What poetry says

My dad was a newshound. Always had the radio on and newspapers: New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Camden’s Courier-Post. I grew up watching the Viet Nam War on the 6 o’clock nightly news. I am fortunate enough not to have lived through war in my own country, but I read a good deal of fiction–and wars supply natural conflict for plots, either as background or foreground. I found it a little too easy to put myself in the situations of the characters in novels.

Also, I was of a Cold War generation. The threat of nuclear warfare loomed, and we drilled for that eventuality in our school hallways the way children today drill for active shooters.

Dread. I get it.

Many friends and colleagues have been posting poems on social media the past week, as poems about the useless pain of war can be recycled generation after generation without becoming irrelevant. Really, that fact alone ought to teach us that armed conflict offers nothing but suffering; but when have governments ever listened well to what poetry has to say?

What follows is a work of the imagination, a poem I drafted in 1990, if my records are correct, and revised last in 2008, after which it was published online in a now-defunct literary magazine. Reading it, I realize that with a few changes, it could become a poem about a pandemic as easily as about a war.

~~

DURING WARTIME

First we lose
our certainties
and some of our trust.
The rest depends on events,
our nearness to the front.

Cities feel it earliest,
a dry panic, rations,
the irrational becoming
stuck, continually,
in our throats.
We practice
not being hysterical,
learn to live without
bacon, or oranges.
On worship days,
silence and weeping.

Life in hills and farms goes on
more quietly than before,
difficult situations held
as they usually are
like a straw between teeth.

The last things lost
are nonetheless changed:
a bounty of curls
on the pillow of a once-shared bed
turns grey. 
Linen closets, kitchen cabinets,
the child’s pale room
have altered, become simpler,
more desperate.

When infrastructures fail—
rails, roads, electricity— 
we are merely afraid;
it’s when simple things leave us
we have lost all our wars.


(1990/2008) Ann E. Michael

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