There’s nothing new under the sun, as this week’s poem reminds us: here’s ‘Quarantine, 1918‘ by Faith Shearin. Garrison Keillor will read it to you, too, if you like; the poem begins at about 2.34.
I find it odd to think how differently this poem would have landed with me as little as a year ago—as an evocation of something unimaginable, or at least unimagined; something distant and terrible. Those opening images—’germs/ on a stranger’s skirts… death/… sealed in an envelope’—would have been striking and new; while the touching, intimate images of how seeing ‘a grandmother’ or ‘a distant auntie’ is forbidden would have seemed poignant and strange. Instead, they are horribly familiar, evoking the precautions and restrictions we’ve all had to accept, the separation and isolation imposed on all of us even in life’s most intense moments of birth and suffering, celebration and death.
There is a double sense of ominousness at the beginning of the poem: that the poem claims ‘There were towns/ that knew’ implies, of course, the many that were taken by surprise; while even the towns that did know had to endure this dread-full kind of awareness—a sense of seeing something terrible coming towards you and not being able to do a thing about it. This reminds me of the profoundly unsettling state in which we’ve all had to live, of never being really, totally sure what is “safe” and what isn’t (a separate issue from the erosion of trust in authority, but certainly exacerbated by it). The ‘few villages, deep in the mountains’ seem to have put themselves in a sort of lockdown; and again, we have our equivalents of the ‘words and packages… unopened,/ unanswered’, and share that experience of ‘no one [being] allowed to come or go,/ not even a grandmother carrying a cake’. Shearing’s use of detail is so telling here, emphasising the fact that in times of pandemic even that which might epitomise kindness, warmth, gentleness, intimacy, generosity is transformed into a threat. Affection is dangerous, community illegal: the loving, fairytale grandma figure is become something nightmarish. And while the technology we alternately bless and curse may mean we’re not quite as cut off as we might be, still the idea of ‘the outside world/ exist[ing] in imagination, in memory,/ in books or suitcases, deep in closets’ resonates. As has been said ad nauseam, the world as we knew it has gone. For now, at least.
The poem closes with that chilling image, ‘the children cutting dolls/ from paper, their scissors sharp’. It’s play, but there is a sense of menace, and for me this is yet another reminder of our vulnerability; think how easy it is to snip off a limb, particularly with ‘sharp’ scissors. Important, then, to hang on to the fact that the poem is written in the past tense—from the outside not the inside, and in retrospect. Let’s look forward to meeting each other in that new present, too.