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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Poems so far

In a previous post, I shared a poem introduced on Radio 4’s Today programme. BBC staff were taking turns reading poems that had meaning for them, a moment in my day that I also found helpful. 

A rare, clear view of Great Britain from the international space station in April
In turn, I started passing on poems to others in this world of quarantine. Many I heard on the radio, some new to me (like that first one), others well known. Some were shared with me by friends, and some are just among my favorites. Some resonated with a particular time during the lockdown: the psalm by Ian Sowton, a poet and fellow congregant at Holy Trinity, Toronto, was read during Holy Week*, while “For the Fallen” seemed appropriate for the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE Day).

Almost all of these poems are available publicly online. In a few cases, I have not included a link because the link I found did not actually get the words right, and I went by the book in my hand. It is not my intention to abridge anyone’s copyright here. If you also find poetry helpful in getting through tough times, and have the ability, I encourage you to buy books (preferably including some contemporary poets who could use the income) or make a contribution to the Poetry Foundation.

Quarantine comes from “forty” (days) and although these abnormal times are far from over, I now have forty poems. As people in various countries start to move, tentatively and (please God) safely, into whatever the future is going to look like, I hope some of these will move, entertain, or just connect you to others, as they have me.
1.     Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare ["Let me not to the marriage of true minds"]
2.     "On Time" by Kahlil Gibran
3.     "These Are the Hands" by Michael Rosen 
4.     “Heavy” by Mary Oliver. This poem was sent to me by our lovely cousin Lezlee.


5. "Fern Hill" by Dylan Thomas
6. "The Stolen Orange" by Brian Patten
7. This poem was for the 250th birthday of William Wordsworth. It's from a special illustrated collection that my aunt Janet gave me in childhood. The illustrator is Krystyna Orska.

8.     "Endymion," Book I"  by John Keats [A thing of beauty is a joy for ever]
*9.   "Lazarus" by Ian Sowton

10. Sonnet 29 by Shakespeare [When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes]
11. "Return" by Mary Dorcey (b. 1950, Ireland). This is what my mom read at Trish's and my civil partnership ceremony.

At last, the train will lurch in,
twenty minutes past the hour, the
dark flesh of the hills, heaved behind 
before us, the narrowing fields,
the layered clouds, drifting
beyond us, lit for some other advent.
And everything will conspire
against me: luggage and children
crowding the aisle. A white-haired
woman, home from England,
Awkward with haste, will labour
her case to the door, her floral
print dress, a last check between me
and my first glimpse of you.
And there you are--by the turnstile
I will see you come through, though you
miss me; your brilliant eyes in flight
along the carriage windows.
You will wear your red, linen shirt,
the sleeves turned back, and snatched
From the hedges as you drove,
a swathe of flowers in your arms.
(Such a trail strewn behind us--a trail
of departures and pardons.) And my
blood will betray me--the old response,
I will hesitate, as if there might
still be time to change course,
or simply, not wanting to be caught
waiting for your gaze? The sky
will shift as I step out, a handful
Of sun thrust down on your hair.
On the narrow platform, our hips
will draw close, we will not mind
how they stare--the aggrieved faces--
such a fuss for a woman!
And in that moment, your laughter,
the heat of your neck at my mouth,
it will all be behind me again
I swear, as though coming home,
as though for the first time.

12. From "The Siege at Troy" read by Seamus Heaney
13. "The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy
14. "A Free Praise Song for the Pandemic" written and read by Christine Valters Paintner
15. "The Sun Rising" by John Donne. This poem was sent to me by our friend Kim in Australia.
16. "Yr Arwr/The Hero" by Hedd Wyn (b. Ellis Evans, d. 1917 at Passchendaele). In times this strange, we need a poem that contains both lilacs and a dragon.
17. "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by William Butler Yeats
18. “You Bet Travel is Broadening” by Ogden Nash. One of my favorites. Incredibly, it was once possible to make a living as a poet in the U.S.A.


