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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.


earthweal weekly challenge: THE PERILOUS CHAPEL


Our literature roots in fables and myths as old as hominid consciousness. We’ve been telling this story for a long time. Modernity has erased most of our conscious connection to this long history but we yet cannot free ourselves from it. We dream, we wild, we write strange poems, still feeling the chill of awe as if we had stepped through darkness into a vast torchlit cavern painted with horses and boars.

In the last challenge, we looked at the hero’s journey, asking if those old steps might be the next work of modernity. We do so because the King is wounded or dead. There is a fish-sized wound in the groin. Healing is called for, but what collective physic might there be.

Let’s turn the next challenge toward something more personal and individual. Let’s talk poetry. We have wandered into a s wood seeking the truest nature of our hearts. (Why else write poems?) Along the way there have been many encounters and trials. We write about our origins, our families, our nights of abandon and education in the old texts We write about love and work, about music and landscape and death.

Eventually we come to this place in the middle of the woods not on any mortal map:  An eerie ruined chapel surrounded by overgrowth. Or it’s a graveyard where ghosts lament unconsecrated ground. Hackles immediately raise on our flesh as there is the foreboding of immense mortal (perhaps immortal) peril.

Jesse Weston gives us this scene in From Ritual to Romance, a literate and mythical analysis of Grail legends from a century ago:

Such an adventure befalls Gawain on his way to the Grail Castle. He is overtaken by a terrible storm, and coming to a Chapel, standing at a crossways in the middle of a forest, enters for shelter. The altar is here, with no cloth or covering, nothing but a great golden candlestick with a tall taper burning within it. Behind the altar is a window, and as Gawain looks a Hand, black and hideous, comes through the window, and extinguishes the taper, while a voice makes lamentation loud and dire, beneath which the very building rocks. Gawain’s horse shies in terror, and the knight, making the sign of the Cross, rides out of the Chapel to find the storm abated, and the great wind was calm and clear.

Weston tells us “special stress is laid on this adventure, as being part of ‘the secret of the Grail,’ of which no man or woman may speak without grave danger. She went on to suggest that the tale was probably the survival of an ancient ritual in temple located somewhere in North Britain. (Some have pointed to Glastonbury, where the Perilous Throne is located; a black stone from Iona was placed under it, and it was said that it would cry out when only a true king sat down.)

Treasures hardest to attain are hidden in deep vaults, buried in the Earth, resting at the bottom of oceans or atop unsurpassable mountains: and the gates of wonder are guarded by penultimate peril, the seventh labor which no mere mortal has ever mastered. How deep the loam of bones of past heroes, former attempts to wrest crown from sleeping dragon. (It was written that a hundred knights had failed the Perilous Chapel before Gawain.)

And what a cry (or sigh) issues when our fumbling hands strike gold …

Getting through the perilous chapel is an essential harrow prior to wonder: there is not avoiding it or getting around it. We are told the Secret of the Grail is intimate with that chamber. The finished poem—the real one which parts the gates of wonder—must survive all its drafts.

For Joseph Campbell, the Grail romances marked a transition from medieval to modern consciousness, from the authority of the church to imperatives of the capitalist ego. Desire got us there. “Of all the modes of experience by which the individual might be carried away from the safety of well-trodden grounds to the danger of the unknown,” he writes in Creative Mythology, the mode of feeling, the erotic, was the first to awaken Gothic man from his childhood slumber in authority.”

Weston (and many other) consider the sources of the Grail romances to be pre-Christian, survivals of religions dating back to the Neolithic. They were certainly heretic; that they survived at all speaks much for the daring of these late medieval poets. That they were so embraced by the late Middle Ages says people were yearning for something more than the ossified practices of the Church.

We are at a moment when what sprang from that Grail Castle—a worldly, modern capitalist world—has become as old and sterile as the Church it once quested a way around. Remember, the Fisher King is wounded or dead and only acting as if mortally wounded; he was said to have been as old as Christ and lingered only for the physic of the one true Knight’s healing. (Gawain, the one perfect knight to attain the Grail, was a medicine man as well, the most learned in the ways of herb and physic.) Will this moment of pandemic – an enchantment as weird as what animates the Perilous Chapel—allow an old extractionist and gold-grabbing impulse to die and be properly buried?

