earthweal weekly challenge: PROTEST IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC


by Sherry Marr

I have taken part in many protests in my life: for civil rights, against the Viet Nam war, (Make Love, Not War, Give Peace a Chance), the women’s movement, justice for Aboriginals, the climate crisis. In 1993, I was on the blockades to save the old growth forest in Clayoquot Sound, at that time the greatest act of civil disobedience in Canada.

I have a strong sense of truth and social justice; I have expressed this in my poetry all my life. My spirit rises up against all that is unjust. But I was always hopeful that the transformation of consciousness on the planet would occur before all was lost. So I have been having a hard time since 2016, watching things play out for our neighbours south of the border, watching civil liberties roll back, racism become hostile and overt, civility, dignity, decency being over-powered by hatred and division. Blatant corruption is occurring at top levels, unchallenged; the good guys get fired; the snake-charmers get richer. All the smug grinning smiles of collusion,  the dead eyes, are an affront to my sensibilities.

Where to start: too many things to protest; it is a theatre of the absurd. We are so far down the rabbit hole, it makes me think of that old saying: “Been down so long, it looks like Up to me.” In Canada, newscasters have a hard time hiding their astonishment at the words they are reading on the teleprompters. Yikes.

Add the corona virus to this, and one can be forgiven for growing too discouraged for words. Yet somehow we must rally. (And for certain every person qualified to vote needs to exercise that right in November 2020.) Our job as poets is to reflect the world around us, throw light on difficult topics, bear witness, advocate for change, at the very least leave a historical record of the times we are living through, in case humanity somehow survives, and there are people alive in the future to read our words. At least we can say “we tried.” Future humans will see that, when it became a struggle between dark and light, we poets were the canaries in the cages, singing out.

My heart rose up with the water protectors at Standing Rock, whose peaceful and prayerful protest was met with militarized police, pressure hoses, rubber bullets and arrest.  trump (I will never use a capital T for him, my own small rejection of his political presence) proposed legislation that would brand these peaceful warriors – and other peaceful protesters –  “terrorists”. Yet check this out:

Protestors tried to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber and were being kept out by the Michigan State Police at the State Capitol in Lansing, on April 30. The group was upset with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s mandatory closure to curtail Covid-19. (Photo: Jeff Kowalky)


It was trump who incited these people to “Liberate your state; fight for your great Second Amendment.” He called these “protesters” of social distancing “good people.”

Join me in a moment of speechlessness.

“Give me liberty or give me death”, the placards say, of the directives to wear masks and practise social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. This might quite literally come true. “Gun up,” people are saying south of the border. Methinks they have found a strange issue to protest.

I worry about the coming election. Will they “gun up” if they don’t like the outcome? I worry about a lot of things. The New York Times has projected the possibility of Ivanka trump as President in 2025, followed by the abolishment of term limits for President. Hopefully this will not happen; hopefully I won’t live to see a further slide from American democracy to power by the potentates.

Brendan suggested, since we can’t meet in the streets to voice our protests (and it probably would be scary, with all those enraged people running around with guns half-cocked), we can do an online protest. That appeals to me.

There is no shortage of things to protest: the armed militants on the state capital steps; the president himself; government corruption; assault weapons; the suffering and abuse of wild and domestic animals; the destruction of wild habitat; what we eat, how it’s treated and where it comes from. The need for social distancing and testing to save lives, the many lives being lost in all the political uproar, in a situation that should be anything but political. (Leaked statistics from the White House estimated covid deaths could reach 3,000 per day in the U.S. by June 1st. And the administration seems unworried about the loss of life). (Source: Business Insider)

Animal rights. Human rights. Immigration. Warming seas. Plastic. The climate crisis. The urgent need for a switch to clean energy.

Take your pick. Unfurl your banner. Tell us about what keeps you awake at night, what worries you most, what you feel needs to change. What is happening in your part of the world that concerns or appalls you? Give us your outrage or, if you can muster it, give us some hope, and a direction to head in.

Valerie Kaur has said this time can be viewed “not as the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb”; that we can emerge from this time of transition transformed, and begin to live on Mother Earth as one part of creation, rather than the unthinking, dominant species we have been. We live in hope.