Doctors tell me that some people wonder who they are, they don't
know if they are Peter Pumpkin-eater or Priam,
But I know who I am. 
My identity is no mystery to unravel, 
Because I know who I am, especially when I travel. 
I am he whom the dear little old ladies who have left their pocketbooks on the bureau at home invariably approach,
And he whom the argumentative tippler oozes in beside though there are thirty empty seats in the coach. 
I am he who finds himself reading comics to somebody else's children while the harassed mother attends to the youngest's needs, 
Ending up with candy bar on the lapel of whose previously faultless
tweeds. 
I am he in the car full of students celebrating victory with instruments saxophonic and ukulelean,
And he who, speaking only English, is turned to for aid by the non-
English-speaking alien. 
I am he who, finding himself the occupant of one Pullman space that has been sold twice, next finds himself playing Santa,
Because it was sold the second time to an elderly invalid, so there is no question about who is going to sit in the washroom
Philadelphia to Atlanta. 
I guess I am he who if he had his own private car
Would be jockeyed into sharing the master bedroom with a man with a five-cent cigar.


19. "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost
20. "There Will Come Soft Rains [War Time]" by Sara Teasdale. I've loved this poem for more than thirty years, but it never sounded quite like it does now.
21. "Atlas" by U. A. Fanthorpe
22. "Adlestrop" by Edward Thomas
23. "This Is Just To Say" by William Carlos Williams 

24. "Quarantine" by Eavan Boland
25. "Praise the Rain" by Joy Harjo
26. To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. This is an oldie, but I was reminded of it by a rabbi on the radio who paraphrased Marvell:"The laptop's a fine and private place/ But none, I think, do there embrace."
27. This is a song by the Indigo Girls. Written by Emily Saliers:


"All That We Let In"

Dust in our eyes our own boots kicked up
Heartsick we nurse along the way we picked up
You may not see it when it's sticking to your skin
But we're better off for all that we let in
We've lost friends and loved ones much too young
With so much promise and work left undone
When all that guards us is a single center line
And the brutal crossing over when it's time

Chorus:
Well, I don't know where it all begins
And I don't know where it all will end
We're better off for all that we let in

One day those toughies will be withered up and bent
The father son, the holy warriors and the president
With glory days of put up dukes for all the world to see
Beaten into submission in the name of the free
We're in an evolution, I have heard it said
And everyone's so busy now but do we move ahead
The planets hurling and atoms splitting
And a sweater for your love you sit there knitting

Well, I don't know where it all begins
And I don't know where it all will end
We're better off for all that we let in
You see those crosses on the side of the road
Or tied with ribbons in the median
They make me grateful I can go this mile
Lay me down at night and wake me up again

Kat writes a poem and she sticks it on my truck
We don't believe in war and we don't believe in luck
The birds were calling to her, what were they saying
As the gate blew open in the tops of the trees were swaying
I pass the cemetery, walk my dog down there
I read the names in stone and say a silent prayer
When I get home, you're cooking supper on the stove
And the greatest gift of life is to know love

Well, I don't know where it all begins
And I don't know where it all will end
We're better off for all that we let in

28. "A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man," also known as "The Workman's Friend," by Brian O'Nolan. I was once on a writers' pub crawl through Dublin, and the actors recited this. 


When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.
When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –
A pint of plain is your only man.
When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A pint of plain is your only man.
When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.

