Pandemic Files

Trading Riffs to Slay Monsters

From a new collaboration on life under COVID-19

Yusef Komunyakaa, Laren McClung
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

I know patterns of lockdown & migration—
how a storm or germ could drive us
into a cellar or march us out toward fertile soil.

How a bat in the market can transform
the shape of the future or cause us
to take three steps back & cover our faces

with masks I dreamt in a dream.
Yes, I know we were taught to believe
our machines could control meat & sugar.

I am sorry, but I don’t wish to rush
to the fire in the heart of the thing,
drama, or deed. I’m ready to leave

the 1890s, & find myself at the door
of Ed’s Museum. But it is closed
because of a slow lockdown in America,

& we’re governed by wishful thinking,
voodoo economics & bankruptcy
while talking about alphabet soup.

You’ll find a garden mouse with flowers,
& a pig buried in a pot of dirt
at the step, but that’s nothing

like the collection of everyday things
piled up in the heart & mind.
I was just thinking how one man’s

treasures show the shortcomings
of a lifetime of people hoarding
iconic junk—false gods & playthings.

For years I’d see this guy pushing
two shopping carts along the city
streets. He’d take one up the block—

walk back & grab the other one—
both piled high with busted clocks,
broken gadgets, bottles, & toys.

Sometimes the poor work hard
pushing a round stone uphill,
the first to die of Covid-19.

I’d say take a deep breath, but
we all know there’s no fresh air
at a time like this. My heart breaks

in the middle of the night, when I’m up
arranging letters to leave behind
in the event things don’t go as planned.

I know it matters little what we leave,
but since my circadian rhythms
are off, I must busy my hands.

I worked wintertime with Father H
(forbidden to come within a half mile
of Fort Carson & the Air Force

Academy) & those other volunteers
at the soup kitchen where we’d serve
food plucked from Safeway dumpsters

at midnight, before they poured bleach
on the day-old bread & unspoiled fruit
& vegetables under godly moonlight.

Look, my great-uncle wore a heavy coat
in late August & wandered avenues
or rocked himself to sleep on city benches.

Sometimes a knock at the door meant
he hadn’t eaten for days. He carried
a duffel bag with a change of clothes

& his drumsticks & he’d beat triplets
on a bucket in the yard. Did he first
know hunger in the year he marched?

Yusef Komunyakaa is the author of Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems 2001-2021; he teaches at New York University.
Laren McClung is author of Between Here and Monkey Mountain and editor of Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees.
Originally published:
June 12, 2020

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