Last week’s challenge looked at the hero’s quest out from modernity. If such a quest is still possible, then is there still a Perilous Chapel we must harrow through to get to the treasure?

This week’s challenge is about finding that Chapel and a way through it. Where have you found it, what perils did you endure, how is it linked to the Grail you seek?  What is that poetry? And what initiation is required to transform modernity into Earthdom?

I can think of many ways into this challenge:

  • What of peril and its boon? Was there a darkest episode in your story which was also most defining of renewed life?
  • Are we in a perilous chapel of 21st Century flame burning ever further out of control?
  • What happened to the men’s and women’s mysteries? Have they truly been lost, or is their grail just beneath the surface of our learned manias?
  • If Trumpism is a Saturnalia—a feast of monied fools—then what is the festival which marks the vigor and promise of purged New Year? Is it a pandemic’s witchy stillness and brute transformations?
  • Where are the crossroads of awe and awfulness in your work?

Anything else suggestive of that chapel and/or harrowing is welcome, too.

Some of you might know that my blog Oran’s Well takes its name from one such perilous chapel. That story:

Back in 563 AD when Saint Columba sailed from Ireland to the island of Iona (off the southwest coast of Scotland) to found his abbey of mission and learning, work on the abbey footers was disturbed each night by a vicious storm which tore down the days work. Columba decides to vigil by the site, and after midnight a half-woman, half fish comes up out of the sea and tells him that a primal being had been disturbed by the cutting of Iona’s sward. To appease this energy, a man must be buried alive and standing up in the chapel footers. St. Oran volunteers, steps down into a gaping hole and covered over. That night no storm arrives, and work on the abbey continues. Three days later, Columba wishes to look upon the face of his dead friend and brother and has his monks disinter Oran’s face.

Suddenly Oran’s eyes pop open and the mouth speaks terribly: Everything you say of heaven and earth and God and man is WRONG: In fact, the way you think it is isn’t the way it is at all!” Horrified, Columba bids his monks cover Oran posthaste, crying “Mud! Mud back over Oran’s mouth lest he blab no more!” The living dead monk was silenced and Iona abbey went on to become one of the jewels of the dark ages, copying manuscripts and carrying the message of the Church brought to pagan Scotland.

Perhaps oddly—and perhaps in recognition of the dire transit to truth—Columba made Oran the tutelary saint of the abbey’s graveyard, saying that no man could access the angels of Iona but through him.

Maybe that’s a lot to ponder, but all I write quests in the mantle of those words—for better or verse. Somehow it feels that work—a voyage to many themes and islands—is still earnestly in search of the secret to everlasting life.

I grow to suspect that magic island is the poem done well enough. I hate to keep going back to Rilke, but his poetry suffices a century after he died.  He was old and failing, living in a patron’s house, Castel Muzot in Switzerland, struggling to finish his Elegies when he was swept up by “a hurricane of the spirit” and found more than enough words for the ache which overarched all his work. The Sonnets to Orpheus came at him so fast he said they were not so much written as transcribed.

I’ve always loved Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the 13th Sonnet from the Second Book:

Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive.

Be forever dead in Eurydice-more gladly arise
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song.
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days,
be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang.

Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin,
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration,
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.

To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb
creatures in the world’s full reserve, the unsayable sums,
joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.

Shall we quest then, and harrow the many faces and places of this Perilous Chapel?


Inside the restored St. Oran chapel which welcomed the beginning of this post. The chapel sits in the center of the Iona abbey cemetery.

earthweal open link weekend #19

Welcome to earthweal’s open link weekend #19.

Link a poem that best suits your own theme or mood, be it new or one of your greatest hits. Include your location in your link so we get a feel for the breadth of global reportage. And be sure to visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Open link weekend ends at midnight EST Sunday night to make room for Monday’s weekly challenge.