29. “On Nurses” by Roger Robinson


30.  More Mary Oliver: "Wild Geese"
31. “A Poem on Hope” by Wendell Berry
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
For hope must not depend on feeling good
And there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
Of the future, which surely will surprise us,
…And hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
Any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit
Our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
The streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope
Then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
Of what it is that no other place is, and by
Your caring for it as you care for no other place, this
Place that you belong to though it is not yours,
For it was from the beginning and will be to the end
Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are
Your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor,
Who comes like a heron to fish in the creek,
And the fish in the creek, and the heron who manlike
Fishes for the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing
In the trees in the silence of the fisherman
And the heron, and the trees that keep the land
They stand upon as we too must keep it, or die.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power
Or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful
when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy
when they ask for your land and your work.
Answer with knowledge of the others who are here
And how to be here with them. By this knowledge
Make the sense you need to make. By it stand
In the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.
Speak to your fellow humans as your place
Has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
Before they had heard a radio. Speak
Publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.
Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up
From the pages of books and from your own heart.
Be still and listen to the voices that belong
To the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
By which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
Underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls
Freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
And the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
Which is the light of imagination. By it you see
The likeness of people in other places to yourself
In your place. It lights invariably the need for care
Toward other people, other creatures, in other places
As you would ask them for care toward your place and you.

No place at last is better than the world. The world
Is no better than its places. Its places at last
Are no better than their people while their people
Continue in them. When the people make
Dark the light within them, the world darkens.

32. For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon
33.  “[in Just]" by e e cummings

34. “Happiness” by Raymond Carver
35. This Lime-tree Bower my Prison” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
36. "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe
37. "Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood
38.  Untitled" by Rainer Maria Rilke [Do you still remember: fallen stars]
39. “Atlantic Crossing” by Rod McKuen. Many years ago, Josh made a beautiful print of this poem for me on a watercolor background. It’s one of my most treasured objects from that time in my life. Now it sits on my desk and I look at it every day--same meaning, different time and place.
40. “The Point” by Kate Tempest 

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Journal of the plague year 2: For afterwards


Back in March the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, referred briefly to why London had only 800 ICU beds when this crisis started, though it would need 8,000. But, he said, “That’s for afterwards.” Meaning, there are going to be important questions to answer about various localities’ preparedness for this pandemic, but right now, he was interested not so much in why we only had 800 beds as how we were going to get thousands.
       I think that is a good focus to have. As we—not just one nation, but the world—try to get through this pandemic together, I don’t think we need anything that is going to unnecessarily ratchet up anxiety levels or divisions. But I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what we can learn “for afterwards.” 
       Not who did what wrong. That, I believe, is simply not something we can know with any accuracy until the present crisis is over, or perhaps for years. Besides, it’s not helpful (see anxiety, above). There surely are lessons to learn, but in this time, I don’t believe anyone should be wasting energy pointing the finger of blame, that could be used to help. 
As the character Bea writes to her husband in Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things: “Someone at work said to me this morning, ‘Where is God in all this?’ I didn’t rise to the bait. I can never understand why people ask that question. The real question for the bystanders of tragedy is ‘Where are WE in all this?’”

What is helping me, and may possibly help you, is to think about what we can appreciate during this time, and ways we might take that into a better future for everybody.

Here’s one: Resist the temptation to go back to the old ways, whether those are assumptions about how our economic system has to work, or easy labeling of right and left. It was Newt Gingrich, of all people, who pointed out early in the crisis that there are tens of thousands of homeless people on the streets of U.S. cities, and what if they get sick? They can’t self-isolate, whether to protect themselves or protect others. But this also shows that we have underlying conditions of the health of our society. There should never be tens of thousands of homeless people. I know the causes of homelessness are complex, and perhaps it will never be completely solved. But that doesn’t mean we should go back to tolerating it. Not taking care of homeless people will not only cost their lives, but other people’s lives. We simply can not afford to let this go on.
We need to think about whether we are prepared to go on being the type of society we are. Many people probably were not previously aware of the now thrown-around fact, that many American and British children from low-income families depend on schools just to eat. There should never be kids who will go hungry if they don’t go to school. 

You don’t have to be a democratic socialist to wonder: Why are half of Americans living from paycheck to paycheck? We might prefer smaller government, but without massive government intervention in the present, what do we expect those people to do? Conservatives know this as well. It's a Conservative government in Britain, and a Republican-dominated one in the U.S., that have shelled out a bunch of money for people. Already some are speculating that this may be used in the future as a way to buy electoral loyalty, but that doesn’t change the fact that huge government spending is what was needed. Right at that moment.

