By the time you read this, more of my neighbors will be dead.
And yet, on this sunny spring day that belies the grim headlines, I need to go for a walk, that most mundane of human activities. I need to pretend that life is normal. To forget that just a short distance from my apartment stands Elmhurst Hospital, the epicenter of the coronavirus within New York City, itself America’s epicenter.
This month, we’re happy to bring you poems from JOHN FREEMAN’s forthcoming collection, The Park, out on May 5th from Copper Canyon Press.
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John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary annual, and author of the poetry collections Maps and The Park, as well as three books of nonfiction, Dictionary of the Undoing, The Tyranny of E-mail, and How to Read a Novelist. He has also edited three anthologies of writing on inequality, including Tales of Two Americas and Tales of Two Planets, a new book about global inequality and climate change, forthcoming from Penguin. The former editor of Granta, he lives in New York, where he is writer-in-residence at New York University. The executive editor at Lit Hub, he has published poems in Zyzzyva, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Nation. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages.
April 2020 Poetry Feature: Poems from John Freeman’s THE PARK
That’s what my mother calls from where she sits on her low stool, which seems to long for the earth of my father’s grave, when she sees me kick an onion between two of the legs supporting the large earthen water jar. My vegeta-ball bounces off one leg and lands in the smoke pit, crying hot tears from the wound she sustained when she struck the sharp leg.
The smoke pit is under my grandmother’s wooden bed, so I bend down to retrieve my vegeta-ball, but when I see that the ground under her bed is wet with water dripping from the jug, I immediately forget what I was looking for. I love mud, and so donkeys, sheep, lions, elephants, and chickens emerge from the mud thanks to my fingertips, and then I take my new flock to graze in the courtyard, where they all eat grass, and even the lion’s stomach is fine with it. The two pebbles I use for his sad and happy eyes are like lovely girls’ eyes in my country. The elephant is smaller than the goat; it wasn’t born, doesn’t reproduce, and won’t die, just like the goat, and like me, I think, and the matches make for straight tusks. My mother is looking at me with a lot of love, not because I’m little and without a father, but because I’m ugly and skinny and poor, and my mother thinks this trinity will crucify me on sturdy beams before the age of thirty. But she doesn’t notice that the lion I’ve made is like an officer in plainclothes, that its mouth looks as meek as the beak of a bird, as if Christ has come down into my fingertips, then out through my hands. “Don’t worry about him,ˮ my grandmother tells my mother. “He’s been watching water drip from the jug for four hours, perfectly happy.”
Frances Richey is the author of two poetry collections: The Warrior (Viking Penguin 2008), The Burning Point (White Pine Press 2004), and the chapbook, Voices of the Guard (Clackamas Community College 2010). She teaches an on-going poetry writing class at Himan Brown Senior Program at the 92nd Street Y in NYC, and she is the poetry editor for upstreet Literary Magazine. She was poetry editor for Bellevue Literary Review from 2004-2008. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from: The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, Plume, Gulf Coast, Salmagundi, Salamander, Blackbird, River Styx, and Woman’s Day, and her poems have been featured on NPR, PBS NewsHour and Verse Daily. Most recently she was a finalist for The National Poetry Series for her manuscript, “On The Way Here.” She lives in New York City.
Our plan was always to go home to Amsterdam at the end of March. By then, we will have been on the road for 200 days. But now home is the new coronavirus epicenter. The projections are that the Netherlands will follow the pattern set by Italy. With only so many hospital beds, respirators and medical staff, Dutch doctors will have to triage. They will treat the younger patients with a higher chance of survival. The others are on their own.
We have no good choices. Staying on the road presents its own dangers. Hotels are vectors for infection. So are restaurants and public transportation for so long as they stay open. We could hunker down in an AirBnB. But who will tell us when the lockdown begins or ends?
Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry, including his latest book, The Boy in the Labyrinth (University of Akron Press, 2019). His work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Tin House, The Common, The Southern Review, and Poetry Northwest. He is a founding member of Kundiman and now serves as co-chair of Kundiman’s advisory board. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.
Cameron Finch spoke with Oliver about mythic metaphors, the problem with story problems, empathy in the digital era, and the role of poetry in the endless exploration of ourselves.
Poetry-Making as Empathy Play: An Interview with Oliver de la Paz