Everybody gather round!


A person, watched by his cat, notes with chalk the days spent in confinement in his home, near Lyon on the 50th day of a strict lockdown in France to stop the spread of COVID-19. (Getty Images)

There’s a lot of exhaustion in the news—the dreary toll of deepening economic malaise around the world, unemployment lines stretching out of sight, meat growing scarce, toilet paper ever-absent from grocery shelves, the drone of unrelentingness hovering in the air. We don’t stay long with the PBS News Hour before switching to more entertaining realities—documentaries, say, nightcapped by reruns of The King of Queens.

But old truths seem shallow; a two-part American Experience doc on George Bush served us the grim drumbeat of all we already knew. Has 21st Century time become so thin that it can offer no vantage on the past?

And that King of Queens: How many times are we gonna watch the same reruns of a show that ended fifteen years ago? We can recite the scripts almost verbatim and laugh like Pavlov doggies along with the studio audience. Why do we find it so hard to wander off into the vast forest of available programming, dissatisfied and untrusting of it all?

Tack it up to the rough grain of pandemic, rubbing 21st Century dailiness raw. There’s no way around it, the wounds are real and ever-worsening and climate change looms just behind it, bringing if not new catastrophe this year then the ever-increasing volume of its approach.

We poets are the namers: It’s left to us to be the imagination’s first responders, discovering the contours and resonance of the crashing world we have awakened in. It’s not a job for poesies or dilettantes; without perceptive hearts our poems are just part of the debris field of the modern swath—blown litter. Maybe there is no way for poetry to assuage this, having been fatally disrupted one or two decades ago.

Yet maybe there’s a heroic element in all of us which has waited this long to awaken, tasking us to dig deeper, try harder; to burnish our sentences and pray to the brass angel that our foundations are correct and crafted stones are correct. Again and again and again, because now it feels like survival. The road of trials is truly long, but there is a treasure still to attain.

What I love about Jack Gilbert was his tenacity in this; settling for was a specie of dying, and he was too much in love with life (or enlivened by love) to reside in suburb of easy poems. It is never enough to merely subsist in poetry; one has to dig deeper, burnish harder, revise again and again. You never know which next word might fulcrum unexpected worlds.

This poem is from Gilbert’s 1995 collection The Great Fires:


We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of racoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within the body.

Fierce stuff. I surely and sorely take heart from this insistence, be it in writing poems or loving others or this world. I have to keep reaching for the soul inside the spirit’s gliding line.

OK, ‘nuff said for now. It’s been great to see so many folks coming out for the weekly challenges and open link weekend; hope we keep seeing you around.

Keep the faith—and keep working!


Judy Woodruff of the PBS News Hour broadcasts from home.

earthweal weekly challenge: MODERNITY’S HERO QUEST

Empty streets into downtown, late April 2020


Beautiful weather here in Central Florida as cool fronts still make it down this way this late in what we here call spring. They bring rain and then clear days so crisp you can make out the angel’s smile up there in the cathedral. Temps in the low 80s, breezy with the skies so blue they savor an almost amniotic grace—so fine, so fine.

Of course this will pass into the primal season of summer, and with oceans getting so hot the forecast is for one of the busiest hurricane seasons ever—22 storms: Vicious summer stuff for these parts. That’s coming, as surely as more wreckage and division as American humanity struggles with pandemic, depression and Donald Trump. But for now, how sweet and fair the days, a lolling stroll in Paradise, akin to the summer of 1938, before the long guns of August began tolling …

Sweet indeed. My wife and worked all day Saturday planting blue daze ground cover plants in an island by our kitchen window. Projects like that have been the sane backbone of our stay-in-place out-of-work sequestering; we’ve painted and organized and planted our way to this moment where Florida begins its premature reopening and hurried fantasies of returned normalcy. You should have seen the garden center of our home improvement box store yesterday, busier than the week before Christmas, social distancing, masks and care for essential home improvement workers be damned.