Besides nursing homes, where alarming death rates are unfolding in Britain and other countries, many severe outbreaks in the U.S. are taking place in prisons and meatpacking plants. The former should be no surprise; the more people are close together, the higher the rates of infection, and at the risk of sounding like a Bernie Sanders stump speech, the U.S. incarcerates more of its population than any country except communist China. It’s beyond the scope of this article to sort out the country’s punitive culture, but unless we are to imagine that Americans are, as a people, far more wicked than others, these percentages make about as much sense as the levels of gun violence. 

As for the latter, so extensive that the nation’s meat supply has been affected, the U.S. consumes more meat per capita than any country on earth. I’m no more a militant vegetarian than I am a criminal justice expert. All I am asking is: Can’t we do better?

"Crises have a way of exposing inequalities that linger uncomfortably below the surface when times are good."

In our thanks for the heroism of everyone who stepped up to help, we should remember that it is criminal that health care workers, in the most expensive system in the world, had to depend on friends or strangers sewing them homemade fabric masks. The failure to implement guidelines on personal protective equipment sooner, as soon as the evidence was there, cost lives; I know, and I’m sure you know, of examples personally.
In our thanks for the heroism of workers who risk their lives, we should no longer tolerate a United States of America where GoFundMe is where ordinary people go to raise money for their medical bills. Middle-class people, never mind the poorest. Call it Medicare, call it Obamacare or whatever you want to, but we can no longer tolerate a system where working people are afraid to go to the doctor lest they be bankrupted—or deported. It’s not just their emergency anymore. It was everybody’s emergency, and we could have done so much better.

Other things we may end up questioning:
·      The brilliance of “just in time” supply chains to retail. Of having everything manufactured in China so we can have “everyday low prices.” Now, we are suffering from the “Chinese virus,” only to find that vital parts for the very supplies that will help fight that virus must come from—China. And Russia, and other countries we would rather not be dependent on. The Defense Production Act, recently invoked by the U.S. administration, is a good start, but the U.S. is not the manufacturing powerhouse it was in the Korean war era. We need other countries, whether we like it or not.

“For years, it was cheaper to manufacture those key ingredients overseas and keep just enough of the product on hand." 
 “We need to be willing to pay a little more during times of peace without crisis so we have supply available during crisis.”

Brendan Carr, chair of emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Health System in New York: “You can’t have extra capacity and efficiency at the same time,” he said. “In fact, for years, we’ve called that waste.”

These problems are not, of course, confined to America. Anders Melander, an analyst with the Swedish Defense Research agency, said, “We expected with the free market we would always be able to purchase what we needed," according to The New York Times.
“It’s not really a great plan,” Mr. Melander noted. “It’s like saying: ‘I don’t have to have a fire extinguisher. I can run out and buy a fire extinguisher when the fire starts.’ It shows that this free market is only free when everything is fine.”


·      The “gig economy.” People earning their living by driving Ubers or hopping on their mopeds to deliver takeout. It all sounded so flexible and futuristic in Economist articles, but now, those workers are forced to choose between following public health advice (social distancing, not working if they or their families are symptomatic) and feeding their families. The only thing that can free them from this dilemma is massive government spending. Conservative politicians who have spent their entire careers telling us that the state should be as small as possible and the market will figure everything out are finding that the government is the only thing that can move big enough, fast enough, to make a difference when lives are on the line.

This is going to show us, in any society, what kind of society we are. It is going to show the fault lines. Europeans would be shocked to discover that in the U.S., your water can be turned off if you don’t pay a bill. This happened to 1.5 million Americans last year. How are those people supposed to wash their hands? That’s not just their problem anymore—it’s everybody’s. If we care about ourselves and our families, we need to care about others.

Free enterprise is a great way to run an economy, but we can no longer kid ourselves that businesses are, or should be, independent of the wider public interest. They’re the first to run to government for a bailout. As for a corporate entity being allowed to trump the individual citizen, as one wag observed, “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when Texas executes one.”

