First Responder

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

                        yet men die miserably every day

                                                for lack

of what is found there.

—William Carlos Williams

When the vaccine is administered, I’ll be near the front of that line. I’m a poet and therefore one of the first responders to the pandemic. Many people, some people, have read my poem “Virus” in Electric Journal, in which I compare Corona with the corona of the blessed virgin / slash / brand of beer. A week later I followed that up with “Virus II,” which ponders the nature of a poet hiding behind a mask as a persona. We are all wearing masks these days. As for the line to receive the vaccine, aren’t lines exactly what a poet is immersed in? You could even say, when I begin a poem, that I’m at the front lines. I take great personal risks when I write, and those ought to be acknowledged. Somehow.

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion and first responses, as I teach my Romanticism slash first-year writing class. I instruct my students to take risks, as well, though the class is pass-fail. Just the other day, I had them write about the image of contagion. Though there was some resistance, the results will improve over time, and if followed, might lead to lessened mortality rates, not to mention a halt to climate change and world peace in our lifetime.

Auden famously declared that poetry makes nothing happen, but I regard myself as a poet slash activist. From the confines of my office slash closet, I respond first to the essence of the street. My poem “Spiros” is an unflinching view of those whose breathing is compromised, from the root spiro or respirator, or as in the caesurae of my ghazal “Intake,” where the line-breaths are broken into unequal parts to suggest social inequality. I shared the poem with my class last Thursday, laying myself bare. The reaction was muted, the hushed awe that true poetry occasions.

As a first responder, I take my responsibilities seriously. Every day I sit down at my desk slash table and return to my craft, crafting poetry that speaks of craftiness: lines that speak to our current condition and the state of the academy. For example, I resent that our department has increased enrollment caps to 30. Poetry must be conducted as it was intended to be heard, in small Zoom sessions, lest it fall upon distracted ears. I minister to the cause of art wherever it’s ailing.

I take as inspiration Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor.” Doctors save the sick, lawyers defend the election results, and lawn guys ceaselessly exercise their leaf blowers, but I recognize that they, too, are a part of our whole diseased society. That is my first response. Nor does my influence stop with our infectious malaise. If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, surely we have as much bearing on the political landscape and can reclaim the country from the outgoing regime, though I no longer tweet as much as I used to.

            Let me share a triolet (really an octolet) that I composed this morning:

            The wandering eye of plague

            Has visited many suburbs/cities

            causing a sickening/thickening of the soul

            as when a customer

            in a shoe store asks for

            Doc Martens, yet emerges

            bootless. Fruitless.

            Just like that.

As Wittgenstein remarked, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He was a first responder, too. But silence is no longer golden and besides, gets me no audience.

David Galef is a shameless hack who’s published over a dozen books, including the novel Flesh, the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman, and Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook. Day job: English professor and creative writing program director at Montclair State University.

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