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Ada Limón. Photo by Lucas Marquardt

New anthology collects dozens of poems about pandemic

NEW YORK — As the coronavirus spread in March, poet Ada Limon struggled at first to write, feeling "flattened and silenced" by a pandemic that had shut down much of the world she knew.

"I could call nothing to me. I'd think of a sound, a word, a subject and it was all failing," she told The Associated Press in a recent email. "I would look at my own poems and think that even their subject that I was tied to, still felt distant to me."

When she was finally inspired, in April, she summoned a kind of anti-poem — a list of what she felt no longer within reach.

"And so I began the poem, 'Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower,'" she told the AP. "And the list began from here. I didn't know what it was going to do, but it felt a great relief to list things that I could no longer access."

She ended the poem with a cry, "I am asking you to touch me," and called it "The End of Poetry."

Limon's poem is among more than 80 included in an anthology, "Together In a Sudden Strangeness," coming in e-book and audio formats June 9 from Alfred A. Knopf and as a hardcover in November. It was compiled by former Knopf and New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn, and includes contributions from Carl Phillips, Evie Shockley, Yusef Komunyakaa, Grace Schulman among others. The book's title comes from Pablo Neruda's "Keeping Quiet," which includes the lines "we would all be together/in a sudden strangeness."

"Poets have always been those we turn to as witnesses," Quinn said. "Poets can crystallize a moment like this."

Novelists will likely take months and years to fully absorb the pandemic into their work, but poetry has a scale and diary-like immediacy that allows for creation in the heat of a historical moment. Limon's "The End of Poetry" was published last month in The New Yorker, and has already been widely circulated online and praised by such peers as the poet Brenda Shaughnessy, who tweeted, "I can hardly believe it's real, it's so right."

At least one poet, Julia Guez, has tested positive for the virus: Her contribution is titled "If Indeed I am Ill, Brother." The other poems in "Sudden Strangeness" include dispatches from physician-poets (John Okrent's "Two Days in March," Amit Majmudar's "An American Nurse Foresees her Death"), a meditation on grief and loneliness (Kamilah Aisha Moon's "Storm") and a take on new parenthood during a time of social distance (Joshua Bennett's "Dad Poem"). In "How Will the Pandemic Affect Poetry?", Julia Alvarez offers a wry and pointed look at the fate of an art form:

Will poetry go viral?
Will its dis/ease infect us?
Will it help build up antibodies against indifference?
Will poems be the only safe spaces where we can gather together

Limon was not the only poet who felt stifled by the pandemic. Quinn says around 30 poets she contacted said they had been unable to write, while another contributor to the anthology, Major Jackson, says he knows of many peers currently blocked. Jackson, a prize-winning poet based in Vermont, says he feels "guilty because of the anxiety they express, as if they are less of a poet."

Jackson says that he and his wife and fellow poet, Didi Jackson, committed themselves to writing every day once they began sheltering in place, a way of distracting themselves from current events but also absorbing them. His "Invocation" is a call for better times ("No more rallies of hate") and for a renewal of old times.

We want the father in the park running
behind a child pedaling into her future.
We want to turn a corner and stumble upon
the muted concert of two men in an embrace
with entangled eyes. We want to hear
a far-away train whistle cast a spell
on the coming night.

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