“no word in her language”

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We were hunkered down and cold most of the week. Every time I think it’s the last of the deep freezes, I’m wrong, so I’m not making any predictions this time. While bundled up (even inside), I’ve been working, reading, writing and eating pasta — twice in one week with the same sauce made from baked feta, tomatoes, olive oil, seasoning and herbs. Yes, I’m talking about the viral TikTok pasta, though we didn’t follow it exactly. (There’s no need to.) Everyone has a version of this recipe now, including Lizzo, whose vegan attempt looks amazing and will be on our menu in the near future. While the concept isn’t anything Earth shattering, it’s easy and comforting, and that makes it a good staple.

It also means it’s perfect we’re-still-isolating-because-of-the-pandemic food. There was lots of other warm, comfort food this week, too, like pancakes for dinner and biscuits with vegan gravy.

In addition to cold temperatures and viral pasta, another trend has been inescapable. It’s impossible lately to listen to NPR or watch news without encountering pandemic retrospectives. They have an identical message, and it’s this: “Oh, shit! Dude — we’ve been doing the social distancing and masking thing for an entire year.”

I find them dangerous.

Though it’s not their intent, they’re sending the message that COVID is behind us, and most certainly, it is not. Letting our guard down now is unwise. As of the moment I’m publishing this post, nearly 17% of people in the U.S. have received at least one dose, and I’m grateful to be, finally, among them.

The vaccination stats do show clear progress, but 17% is a far cry from what’s needed for herd immunity, and as with so much laid bare by COVID (and our response to it), vaccine distribution reveals the damage that’s done by racial and economic disparities. We’re still barreling toward deadly consequences for those who don’t have the luxury of staying home and won’t have access to vaccines for a few more months. And even though the latest COVID relief bill is nearing its final steps, we’re still stuck with a government “ethic” that refuses to “burden” the filthy rich with higher taxes but argues that the working class doesn’t “deserve” or need $1400.

There’s no going back from any of this. There’s a lot to process — more than can be covered in highlight reels of 12 months of news footage showing lines for testing, food and vaccines. It feels odd to recap at this stage (we’re still in it), and anyway, the format of the remembrances is all wrong. So far, what I’ve seen are segments that are self congratulatory. They’re look-what-we-sacrificed, “year in review” video reels. Is that all we know how to do? What’s with pats on the back? With over 524,000 dead in the U.S. alone to date, we failed to control the virus at all.

It’s taken me a while (maybe since the pace of my 9-to-5 has been so hectic), but I’ve finally been leaning heavily on this time at home to write and read more, including, in recent weeks, pulling some old favorites off my shelves. I’m re-reading a handful of poetry collections that achieve elements of what I’m trying to do in my new manuscripts, including one that’s “about” an invented character (an alter ego, of sorts) and one that may end up being a novella in verse with an entirely different main character. I’ve never done either of those things, but the bones of them have been in past poems, and their themes have been chattering to me incessantly.

One book I’ve revisited, as you can see in the images below, is Rachel Zucker’s “the pedestrians.”

Zucker is one of my all-time favorite poets, and “the pedestrians” was cathartic for me when it came out, even though, over time, I’ve misremembered its exact place in my personal history. In my memory, “the pedestrians” was a text I used to orient myself toward a series of revelations related to untangling the dramas of a relationship that wasn’t working.

The journey toward trying to get my needs met would result in the end of my marriage to the father of my children, a man I’d be with, before all was said and done, a total of 17 years. Back then (2010? 2011?) I was looking for models for how to be free from the pain of pretending (and doing what’s expected, i.e. just going along to get along) when you’ve fallen out of love. I found several models in pop culture — Eat, Pray, Love, for example, and Dear Sugar’s Advice Column #77: The Truth That Lives There (i.e. the “Go Even Though” essay) — and in poetry.

As I remember it, “the pedestrians” was part of the “I’m actually going to leave” canon.

“Nothing in her life had prepared her for how this felt and no word in her language described it.” That was so powerful for me then. Even though I didn’t have any of the right words, how it felt mattered. My experience, my truth, was reason enough.

Here’s the problem with that story line: “the pedestrians” wasn’t published until 2014, a few years past my separation/divorce and well into a new relationship with the man I’ve now been with for over eight years. So, apparently, reading the book was less about needing to believe I was on solid ground in wanting to leave and more about feeling that I’d done the right thing once I was out the door.

That nuance (i.e. the actual timing) doesn’t change how I feel about the extreme importance of “the pedestrians.” I’ll always have a relationship with this book. When you find “simpatico” during any moment of great need and longing, it sticks with you. Poetry gives us so much. It’s often a better friend than we deserve.

The time I’m spending with “the pedestrians” now is less about surviving painful emotions (and painful numbness) and more about craft. How does Zucker convey such emotion while deploying such sparse, well, emotion? In portraying the flatness of love (habitual) and life (deflated), how does she gut us like she does? The poems really connect, as in, they land all their punches. The collection is devastating.

I’m re-reading it now to study that and to see how Zucker so deftly creates “characters” out of her speaker and the speaker’s husband and navigates their interior and exterior worlds within the context of a strange — somehow glimmering! — dullness.

Zucker will go down as one of the genius poets of our times, but that’s a case I can make another day. For now, I’m hard at work sorting out more personal projects.

For all of my grumbling about feeling down or stuck or just plain cranky, I’ve been able to keep up with the writing goals I set for myself for 2021. For the most part, anyway. Here’s a quick summary, primarily for my own tracking, of progress in January and February:

  • Writing / I’ve only crafted two complete drafts of new poems, but I’ve been doing lots of writing exercises and free writes.
  • Revision / I’ve been revising poems intended for three potential new manuscripts. Most of this has been quiet, solo work, but I have had some help, as well. A small group of poets I know IRL is workshopping 1X/month, and I’ve been active again this semester with Madwomen in the Attic (online now, but originally out of Carlow University in Pittsburgh). With Madwomen, I’m participating in a weekly workshop and working with a mentor.
  • Submissions / I’ve submitted two packets to two different journals. Both have been rejected already. (The outcome almost doesn’t matter: I keep going either way.)

In addition, I’ve attended several virtual readings and workshops:

  • A sonnet workshop with Kim Addonizio
  • A confessional poetry writing workshop with SAFTA (led by Ashley Elizabeth)
  • The Tom Nattell Memorial Beret Toss & Zoom Open Mic*
  • Book launch reading for WE by Sarah Freligh
  • Two Laser Cat/Vaser Cat readings (out of Pittsburgh), including one with Kayla Sargeson and Jan Beatty
  • Two SAFTA “poetry crossfit” writing workshops
  • A love poems workshop with John Sibley Williams
  • A “Love Spells” reading hosted by Moon Palace Books with an all-star cast
  • A generative workshop on surprising language with Kelly Grace Thomas
  • A “writing the self” workshop with SAFTA (led by Leah Silvieus)
  • A flash nonfiction workshop with CWAB (led by Hannah Greico)

What that long list of events means is that I’ve been “out and about” lots (virtually), generating raw material and finding lots of inspiration. The challenge of the coming months will be to pull back some from attendance at readings and workshops and use that time to mine notes and free writes to pull together actual drafts.

* This is a local-to-me reading that’s been one of my favorite readings since I found the Albany poetry scene a bunch of years ago. For this one, I was just able to catch the opening of the Open Mic (and didn’t read), but it was good to see some of the familiar faces and feel that community vibe that will still be there for us when it’s safe again.

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