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A Raging Pandemic Inspires Poetry With Little Bite

What are poets for? One answer arrives in Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” when the satirical poet Baal comments that “a poet’s work” is “to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”

If this is our measure, then the editor Alice Quinn’s Covid-era anthology, “Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic,” falters on every front. This lukewarm book, largely uncompromised by alert feelings, political insight, wit, striking intellect or lightning of any variety, is — to borrow a slab of Orwell’s Newspeak — doubleplus ungood.

Quinn, who was for many years the poetry editor of The New Yorker, has good feelers, except when they fail her, as they do here. She compiled and published this anthology as an e-book in the spring, shortly after lockdown began. She’s revised it now for a print edition, adding 22 poems.

Much of the tepid free verse is about flowers. Or birds. Or trees. Harold Ross, when he edited The New Yorker, was wise to rage against tree poems.

Three poems talk about senior hours at the supermarket. Others consider Netflix, pesto, almond tarts, tidying up the pantry, going for a drive, owning six boxes of penne that is gluten-free. “Free the Glutens!” was Tom Waits’s memorable chant. “They’ve never had a country of their own.”

A few of these poems evoke the realities of blue-collar life, but mostly they’ve been written as if by comfortable indoor cats.

Sarah Arvio, in a poem called “Crown Prayer,” listens to birdsong, mentally blesses delivery boys and girls, and utters an insight for the ages: “from day to day there’s no certainty / of another day / though this has always been true / from the beginning of life.”

Rick Barot, in a different pseud’s corner, writes: “During the pandemic, I noticed the pencils.” His poem goes nowhere good from there. Nathalie Handal’s “Voyages” is made up of verses like “be certain of your direction / your heart knows the road” and “always be kind to / the healing earth.”

Jane Hirshfield writes about rescuing an ant. Stephanie Burt’s washing machine breaks down. Elizabeth J. Coleman, in the kitchen, posts this update on her internal Slack channel: “I hadn’t thought about how an orange is a miniature / replica of our planet until that afternoon.” Because both are round.

Wild is the wind, in Rigoberto González’s poem “Desert Lily.” He writes: “The wind arrives not because it’s called / but because it’s forgotten.” This arrives on Page 46, which is about the place where many readers will gently set this book aside, hitch a mask up over the ears and leap out the window.

The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, writers included; malaise is widespread, omnidirectional, multilayered. But because one’s body is not as free as it was, does it follow that the mind should be so fettered as well? The best poems in “Together in a Sudden Strangeness” speak from unusual promontories.

Danielle Chapman’s “The New Nice” beautifully scatters this book’s peaceful, easy feeling. Her poem is double-distilled, and composed as if from ice shavings and incivilities. “No longer must I be nice to anyone / except the people in this house,” she writes. “Niceness, it is obvious to me now, / lets out what should be hemmed.”

Mean people are not always good to know in real life. But they are wonderful to meet on the page. As if trampling this book’s egregious flower poems, Chapman looks down and thinks:

But this is my property. I’ve decided
these daffodils or tulips are mine to keep or kill.
Perennials rage up every May along this edge —
an edge I would prefer you keep your doggy off.

Diane Seuss, in her poem “Pandemicon,” thinks that the virus — “a little spiked red ball of death”— resembles a dog’s chew toy. Tomás Q. Morín, in “Vallejo,” thinks it looks like a pineapple upside-down cake. Both these poets are supremely talented.

So is Catherine Cohen, whose frazzled “Poem I wrote after I asked you if cereal can expire” contains piles of twigs like “I put the wrong kind of gas in the car and hate being alone” and “my children will type before they can walk.”

More good things: Jericho Brown wants to paint a mole near the dimple under his mask, so he feels more jaunty. George Green finds himself watching old biblical epics on television, to excellent effect. (“Rip Torn’s troubled Judas, a pathetic mook!”) Gail Mazur’s poem about unleavened bread, cosmic mistakes and cremation would be a keeper in any season.

In her contribution, Sally Wen Mao feels “hog-tied to solitude.” Jay Parini passes a diner “where the ghost-heads dip.” Edward Hirsch senses that “God, too / had gone into hiding / and sheltered in place.”

The poems from Amit Majmudar and John Okrent, doctors, are exceedingly well observed, and put some of the soil of hard experience on the blade of this book’s plow.

Katha Pollitt, better known as a journalist and essayist, is not a new poet, but to meet her again in this collection is a treat. In “Plague Poem,” good from end to end, she writes:

A poet should praise the world.
Good luck with that!
I’ve stopped following the news.

Pollitt wonders if, when we humans are gone, all the mythological animals, “dragons and griffins, the beautiful lonely phoenix — / will come out of hiding / and loll on the empty benches.”

A few strong poems and some bright moments aside, “Together in a Sudden Strangeness” leaves little mark on the mind. It makes American poetry seem as if it is dazed and sated, in critical care and intubated.

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