Your challenge: Bring us your protest poem.  Let’s join our voices in this forum to speak of all that is wrong or, conversely, all that we can make right.

I look forward to reading your words.

— Sherry

earthweal open link weekend #21

Welcome to earthweal’s twenty-first open link weekend. Share a poem of your own preference – new or old, rosy or blue. Open links taken through Sunday; be sure to visit other linkers and comment.





In a recent PBS Frontline report on the height of the coronavirus pandemic in Italy, we follow a doctor going through her rounds in a hospital overwhelmed with the viral dying and dead.

It is not easy viewing but utterly necessary to understand the long shadow of pandemic. It should be required viewing for those too eager and careless about resuming their pre-COVID existence.

In one scene, the doctor comes home after a futile day of not saving very many and watching many of her co-workers succumb.  After rigorously cleaning up, she asks her teenaged children what they had done for homework and they reply they are writing about the virus.

The exhausted doctor—happy to be home but terrified she will infect her family, does not have an encouraging response. “Let’s say that the only positive thing about this pandemic is that there’s no pollution,” she says. “Only that, the rest is tragedy.”

It occurs to me that the world I live in is so hellbent to get back to its old life because it hasn’t paid adequate witness to that tragedy.  It happens afar—in quarantined rooms and hospitals on restricted access, in nursing homes of other people’s mothers and in distant countries.

The world so in haste to open back up is more captivated by what it gave than any concern about saving lives. Perhaps failing to acknowledge that tragedy makes it blind to its own tragedy, that there’s no going back now. The pre-COVID era is still so close by – only a few months —it’s hard to recognize that it’s already dead.

Another great look into the COVID pandemic was on CBS 60 Minutes last Sunday. Titled “What Will Be The Long Term Effects of the Coronavirus Pandemic?”, Jon Wertheim tied it closely to climate crisis. 2020 started out with a wildfire’s continental roar (that surely seemed bad enough moodiness from Mother Nature) and then completely emptied out from a pandemic caused by trespass too deep in the wild.

How big was that second event? Greater than I have been able to properly conceive.

“We might speak achingly of our pre-COVID existences,” Wertheim said. “But life has changed—abruptly, profoundly and irretrievably. We will instead go hurtling into a new era.”

And what will that hurtling new era be for us? The question is resonant at earthweal: Will we listen to the Earth and those who study it closely and change our ways? Or do we continue to our blind mad dash into an even surlier, more destructive future?

The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy was interviewed in the segment following a piece she published in The Financial Times, “The Pandemic Is A Portal.” She said that the pandemic has placed us in a waiting room between the past and future, and we should think a moment about how we should stitch those two back together. This, from her essay:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Strange but perhaps magic opportunity: A fresh start.

Bill McKibben was also interviewed for the segment, and he also said the pandemic presents us with a chance to re-start things on a different foot. If we do, he said, in 60 years the world might thank us rather than curse us. The choice is collectively ours.

We have abruptly departed from one accustomed world and a vastly different one is shifting into view. And I have said before, it is for the namers—us poets, I mean—to discover the inner substance of that.

It’s not an easy task. Granted, naming never is; we write and revise and write again, rubbing away the detritus and leftover and used up and redundant. Getting to the inside of the inside, edging closer to the heart of truth.

There have been some wonderful poems here recently to that effect. Recently you have helped chart a strange new world … upturned the trope of hero’s challenge to suit that voice for women, animals, Earth … and woven vast particulars into the fabric of time. This is how a new earthly weal is bonded, I think. Poem by poem.

We are fortunate to have some new voices—Lindi from South Africa and Suzanne from Australia, Kerfe from New York City and others. So happy you have found us and chosen to add your far-flung voice to the global choir. We are so much richer in sound and texture for it.

There are multiple ways to enjoin this work. Sometimes we grieve, for much of the moment is broken-hearted. However, there is so much too to celebrate; a full and grateful heart radiates hope for all.  And sometimes we must rage, refusing to be ordained by broken orders and systems no longer life-affirming.

