martelli: This is a stunning collection: diverse, varied in styles and themes. I love that Eileen and Christine made a point of including front-line poems: there are poems about working and living in vulnerable and marginalized communities, those especially ravaged by Covid, as well as poems about the psychological toll this isolation is costing some of us.
Examples are Frances Donovan’s poem about depression, “I Hike to the End of the Trail.” Sean Thomas Doughtery’s elegy that begins with the death of a front-line nurse, “Nombres de Los Muertos,” is moving and gorgeous. Danielle Legros Georges’ translation of Felix Morriseau-Leroy’s Haitian Creole poem, “Me You,” is a hard gem that speaks of poverty and illness.
Bsided: Do you have a sense of what prompted the creation of this anthology?
Jennifer Martelli: I think Eileen and Christine wanted to immortalize this tragic and incredible time: all the sadness, all the bravery, as well. It’s a documentation, not so much a memorial, but a way of saying, “this happened.” Eileen has always nurtured a sense of community, from the Lily Salon Reading Series, to Lily Poetry Review, and now, the press.
Bsided: How are you doing now?
Jennifer Martelli: I am fortunate: I have a roof over my head; I’m healthy; my family is healthy. My poem, “Cisoria,” is part of a manuscript I was able to finish during quarantine. The book began as a look at Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination in 1984. I had no way of knowing all of the parallels between then and now: a pandemic, on the tragic side; but also, the election of Kamala Harris! The book will be out in 2022; I hope it’s not a Zoom launch!
I’m just grateful to have my work included in such wonderful places like Broadsided Press and Lily Poetry Review. I am so fortunate to have such a robust and lovely community!
Bsided: How does “Cisoria” fit into your future book?
Jennifer Martelli: My collection, The Queen of Queens (forthcoming from Bordighera Press, 2022), concerns itself with the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro to the Vice Presidency in 1984–a time of toxicity, of cruel governance, a time when the White House employed a full-time astrologer and yet, denied a virus that was killing people. The book also investigates facets of the Italian-American and/or Catholic community that can be harmful; “Cisoria,” which is the Latin root of scissors, ends with the image of those pressers our “President” held, with misinformation, lies, and bad projections. I feel like we’ve been here before!