Wallace Stevens published the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in 1917. The poem references Connecticut, where Stevens would hunker down as an insurance executive for the rest of his life, handling lawsuits from rejected claims.
What sort of calculations would guide his hand now? Would he continue writing poetry at night or fret over actuarial tables? Because even as his fame grew in literature, he never quit the world of insurance, even when offered positions like Harvard, because he understood risk and that people always demanded insurance. Iambic pentameter not so much.
Stevens broke his hand on Hemingway’s jaw in Key West. I don’t know if he filed a claim, and the library is closed. The internets merely repeat each other on the superficial details and refuse to offer such pleasures of knowing. The brawl ended with Wallace prone in the street. Stevens later apologized, because he understood risk and that Papa would always loom over a part-time poet.
The use of alliteration brings me solace.
The best lines of the poem:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes
You have no idea Wallace what things are like here in the World of Innuendoes.
Wash your hands. The sign of the cross in the age of COVID.
I doubt the efficacy of either.
Let us re-dub the media the Bureau of Pontification.
There is Dr. Sanjay Gupta, as stern and sour as Margaret Hamilton in the Wizard of Oz, scolding us for our many hygienic sins and scaring the bejeezus out of us while Jake Tapper nods solemnly. Jake loves to say, “I’m no doctor but . . . ” and then pontificate on all manner of medical mayhem.
There is Sean Hannity, as stern and sour as Sean Hannity on Fox, informing viewers black people in Chicago kill more people than COVID (Yes he said that. Yes my father listens to such venom and hate for long stretches of the day. Yes I feel nauseous on both counts).
Now there is Sean informing his viewers that he has always taken the Chinese Virus seriously. You will notice that with Sean every moment is an opportunity to have a racist moment. Then he pontificates on Those that Shalt Be Blamed, the chief pastime of Sean and his division of the Bureau.
Don’t get me started on the New York Times we-will-never-be-happy-again think pieces.
The Bureau adjourns to their sanitized lives, their secure salaries, their access to healthcare with no waiting if the rabble should breach the walls and touch them. Anderson Cooper closes his beautiful eyes and dreams of a life exactly like the one he lives.
Oh the chuckles we shared in history class over the ignorance of the Middle Ages as they suffered from the Plague.
Oh the chuckles they’ll share in history class over our chosen ignorance as we suffered from the Plague.
How dumb could they be, everyone will whisper at the same moment on both the before and after sides of death.
Deep in the bowels of InBev/Modelo/Heineken/Coors/Budweiser they are formulating an ad campaign that hilariously encourages you to catch the Coronavirus. One employee does nothing but run algorithms to determine when it is no longer Too Soon and the campaign can deploy.
Filthy lucre. A phrase that currently collapses in its entirety the distance between sign and signified.
Each Beloved Brand emails to ask if I have heard anything about this COVID-19 virus? Damn, you have. Concerned only with my happiness and salvation, the BB describes the tears they have shed, worried about my health and ability to buy their products.
I cannot comprehend the steps they have taken, the process they have perfected to protect me from perfidy.
I warned you about the alliteration.
Bands of angels are unleashed each evening with heavenly disinfectant so pure the virus cannot even gaze upon our surfaces, let alone infect them. Righteous employees, paid an hourly wage so generous they almost demur to accept it, lovingly pack my order and a flock of doves gently deposits it at the door.
All sales are final. A phrase that currently works on nearly infinite levels.
If you want people in this country to take precautions seriously, someone very, very famous will have to die.
This is the world we have wrought.
Rendition. Black ops site. Exposure to infection. You cannot appeal to God or family anymore; only a verified twitter account falling silent and a signature shoe from Off White that will never drop will turn the tide.
Perhaps white power cannot come to terms with the pandemic because they have only perceived themselves as The Cure for everything their entire lives and now they are contagion. Or perhaps they always were.
The line for guns here in the heartland goes out the doors and down the streets. Perhaps they are trying to hasten having them pried from their cold, dead hands.
That will someday be hailed as the first social commentary/social distancing joke.
My normal routine when suffering from depression now makes me a shelter-at-home hero. I knew my day would come.
Not showering and quietly weeping never felt so righteous. As an example to others and to keep America safe, I’m going back to bed.
A theory. Just spitballing here. What if the existence of humanity depends upon humanity wishing to exist? What if the moment that exactly half plus one of us decides, in all sincerity, this is the end, then this will be the end? Our collective will to continue might turn out to be the adaption that proved the decisive moment in our evolution.
I take it as a hopeful sign when the shelves go empty. People get ready for a siege when they believe a bleary-eyed return from the bunker will occur.
The day I go to the store and gleaming, fully stocked aisles greet me, I will be sore afraid.
Let us be more honest in these troubled times: We all have a mental list of people we wouldn’t mind catching a little COVID.
The clowns that keep clearing out all the toilet paper; it’s not a dysentery outbreak for pity’s sake.
The putz at work that keeps claiming this is all a hoax.
Pandemic just got real didn’t it?
Let’s be honest, but not get carried away. I won’t ask the mortality rate for those on your list if you don’t ask about mine. We have to maintain some semblance of decency, with or without two-ply.
My list has a No. 1 with a bullet: me. A martyr for the cause? A cautionary tale? A medically-induced coma? The most passive of all passive heroism? Yes, please.
Are you more afraid of getting the virus or of not getting it? Perhaps we only need two ways of looking at a pandemic to understand ourselves.
Now go wash your hands.
3 Responses to “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pandemic”
I knew a guy who knew a guy who knew Wallace Stevens’ boss in Hartford. Stevens spent a lot of time with his door closed, “reviewing contracts” while actually writing. They were about to fire him before they found out he’d won the Pulitzer.
Once I was taking a deposition in one of the very many lovely conference rooms of a very large Hartford law firm. It was named the Wallace Stevens Room. I asked the other guy why the called it that. He explained at great length With no apparent condescension that Wallace Stevens was a famous Hartford poet and all their conference rooms were named after Connecticut literary figures. I told him that as soon as I got home I was going to name one of my desk drawers Mark Twain. He didn’t think it was as funny as I did. Or the court reporter.
Twain would have been delighted as long as the drawer had a healthy stock of cigars.
Twain cultivated bad habits on the theory that they were ballast to be thrown overboard in times of illness. Sage words.