To that third end, Sherry Marr takes back over the pulpit for next week’s earthweal challenge. “Protest in a Time of Pandemic” is planned as an open space for an all-comers rally, a chance to speak out against oppressors and users and abusers. (Lord knows, so many of them are coming out of the woodworks these days.) We hope that you will show up and help the earthweal sky become a-flutter with protest banners of every stripe.

The poet’s art is ever one of picking a course through the labyrinth: this way, not that; turn here; dig there. And we are ever reminded that choices are fateful, as Robert Frost told us in poem written as the United States was just entering into the previous century.  What choices he saw then remain for us today, freighted with the consequence of earlier choices.

What then, shall we choose?



Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


earthweal weekly challenge: VAST PARTICULARS

Distant wings of Tropical Storm Arthur ruffle over the lake I walk by daily, May 16, 2020.


Stay with me folks, it will take a while to approach what might be called a grasp of the challenge …

Today (I began drafting this weekly challenge on Saturday) it’s warm toward hot as you’d expect late-spring in Florida, blustery as Invest 90 foments into Tropical Storm Arthur off the eastern coast. Not much effect from it here a hundred miles to the west—as the storm was frothing up, it raked south Florida with storms. But if there’s a truer, balder herald of summer in the Hot Years to Come, it’s not the arrival of the rainy season (due in a few weeks) but these early and earlier big and bigger storms. The oceans are heating faster than the land, and our annual columnar proof comes swirling, vast, and fraught with increasing peril.

Facts of life in the Change: Already tired from gardening efforts the day before, I did my weekly mowing small beneath that slowly heaving, more muscular sky, feeling mortal, diminished and vulnerable. It reminded me that my part of the collective story is just a tiny sensor or beacon upswirling into a vast dark mass.

So much for business as usual in a heating world turbocharging its lessons these days with pandemic. Or would it be more appropriate to say the pandemic is fast recalibrating what we call business as usual?

You could say this pandemic is a gas pedal flooring us faster into

the surging realities of a mastered world careening out of control. It has taken the focus off the greater change in the Earth’s climate, yet speeds in one of those weird timescales we explored here some time ago, the rapid unfoldment of the pandemic replicating a spike in months what the saturation of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere will uptick over decades.  It’s an apt lens for humans to understand how fast all this is coming at us, how little time there is to prepare, and the vast particularities of that which we can explore in our poems.

Climate change has only faded in the news, filtering through more randomly during this pandemic and its primarily human shock. But it surfaces and echoes with fearsome volume. There’s record heat up in the Arctic for this early in the year, with scientists wondering if this will be the year the Arctic Ocean goes ice-free this summer and how much melt will accelerate in Greenland. In the Antarctic summer just passed there was record heat as well. Ninety percent of the Earth’s stable glacial ice is located there, which means that melting and calving of the ice steppes there means glub glub everywhere, a pandemic of rising waters.

Wildfires have started up in Florida’s panhandle and in the state’s southwest, fanned by high-pressure hot winds still thronged with ghosts from earlier great fires in New South Wales and Jakarta, the Amazon rainforest and California.  They came and they’re coming again, infected with the prior stain and rising degrees. One doesn’t have to wait for long for a new disaster to begin, much for less concurrent disasters to flare and rage.

And yet, this: Despite the ferocity of evidence now piling in—a rising tide of dire proof that action is desperately needed—the human response is weirdly less engaged and empathetic. It’s as if there is a secret corollary between ever-more dramatic spikes and duller, slower, more fiercely denialist inaction.

The pandemic could be blamed for this—who gives a shit about rising tides in Southeast Asia, when in the USA (for example) 40 percent of those making less than $40,000 a year are now unemployed? But again, our human response to the latter is a weird duplicate of the former: The greater the infection and death curve, the louder the hysterics about everything the pandemic is not, from Chinese military lab shenanagans to bleach cures to armed rightwing militias parading outside state capitals chanting Open ‘Er Up, a minor variation on the good ole Lock Her Up intonations at legacy Trump rallies.