Nonetheless, we don’t really want the airlines to go bust. Many of us rely on air travel, at least in part, to visit relatives and friends who are spread across the globe. But that is a privilege, and we should ask whether we want to go back to artificially cheap holiday flights, or something approaching the real cost of flying, to the planet as a whole. 

I reiterate: This is not just a matter of left-leaning solutions that some of us were already inclined to anyway. There are many differences between Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel and other countries with other political leaders. Surely the most important difference, unforgettable now, is not Merkel’s ideology (she’s conservative) but the remarkably low rate of deaths in Germany, which has had highly organized testing at an incredibly high level compared with almost any other nation. Trust in Merkel’s leadership and her calm, clear communication has also played a role. In easier times, politics is an interest or a sideshow, depending on whether it has consequences for us personally. Suddenly, now, it matters to everybody who is in charge of the government. Every day that passes is a matter of life and death.

Here is another example. This emergency has required unprecedented measures, some of which unquestionably restrict our civil liberties. Some concerns have been raised about this, typically coming from people who lean conservative, while others, who lean in the other direction, point out that it is an emergency and we simply have to take these measures now. But the concerns aren’t unfounded. They are just coming from the opposite direction from in 2001, when, in response to September 11, Americans’ civil liberties were restricted by the Patriot Act. Then, people who leaned left were concerned that there weren’t enough safeguards, or timed reviews, built into the restrictions, and so they would never be taken away.

We were right. The Patriot Act is still with us. It is not only possible, but right, to be both concerned about taking the right emergency measures and not giving away powers to government that it tends not to give back. It is perhaps not well remembered now that during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, many gay activists strongly resisted the closing of the bathhouses as a public health measure. They feared that gay people would be targeted and punished. The public health imperative prevailed, but the fears were real, in a country where homosexuality was reviled and largely criminalized.

Yet this crisis is also showing that pointing fingers to the usual suspects is no more helpful from the left than from the right. Big banks are justifiably blamed for their screw-ups in the 2008 financial crisis, but now, without the banks’ help, small businesses and those who work for them will be in trouble. Without the help of pharmaceutical companies, life-saving research and development won’t happen.

One of the most breathtaking aspects of the U.S. economic discussion has been the complete taking for granted that a whole swath of the the economy, without which so many double incomes could not be made, is outside legality. One family laid off its nanny but wondered if she would video chat with the children for free.”
I don't blame the workers in this situation, who are only some of those breaking immigration law. I blame employers who were only too happy to exploit the black market when times were good, but the moment trouble happened, dropped their workers as if they were not even human beings. This system is not sustainable, and it is not right.
Everyone knows the immigration system is broken, but bipartisan efforts to sort it out have failed, because of ideological intransigence. On the right, immigrants and all things foreign make targets for nationalism, while on the left, there seems to be an incapability of recognizing that there’s such a thing as illegal immigration at all. Meanwhile what’s broken is also systematic: an entire chunk of the economy, tolerated if not indispensable, that is as much about illegal employment as it is about the employees.

Globalization, this neoliberal reality we have all been laboring under since the late 1970s, is all so clever when it works. But we are learning that this new globalized economy is as vulnerable as its most authoritarian government and its most lax environmental laws. And we are also learning how interdependent we are for good. In an app-based, increasingly isolating world, we find that there is no substitute for human contact, after all.

When we go back, or rather forward, into whatever the new “normal” will be, I wonder if permanent alterations in behavior will result. For example, when eventually people return to bars and restaurants and in-person get-togethers, will they appreciate that being able to see and even touch another person is a different experience from talking via a screen? Or will they, even while present with another person, revert to phoning someone else?

I see I have written a highly critical post. But as ever, it’s not all bad news. Our neighbors’ gardens (backyards) are getting more use than they have in a while: gardening, laundry on the line, and on the other side, a daddy playing football with his little girl.


Faith, hope, and love are not canceled. Faith in others to do the right thing. Hope that we can learn from this and continue to do better. Love for each other and this precious world.