TODAY'S BREATHING SPACE
These poems map a private pilgrimage to nowhere—from the chair to the couch, the couch to the chair.
These poems also map a public pilgrimage through the landscape of pandemic, from dire disaster to the hope for healing.
They chronicle a year spent in lockdown in a small village just outside New York City. The lockdown was an unprecedented decree issued by the governor on March 22, 2020—a ruling that shut down the most populous city in America in an effort to stop the spread of the new Coronavirus that had arrived on our shores—or more precisely, in our airports—a few weeks before.
The lockdown was as total as it was sudden. Within a matter of days a State of Emergency was declared, the bustling theatres of Broadway went dark, New York City schools shut down, the city’s many museums were closed, and thousands of bars and restaurants across the city and state were shuttered. Churches and synagogues were barred from holding services. Colleges and universities called a halt to in-person instruction and sent their students home. All sporting events, collegiate and professional, were cancelled. One of New York City’s oldest and most enduring institutions, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, was called off the day before the event. It was then that we knew this was serious.
At the same time as the streets were emptying out, hospitals were filling up beyond capacity with the sick and the dying. Emergency Rooms were overrun. EMS responders were run ragged in a futile attempt to answer the thousands of calls they received. Sirens became the chronic and chaotic music of the city and its surrounding towns and villages. In one especially grim image that marks that early era, refrigerated trucks were brought in to hold the bodies of those who were dying in horrifying numbers.
Over the subsequent days and weeks, there were few pedestrians, fewer cars in the streets. Times Square, ordinarily the busiest spot in the city, grew eerily silent and empty, the enormous digital screens and billboards flashing and playing in their endless loop above the deserted sidewalks and intersections.
New Yorkers were urged to stay home. Only essential workers were supposed to be out and about. Many people began working from their homes and apartments. Zoom, a conference platform most of us had never heard of, became the lifeline to our livelihoods. People ordered groceries online, rather than braving the lines at Whole Foods and Gristedes. Families who lived in separate households did not visit each other for fear of catching and spreading the virus. Each of us felt our world become instantly contracted, shrunk down to the size of our house or apartment, perhaps our backyard if we were fortunate enough to have one.
Thus began the strangest year most of us had ever known. The virus and the subsequent lockdown touched and altered every aspect of our lives—who we saw and spoke to, what we ate and drank, where we went, when (if ever) we ventured out, how we conducted our daily routines. It became a time of intense and lamentable loneliness, isolation and alienation, terror and tragedy.
Yet for many of us, it also opened a door of opportunity. Released from the daily appointments, deadlines, and commutes that had formerly shaped our lives, we had the chance to choose how to spend our time. Time—that precious gift that had always seemed to be in such short supply—we suddenly had an abundance of, and we began to spend it in unaccustomed ways.
Lockdown offered us the experience of interiority, the chance to explore our own psyches, to become reacquainted with who we are when we aren’t harried and hurried, living lives of busyness and distraction. In fact, the lockdown invited each of us to embark on an interior pilgrimage, a yearlong journey each of us had to take both alone and along with our friends, families, fellow New Yorkers, and fellow Americans.
It may seem a paradox to undertake a journey when one is confined to a single place, but, in reality, any pilgrimage worth making is a pilgrimage of the head and heart as much as it is one of the legs and feet. These poems attempt to capture this interior journey over the course of the year as we sheltered inside while the Coronavirus raged all around us. Written day by day, in response to the course of the virus and the attempts by public authorities to manage it, the poems chronicle events taking place in the macrocosm that shaped the experience of the microcosm—the little world I occupied from March 2020 to March 2021. While that world was entirely particular to me, it was also very much like the world(s) occupied by many other people, including the readers of these poems.
The title of the book, Love in the Time of Coronavirus, is borrowed from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s luminous novel Love in the Time of Cholera, about the enduring power of love in the face of time and deadly circumstance. This book of poems goes beyond Marquez’s primary focus on romantic attachment to consider love in its many forms. As with Marquez’s novel, these poems remind us that love flourishes even, and perhaps especially, during times of extremity, when the reality of mortality becomes palpable to us and we begin to see life in the context of eternity. It is then that love becomes the most powerful antidote we have to human suffering.
Living amid the Coronavirus catastrophe has occasioned extraordinary outpourings of love over the past year.
We have watched healthcare workers give of themselves without regard for their own safety, many of them risking their health and their lives in order to comfort and cure the afflicted.
We have seen frontline essential workers in service occupations courageously carrying out their duties—working in grocery stores and bodegas; delivering UPS, Fresh Direct, and endless Amazon orders; serving diners on patios once restaurants began to reopen. We have witnessed people helping their sick and elderly neighbors and family members by shopping for them, delivering prepared meals, and picking up prescription medications.
We have heard of the endless hours public school teachers put in on Zoom, ministering to their students—and their parents—long after the official school day is over.
These are but a few of the many forms love has taken—and continues to take—during these late days of pandemic. These poems recognize this public love, a sign of our belief in the common good, as well as the many forms of private and personal love we practice—among them the uncountable emails, texts, social media posts, phone calls, and Zoom calls we share with our beloveds whom we are separated from, making ourselves present to them virtually when we cannot be present physically.
I think of these poems as one such expression of Love in the Time of Coronavirus. They constitute an offering, a series of singular moments pondered and shaped into poetic form—all of them sonnets, the pattern most suited to love—that coalesce into a shared history, a collective narrative of the rich and strange Pandemic Pilgrimage we have taken alone and together.
My hope is that readers might find in this book, despite the trials and privations of this pandemic year, some consolations, some moments of joy, some brief reminders that though the virus has robbed us of much, it cannot destroy the human capacity for love. To the contrary—miracle of miracles—it has enlarged it.