Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s poets Respond to the Pandemic
Reviewed by Rachael Warmington
Edited by Alice Quinn
Alfred A. Knopf, 2020, 184 pages, $27.00
In the Introduction to the anthology of poems, Together in a Sudden Strangeness, Alice Quinn observes that these poets are from across America and “the landscapes and events they are experiencing” are reflected in their poems (xvii). This is apparent in the way the landscapes and events are described. Even when the poets articulate what is unfolding around them as observers, their own subjective truths permeate the lines of their poems. Whether a poet is describing the absence of children in a park, what it is like to be startled by silence, or to miss the smell of a loved one, the use of sensory details and vivid descriptions help demonstrate that most of us, to varying degrees, have been impacted by the pandemic.
Quinn also brings to our attention that the anthology has been extended since the original ebook and audiobook (xvii). The poems from the original collection, “explored the malign inequities endlessly perpetuated in America and reflected so glaringly in the pandemic moments—unequal access to health care, food, clean water, decent housing, jobs and power,” and the “poems added since then—twenty-two in total—intensified the call to action expressed far more than embryonically in so many of the earlier poems” (xvii). The pandemic is not the only infection plaguing America in 2020, and the poets gathered in this anthology explore these afflictions. Just as the virus seems almost inescapable, so is the call for action in America. The poems communicate how the pandemic is both a biological virus preying on the frailty of humanity as well as a catalyst that exposes the diseases of racial and economic inequality in America, and by extension, the world.
It is appropriate that the first poem in the collection, “How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry?” by Julia Alvarez, communicates the importance of poetry during unprecedently challenging times. The lines, “Will poems be the only safe spaces where we can gather together:/ What if this poem is the vaccine working inside you?” draw parallels between literal safe spaces and how poetry has been a safe outlet for those to challenge their oppressors (3). Similarly, Major Jackson explores political divisions and the perpetuation of hatred in “Invocation:” “No more rallies of hate. No more stone mountains/ just proliferating peaks and the presence/ of friends like magic wands” (68). The speaker calls for the end of rallies that promote hate, division and violence. In addition, “…no more stone mountains” seems to symbolize the need to expose the reality about monuments that perpetuate falsities and ignore monstrous truths. It is also noteworthy how the flow of the enjambed lines draws the reader away from what is considered reality and towards the changes that the speaker finds necessary.
Divisiveness, racism, and inequality are also explored in Anne Waldman’s “‘Existential’ Maybe?,” “… The price of paper towels changed/and the price of toilet paper and the price of white bread and milk./Whiteness did not change….” (29). There are several necessities that increased in price, and decreased in availability, during the early months of the pandemic. Waldman’s focus on items that are usually white in color, and the inclusion of the line “Whiteness did not change…” following these necessities, communicates that the ability to obtain these staples is tied to the privileges of whiteness.
Several of the poems also explore the ways that technology has been utilized during the pandemic. George Bilgere’s poem, “Facetime,” is both ironic and humorous, but there are also important lessons being communicated here:
While in the closed-down Tokyo Aquarium
these tiny eels—garden eels, they’re called—
are forgetting what we look like.
The aquarium keepers are worried
that the eels are getting lonely,
so, they’ve hung iPads on the tanks.
They ask on their website, “Could you please
show your face to the eels from your home?”
And of course everyone is phoning the eels
which makes sense and is reassuring, (19-20)
A few things came to mind when I read the first few lines of this stanza. The first was that captive eels are now being comforted by captive (quarantined) humans. I mean, the eels would not have the need for human connection if they were not in captivity, right? Also, is it really the eels that are being comforted through this activity? Then, I realized what Bilgere is doing in this poem. Many people wanted to make sure that the eels were not lonely, but is that really reassuring? It becomes apparent near the end of the poem that humanity is being critiqued, “…I feel grateful to the eels/ How nice of them to miss us, after all we’ve done.” All we have done does not just apply to what has happened to the eels, but what humanity has done in general during the pandemic.
While technology has enabled many people to keep in touch during this pandemic, it is no substitute for physical contact. The deep longing for actual human contact is expressed in Elizabeth J. Coleman’s “I See on Zoom He’s Growing Taller by the Day:” “He didn’t want to be kissed, but was all right with hugs,/and squeezed me tight the next day before I ran/to catch my plane. I’ll be back in a month, I promised” (32). The title implies that the next interaction was via Zoom. The speaker of the poem is recalling a memory of the last time she had physical contact with her grandchild, and it is this physical connection that the speaker wants to have again.
From isolation to the veil that technology enables us to hide behind and the deep losses that so many have experienced, Susan Mitchell’s “The Dance,” packs several experiences into one poem. The poem begins with the speaker reflecting about how conversations use to be, “no, they don’t make conversations the way they used to—/conversations with real cornices and windows overlooking parks where children played and old men fed pigeons” (98). These lines express that conversations are not the same because there are simply less interactions between people. Mitchell also touches on the ways we use technology to mask the reality of our situations: “…when we zoomed across/time zones, turn off the video/so no one would see us propped/on pillows, a bad hair day” (99). The poem ends with the lines, “is it you, is it really you—before/we woke and remembered who was dead” (99). How many of us have experienced that moment when you remember someone is gone, again? The absence of capitalization combined with several enjambed lines throughout the poem creates the illusion that these experiences are occurring in the present, almost stream of consciousness, and in a way, for many of us, depicting our reality.
The poems in this anthology have taken on many different meanings for me as I worked on this review. So many of us have been impacted by this virus. I realize that one is supposed to separate themselves if they are too close to a situation, so that one is objective. As I reflect on whether or not I wrote an objective review, I think of the first part of the title, Together in a Sudden Strangeness, and realize that objectivity is difficult when it is impossible to separate oneself from the grasp of this pandemic. I recommend this anthology and hope it gives solace to others as it has to me.
Rachael Warmington is a poet and editor from New Jersey. In addition to writing and editing, she is an instructor at Seton Hall University. Rachael is also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Watchung Review. She earned her B.A. in English from Montclair State University, M.A. in English from Seton Hall University, her MFA at CUNY City College and is ABD at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Rachael loves music and has been practicing guitar on and off over the years. Her ability to play is a work in progress. Just ask her neighbors.