In an age of blossoming danger, bewilderment and uneven realities, novel news comes at us fast. 100 degree heat in the Arctic Circle. Astonishing new infection rates here in Florida. A protestor shot at a rally in Kentucky. A dream elevator falls to the bottom of the world.
How does one write encompassing poems of such things?
In a study published in the Archives of Pediatric Nursing, scholars at Purdue University surveyed some 372 registered nurses in Indiana before the pandemic. They were asked about their experiences, nurses revealed a host of traumatic experiences, including being assaulted by patients and watching patients die due to medical errors, and reported symptoms such as exhaustion, guilt, disturbed sleep, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts.
A common theme was lack of resources, and this led them to identify a new subset of PTSD which they named “insufficient resource trauma”— psychological trauma that occurs when nurses lack the knowledge, personnel or supplies needed to fulfill their ethical, professional and organizational responsibilities.
Has poetry lacked sufficient resources to accomplish its work?
Now comes the pandemic which health organizations were largely unprepared for. As new cases surge, resource issues for protective gear—masks, gowns and gloves—are still uneven and stretched. As new infections soar in Florida, only one in five nursing homes there have a one week’s supply of gowns and N95 masks, according to the US federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. In Arizona where hospitals are now at full capacity dealing with a surge in dire COVID patients, there aren’t enough routine supplies like disinfecting wipes due to supply chain problems.
Why does poetry have such a difficult time grappling with this silent wave which has subsumed us?
In the United States, leadership continues to offer conflicting and deceptive responses to the crises. Vice President Mike Pence on Face The Nation continued to assert the fiction that the rise in cases is due to increased testing and not the result of early-opening strategies in Sunbelt states. He also falsely asserted that anyone who wanted to be tested could, where in several states citizens were being turned away from testing lines.
Where are poetry’s acknowledged legislators? Why is it so hard to lead from the academy any more? What is tradition if it has no authority?
Due to the overwhelming distraction of the Internet, modernity of this decade lacks common knowledge and assent. In the vicious global crisis presented by the pandemic, this makes sufficient response almost impossible. With hot spots like Brazil and the United States threatening to grow beyond control, nations better equipped and prepared are exceptionally vulnerable to spread. And with such widespread asymptomatic infection, it is only a matter of time before new hot spots take off.
If COVID is only the surface affect of a much more pervasive human virus; is there any mode of communication, poetry or otherwise, can evolve fast enough to grapple with our fundamental wrong-headedness?
Back to nurses: Imagine the disconnect between working shifts without sufficient preparation and contending with so many uphill losing battles (very few patients survive intubation, and those who do face months of ongoing cognitive and physical problems), only then to emerge into an outside world characterized by a vast indifference and almost insatiable desire to resume normal life. The divide between those two worlds must be traumatic in the extreme; now add to that a vicious opportunistic enemy knocking off co-workers and family because there aren’t enough face shields to go around.
I’ve always wondered if the PTSD suffered by so many Iran and Afghanistan veterans was only in part the result of battles over there. Then they came home where their brooding wounds were enflamed by a country gone insane with consumerist distractions. (Essential book chasing this idea, Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk).
I think a kindred specie of PTSD—where insufficient resource trauma has been trebled by unspeakable global events—now afflicts poets. How do we find adequate words for motions spiraling out of control before our eyes? What’s the proper name for big worlds blowing? How can a poem say? Does our poetry suffer from insufficient historic resources to speak truthfully about it? Is our verbal calibration geared to a time which no longer exists?
Yesterday at the grocery store I asked the cashier if they had started shooting customers who refuse to wear required masks. We laughed, but then the bagger said she saw one very angry and maskless patron throw a lemon at another customer who had admonished them for not wearing one. Across the store. And down in Palm Beach County of my state (where President Trump has a winter resort named Mar-A-Lago), some residents were so furious about a new mask ordinance that they exploded at the mic with an astonishing array of irrational tirades—that masks are the Devil’s work, that individual freedoms were being destroyed, that George Soros and 5G technology were using masks to destroy their brains.
If I were a nurse and heard such profanity thrown against the simplest and most effective means for slowing the spread of COVID—just after a shift among the dire and dying, with only so much protection against what could kill them and their family members—the trauma seems even worse in contrast. It’s not enough that one has such an uphill battle every day at work, but then to have that effort so flagrantly assaulted by off-shift insanity is enough to … what? Drive one crazy?
We have to mask not only from the virus but mentally against viral thinking. Last night a man fired a dozen shots into a crowd that had gathered in its ongoing protest of the police killing of Breonna Taylor, killing one. Beachgoers flooded Bournemouth Beach in England recently, neglecting all social distancing guidelines and leaving some 12 tons of rubbish on the beach, including a burger box which had been defecated in.
Thanks to the damaged and heating climate we provoked and now condemn ourselves and future generations to, extreme climate events become the norm and pile on each other, dragon over dragon. After wildfires devoured a third of Australia earlier in the year, the summer shift north brought extreme heat to the Arctic and explosive wildfires. Permafrost is melting along with Greenland and Arctic sea ice, and scientists fear that methane released from the melt could create the “dragon event” of runaway climate change, leading to a planet-wide extinction event. I doubt we’re quite there yet, but how would we know? Could a poem tell us? We reckon deep time with hours spent staring at a computer screen; does poetry understand which is the more wicked dragon?
Well—some of our poetry will adapt, if the human species survives, if our capacity to sing finds larynx in the future. In that way, we’re like the rest of the planet living beings, trying to find sufficient nurture. Migratory patterns are shifting, ocean ecosystems are moving. Tawny owls in Finland are becoming deeper in hue (the paler coats are more adapted to snowy winters) and fruit flies in Southern Australia are beginning to take on characteristics of fruit flies found 4 degrees latitude higher.
Perhaps our poetry will become hotbrained, more sensitive to fast changes coming at us. Right now it seems we can either fight back or curl in a ball—it’s brawl or boil. Maybe urgency will help us overcome latency. And with moments flying so fast at us, work is more temporary and conditional. How dated a poem outraged about climate change now seems. How halcyon our pre-pandemic condition.
For this week’s challenge, write about the challenges you face as a poet trying to write sufficiently to the moment. What is most difficult to capture about the time? What new tools or calibrations might be required? (Are we taking shells to a knife fight? Trying to play 3D chess with “single vision and Newton’s sleep”?) Consider the relative backwater most poetry is relegated to (why do so many people find poetry difficult if not repugnant?). Feel free to stretch this challenge out in a variety of ways; maybe answers are to be found in language or form or off-beat meters. Perhaps if Dante had not stayed wrapped in Virgil’s meters, he would have found a different transit out of Hell. Remember, maps of the New World were neither faithful or adequate at first, but each draft brought things into clearer focus.
This can also be a personal statement; we all continue to evolve as poets, ever searching for a sufficient enough last draft. What is the thing you wish you could adequately say? And keep in mind the earthweal vibe we embrace here. What is the poetry of Earth with sufficient canopy and roots to see us through such wicked changeful weather?
I wish I knew—that’s why I am asking you!
My favourite essay and challenge yet, addressing the inner silence that has come over me from observing a world which resembles a large insane asylum. So well said, Brendan. It is so hard to find words to encompass it all, even harder to turn the heavy words into anything like what once was poetry to me. I appreciate this forum so much.
Ha, two poems popped forth. Smiles. One slightly more hopeful than the other.
A bit late to the party….
Thanks for the prompt as always.