It’s not really apparent here that the curve has flattened—spikes were always elsewhere, in nearby Orlando or South Florida—but the herd has decided so here in such surly, commercially-afflicted moods, everything shouting We’re Baaaaaaack.

Indeed. What do you do with a truth no one lives according to? In so many ways this pandemic behaves just like the impending climate disaster upon the world’s most conscious and reckless citizens—not a collective problem each individual is responsible for. Someone gave us permission to believe whatever we want to believe—blame the Internet, FOX News and Facebook—and now the avatar of our cultural We is Alfred E. Neumann, lost between asshole and hole in the ground.

Ed Yong of The Atlantic Monthly has been brilliant writing about the pandemic; in his latest, “Why The Pandemic Is So Confusing,” he takes a step back to look at science in real time and the difficulties it imposes on a world become everything and nothing at once. Solutions aren’t pulled out of a hat, and the distance between this moment and the one in which a vaccine is available to all is neither straight nor short. (The average wait time for vaccines is around 13 years.) We’re dealing with a tricky virus with a host of strange properties and complications; it carries well into the crowd because so many of the infected don’t show symptoms, but those who sicken quickly imperil a health system never meant to sustain waves so high.

Indeed, there is so much about our modernity which makes pandemic its perfect foil, Gawain and the Green Knight. Yong writes,

… The desire to name an antagonist, be it the Chinese Communist Party or Donald Trump, disregards the many aspects of 21st-century life that made the pandemic possible: humanity’s relentless expansion into wild spaces; soaring levels of air travel; chronic underfunding of public health; a just-in-time economy that runs on fragile supply chains; health-care systems that yoke medical care to employment; social networks that rapidly spread misinformation; the devaluation of expertise; the marginalization of the elderly; and centuries of structural racism that impoverished the health of minorities and indigenous groups. It may be easier to believe that the coronavirus was deliberately unleashed than to accept the harsher truth that we built a world that was prone to it, but not ready for it.

Prone to it but not ready for it: That’s the space where pandemic and climate change come at us in exactly the same way, of course for their imminent danger but moreso our inability to response to those threats, looking for other things to blame, complaining about the economic costs, ignoring victims on distant shores.

Perhaps the perfect example of this is my wife and I working hard Saturday in the full sun of the front yard, pulling weeds, laying landscape fabric, planting blue daze from 1-gallon pots, laying mulch and watering: A full day’s effort in upper-80s heat and blazing sun, kneeling, digging, lifting, moving, raking and watering; bitching too, and laughing and sweating with play-by-play meows from Domino, the stray male tuxedo cate who has adopted us with a passion and who sat mostly in shade watching us fools work in the sun.

What did we learn there, I wonder. What did we earn. We sure were exhausted at day’s end, and I have sore muscles today in calves and back and shoulders and neck. Moving slow. It feels good though to have done some hard work for the sake of the house my wife and I call home. Common ground and purpose in the face of unrelenting chaos is good. It’s also an suburban indulgence that turns separation intos something too sweet for torches and pitchforks and campaigns for change.

Maybe that’s why these earthweal challenges and open link weekends are spluttering out after four months: Of that real earth and its dire need for change there is just not that much to say, especially not now when difficulty and despair feels close, comes in the daily mail and weighs so heavily on dreams. Who wouldn’t work in the garden and sing of blue daze? Is that making the best of difficulty or whistling in a growing dark?

Yong, again:

In the classic hero’s journey—the archetypal plot structure of myths and movies—the protagonist reluctantly departs from normal life, enters the unknown, endures successive trials, and eventually returns home, having been transformed. If such a character exists in the coronavirus story, it is not an individual, but the entire modern world. The end of its journey and the nature of its final transformation will arise from our collective imagination and action. And they, like so much else about this moment, are still uncertain.

Hmm, how about that for a weekly challenge.  If you could speak for that global persona—modernity as hero—what would his/her task be in this changed new world, the travel and trials, the treasure and its rewards? Have pandemic and climate change turned the kingdom into a wasteland, if so, what is it that can heal the aging king/queen and restore the land to vitality?