I’ll get off purely USA difficulties in a minute, but the worst-case scenario for handling a major pandemic is in ample evidence in my native country. We ignored the news, didn’t prepare, didn’t isolate, don’t test, don’t contract trace, waited too long to lock down and open back up way too early. How could such wealthy and self-aggrandizing nation fuck up so miserably? It’s easy (and probably fit) to blame our current President and the will of his administration to gut the workings of government, but there’s a collective will behind his ways, and its main directive seems to be arm up, hunker down and blame something else.

A vastly bad particular: in our state of Wisconsin, the partisan Republican Supreme Court sided with the Republican legislature against the stay-in-place orders of Democratic governor Tony Evers. The court’s order threw communities into chaos, with bars opening en masse in some while other locales still struggled to contain the virus. Who knew that something so apolitical as a virus would become such a partisan wedge?

Most Western democracies are suffering the same to varying degree; it’s as if the 21st century consciousness they embody is woefully unprepared for the greatest challenges a civilization could face—a global human pandemic and the greater extinction of life on the planet due to human-induced climate change. Our mastery has been outstripped by primitive impulses of greed and fear; does one invoke the other?

Who knows. But today the wind is blowing, heaving the live oaks outside my living room window in a way that smirks at my air-conditioned, suburban stasis. Just like the teeny tiny COVID 19 virus, those big winds don’t care one whit about what I believe or think. Poke the Earth too hard and you get an angry mama bear of a future; sweep the virus under the rug and it glows and glowers all night, whispering our names, our loved one’s names, so many names we can never absorb the total from our solitary vantage.

Like climate change, this pandemic is a global phenomenon with myriad local and personal inflections. Some countries have their collective act in decent enough shape to be beneficial for most of its residents; South Korea has only suffered some 260 fatalities from the virus. Other countries are a mess—USA, 89,000 fatalities, a number which would be higher if state authorities weren’t locking down the count. Bangladesh is too poor and populous to do more than suffer COVID’s spread; New Zealand sits at the other end of that spectrum, and returns a wise normalcy having taken decisive, right and affordable action right from the start. Despots in Russia and Brazil and the Phillipines prevaricate and hide the truth of pandemic in their ruined worlds. In Moscow, several COVID wards have burned due to ventilators catching fire, and health care workers who have been forced to work and have few protections have been reported jumping from hospital windows in suicide attempts. But health care workers in the most well-furnished ERs in New York City are suffering into a mid-game with the pandemic, initial spike soothing, adrenaline fading, leaving a daily grind and toll which cannot be relieved in a hospital system going broke.

Very few have passed the time unaffected—scientists working in the Antarctic, astronauts in the International Space Station, a lone sea traveler who just came to shore after three months. So few that it shocks the awareness how globally unprepared and vulnerable the human population of Earth is in the age of COVID.

Two more lines work in opposite directions: an upwardly spike of deaths, the downward precipice of economies. In between, the casualties are too many and varied to properly count. Clothing factories at a standstill, daily workers starving, the tide of hunger rising. Locusts swarm in Africa, murder hornets behead bees in Washington State. Upwards to 40 million unemployed Americans face hunger and rent payments without healthcare, many in states which have lagged horribly in getting unemployment benefits out to them. State and local governments struggle to keep firemen and police officers on the payroll.

The vast particulars are local. A neighbor’s wife who had gone to visit her sick mother in Germany has been stuck there on lockdown for three months. Local mothers whose work and family lives have collapsed into each other walk their kids late in the day with distant eyes. I wonder how the black community in my town is faring, normally off the white radar and now even more impoverished and remote. Who knows what it’s like for undocumented workers cut off from work and government benefits. My wife is desperate to get her father into memory care at a nursing facility but the virus reaper treads heavily there. I attend Zoom AA meetings and worry about all the AAs I don’t see there, how many may have relapsed trapped in diminishing spaces. Who knows what it’s like for opioid addicts whose thread of sobriety is far more perilous, or compulsive hand-washers and schizophrenics cut off from supportive human contact. What new victims madness will claim, through nightmares, insecurity, lost connection, too much time. What a terrifying cavern the lonely human self, in this most indulged age of the individual …

The suburban everyday fabric is slow to dissolve, but this summer I fear there will be food riots in Miami which will spread here in the form of masked store employees getting beat up or shot by the outraged and unmaskable. Teeth grinding this way result in a long low simmering headache and botched dreams, like the one the other night where someone pounded dead animals—a giraffe, a dog, an alligator—against the pavement in a grotesque comedy routine I could feel the world cheering for.

