Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

My grandmother saw it coming and left.
I’d already left. It came late and swift
Like a tidal wave mistaken for a wave,
Came, not as a note but as an octave,
Black-keyed and mangled, searching the hospice
Only to find she’d left without notice,
The soul clapped from her body, masked by death,
Death hiding death from death, and finding no
Sign of her in the high cheekbones or skin,
Strode out on a cough into the evening.

In the weeks between her death and being
Laid to rest, life became COVID-19.
Both the living and the dead shared one air.
Then the service came, and I was not there.
I watched from the safe distance of an app
As my mother and uncle, masked among
The masked few in a pewless space, made peace
With the orphans who’d come to take their place.
Looking at them on screen was like looking
Out at the world through the bars of a cage.

And now, high on a slope near Van Cortland,
The immortelles of perfect pitch sing Ena
Harris to sleep. Her shade goes there to listen
Bathed in the scent of ilex, palm, linden,
Kapok. It is Easter and she is dressed
In her lilac best and hat her daughter
Crossed bridge and Bronx and plague to bring to her.
She is two steps ahead of this pentameter
As it follows her through the flexed valley
Of the shadow of death; this elegy
Which, like all of them, is so useless and late.
My grandmother saw it coming. And she left.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of three books of poems, including Living Weapon.
Originally published:
July 9, 2020


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