A starting point could be to illustrate the change. Is pandemic the Fisher King’s wound or its cure? Frank Bruni had a great column in yesterday’s New York Times, speaking with Laurie Garrett, a journalist who had predicted both the HIV crisis as well as this pandemic. What she sees ahead, Bruni writes, is bleak if you’re all for small government and protect-the-rich tax policy. (Progressives, gimme a high-five.)

Bruni asked Garrett how much of the world had changed before our eyes:

I asked, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?

“This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We securitized the United States. We turned into an antiterror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”

Not the metal detectors, but a seismic shift in what we expect, in what we endure, in how we adapt.

Maybe in political engagement, too, Garrett said.

If America enters the next wave of coronavirus infections “with the wealthy having gotten somehow wealthier off this pandemic by hedging, by shorting, by doing all the nasty things that they do, and we come out of our rabbit holes and realize, ‘Oh, my God, it’s not just that everyone I love is unemployed or underemployed and can’t make their maintenance or their mortgage payments or their rent payments, but now all of a sudden those jerks that were flying around in private helicopters are now flying on private personal jets and they own an island that they go to and they don’t care whether or not our streets are safe,’ then I think we could have massive political disruption.”

“Just as we come out of our holes and see what 25 percent unemployment looks like,” she said, “we may also see what collective rage looks like.”

Imagine this moment as the beginning of a quest for humanity. A curtain lowered and then raised to a very different world. Has our world become a wasteland of former occupations and expectations? What is it that humanity needs so for its great wound—a vaccine or a Green New Deal? Guaranteed income or global health policy? A resurgent economy or a slowly rebuilt one? What’s the prize beyond measure, the treasure hard to attain? Be mythic or hard boiled. And what map takes us there?

Today is my brother Timm’s birthday. He would be 58 had he not died twelve years ago. If there was a letter I could write to him in oblivion, I wonder how much differently the world today I would describe to him—in the midst of this pandemic and peeling at the edges from a heating climate— would look from the day he departed on April 18, 2008. What do I tell him about his beloved Obama, who was then running for president? How could I describe the apotheosis of social media and the tyranny of Donald Trump, the rising tides and engulfing wildfires, the whirling maleficence of storm? Or the witchy stillness of this global pandemic …

Questions for oblivion. But what of the living? While we were slugging away planting a legion of blue daze on Saturday afternoon, my wife and I were distracted by the sound of car horns getting louder from some blocks away. Were protestors headed for City Hall in their gas-guzzling cars, assault rifles poking out of windows, drivers pointing a belligerent middle finger to quaintness and doing the right thing and being so muckety-muck mindful? (Another parallel between pandemic and climate change: Both outrage the libertarian sensibilities of the incorrect.)

But the horns veered off the main drag and headed up our street, and soon we discovered their source: A line of sensible Toyotas and Hyundais and Fords decked out with school colors and soaped windows proclaiming the Super Senior Class of ’20! and the like, fifteen or twenty cars with kids at the wheel pumping the horns and hollering with sprung joy. This is our new normal, and here were the carriers of the hero’s journey into the world.

We leaned on hoe and rake and wearily tried to wave at each car, giving these kids something while schools remained closed. The procession came and then went, headed, we could hear, from the locked high school toward downtown. So far so good, I thought; but then we are only in the early innings of a long game with this virus. A few more plantings, then black mulch to pour out from five large bags, then watering and cleanup and we could finally head back inside to salve our victorious wounds.

Domino the stray cat lay in the shade, fretting at fleas and sniffing the soft wind. Waiting of course for dinner but for something else also to come—love, a fresh pact, something.

My dreams have been tortures of late—lost in huge buildings late a night trying to find a class or a job seminar

Maybe we have a world—or a We—awakening to something greater than spring.

And maybe humanity is the wound and pandemic the knight errant who saves the world.

What’s your take? Challenge open till 4 PM Friday when we open the doors for weekend open links.