This forum was founded in the hope of a collective forum for a changing medium—some number of local inputs on a global phenomenon. We are still about that work. We learn late and slowly that pandemic is one of that changing world’s apocalyptic horsemen, rare in that it preys mainly on the perpetrator where other events—rising seas, water scarcity, oppressive heat, wildfire—wage even harder war upon the victims, our companion animals and plants and their intermingled ecologies. A strange comeuppance in one view, humans leveled by the viral; in another, shifting the time’s focus in ways that both help and hinder the Earth.

On those thoughts, this weekly challenge of VAST PARTICULARS:

  • Illustrate the changing tenor of the time with a snapshot or observation or tale which is both vast and particular.
  • Do vast particulars – global yet local, earth-sensitive yet human-driven, pandemically reeling a decades-long unfolding—document the news of the moment?
  • What new tensions are revealing themselves? Stripped of our daily routines, shriven from assurance of a well-meaning (at least, promised) future and encroached by shadows of collapse, just who stares back in the mirror of this moment?
  • If pandemic is the astringent which is fast clearing away the niceties and collective givens we call human, what vast particulars reveal homo sapiens behind its peeling mask?

The mythic cycles we’ve employed – hero’s quest, perilous chapel—have been traversed and leave us (gifted or cursed) with this new world, one whose outlines are vaguely, slowly revealing themselves. Who are we now? What do we do with enforced solitude, which changing social norms and the omnipresent specter of a crusading disease? Who do we wear the mask for? We have sacrificed our own security in the name of collective good; what is the payoff?

Maybe it seems like pretty wide reconnaissance (my wife correctly accuses me of Big Picturism), but reportage of the moment requires vast particulars. That’s an odd phrase, but it contains the tension between two curves moving in opposite directions.

For example, this poem I read in the May 18 New Yorker offers such a vantage:


Rae Armantraut


In Chuck’s dream, a strange woman
is smoking in our kitchen.

She’s doing her best, she says,
exhaling into the oven.

Then three military men
burst in without knocking.

They say they’ve come
to establish order,

but their uniforms are strange.
Chuck suspects they’re really salesmen.

Their leader stands too close
as he begins his pitch—

close enough to spread a virus.


I take a photo of a house
painted half blue, half pink.

Why am I drawn
to things that make no sense?

Or is their sense excessive?

You need to decontextualize
an object
in order to see it,

I once said.

Last sloth
in a pocket of rain forest;

exquisite scent
of hyacinth

on the wingless breeze.

What particulars—daily iota of evolving knowns, raw data becoming the softest sursurration of changing weather—are vast with the news of what we really are and/or can be no more?

Weeks before the official start of the hurricane season, Tropical Storm Arthur looks to brush the coast of North Carolina before spiraling out into the colder waters of the mid-Atlantic. Good news for the East Coast of the USA, but another storm, Cyclone Vongfong, barreled last Friday straight into Luzon, the most populous island of the Philippines. The evacuation of a hundred thousand residents was complicated by efforts to maintain social distancing during the nation’s lockdown. Facing off with the West Pacific’s first named storm of the season, shelters were only allowed to fill halfway and evacuees expected to wear masks.

I went out to water the impatiens and gardenias we planted out back—slow curve of slight water from a hose, feeding what we have chosen to flourish—while the sky bucked and rolled and heaved—gently enough—with the distant swelling of Tropical Storm Arthur.  I don’t have a job, what else am I gonna do? Stay home and keep safe. I looked down at those pretty, tiny, frail blossoms weaving in the same wind and whispered the same to them before heading back inside to the air-conditioned shelter of this post.

Who wins, I wonder. Who knows.