As calls to return to normal abound, I am reminded that, under capitalism, the maintenance of “norms” is a fundamentally violent process. As vaccination rates rise in the U.S., efforts to resuscitate normalcy abound. But we have not simply lost millions of people to a virus during the course of this pandemic. We have lost millions of people to a death-making system that magnified the impacts of this crisis – a system that will continue to magnify those impacts through vaccine apartheid, militarism, incarceration, and other forms of systemic violence.
On May 27, 2021, 50 people gathered digitally to share poetry, music, and testimonies about the pandemic, and to discuss how we can support each other as we enter the next chapter of this struggle. The event was called Our Grieving Hands Will Build It: A Collaborative Memorial Event. Art for an in-person memorial exhibition, that will be staged at a later time, will be created by artists who attended the event, based on their impressions of what was shared – including tributes and reflections that were shared by participants in the chat. The first of those visual pieces, created by Laura Chow Reeve, is featured in this piece.
I also wanted to share three of the poems that were shared during the event, because I believe that poetry has the power to help us pause and process, and I believe that the urge to reckon and reflect should be honored right now. These poems were written by Benji Hart, Atena Danner, and myself. I am grateful to Benji and Atena for their words, which I believe I will return to often.
Grief in 29 Iterations
by Benji Hart
Grief as elder. Grief as kindling,
gathering force. Grief as true north.
Grief as opening. Grief as bloodletting,
waterletting. Grief as water, uniting
unceasingly with itself. Grieve
as water. Rage and freeze
and calm. Grief as calm
and storm. Grief as portal
to that being grieved. Loss
making room for each new loss
to follow. Grief as following,
memory. Grief as vector.
Grief as void. Grief as breaking,
joining. Grief as homeward
stumbling. Grief as beginning,
as beginning, as beginning.
by Atena Danner
When you say you know
The relationship “isn’t perfect”
And it’s code for all the red flags
Dotting your lawn, telling you where
Not to dig…
How long have we been grieving the truth?
When you fear the end of your
weekend, even as it begins
And in the last hours pretend not to know
That you do not know how you’ll survive
reaching into yourself
to give your warm will over again…
How long have we been grieving our freedom?
When you reconnect with an old friend
Who reminds you of what could have been:
Who knows who you used to be and could be again,
So your whole self pulls toward that feeling
like a magnet
Dizzy with the force of worth…
How long have we been grieving our safety?
The slithering haze of capitalism is thick and invisible
Pushing into your lungs, you can taste
Its saccharine notes in the back of your throat
Every time you breathe…
How long have we been choking and heaving?
So busy coughing we forgot that we’re still breathing
We forget: we are still here.
It’s time to admit that we’ve known
it’s been so bad for so long: lifetimes
before these 14, 15, 18 months….
How long have we been bereft and mourning?
Grieving our star-filled skies, our gardens, our homes?
Our sleep, our laughter, our people?
Our right to create sanctuary
Is as fundamental as our heartbeats and dreaming
As necessary as skin touching skin.
This season of reap and reckon,
With enough hot screams and tears—
to fill the cold sky with swirling clouds—
Has also ushered in the clearing of air
That necessarily follows the storm:
A taste of clean rain
A glimpse of blue sky
A whiff of rich earth
A touch of warm comfort
after days and days and days…
Remember what we were told to learn to live without.
Remember? All we were told we should throw away?
Bless the dirt-streaked rebellion of tending our gardens;
May we always choose to feed ourselves and each other.
Power to the sleepers, faithfully napping
Healing and restoring: Rest is wealth
that we must reclaim and redistribute.
Look to the wise:
Disabled, divergent and distant;
who mapped the smooth, blank spaces;
Who find water in places
That many write off as wasteland.
They covered our medicine with trash:
Let’s take it back!
Let’s choose a world we can heal in
Choose air and water and earth, again and again;
Choose laughter and care and warm skin.
If we learn to protect our collectiveness
it can carry the weight of our grief like nothing else can;
Let’s be wolves who walked back through the veil
Electrified, hungry, and ready to fight.
Our Grieving Hands Will Build It
by Kelly Hayes
In the beginning, it seemed
like everyone knew a doctor
or a nurse
or a pundit
who said there was no need to panic.
The first expert I spoke with said,
“People you know will die.”
And there were other words,
but that dangling assurance,
“People you know will die,”
until it screamed
like a sonic weapon.
I covered my ears
before I realized
I was the one screaming.
Millions of people
and sitting in cages,
losing house keys
and ending affairs,
praising selfies and haircuts,
and planning dinners,
greeting casually with embraces,
or clutching grudges
that now mean nothing.
Because millions of mothers,
and goofy uncles,
best friends and caged lovers,
store clerks and shoplifters,
nurses and teachers,
poets and janitors,
who never caught a break,
who had just begun to win,
and unseen rooms
gasping for air
until their faces blurred
and statistics swallowed their names.
Numbers doubling into abstractions
that hung like storm clouds
and left people lamenting
that they couldn’t go outside.
We echoed the numbers
like acoustic cannons
until we realized
that we were screaming
hoping to horrify, or shock, or compel
caution, care or at least
that was often absent.
Some of us wept
for the living and the dead.
Some of us wept
over broken coffee mugs and ripped fingernails.
Some of us wept
over empty bottles
Some lost our health.
Some lost our kin.
Some lost our minds.
Some lost and lost and lost.
And some are still losing.
And now some say, “It’s time to move on.”
To gather, and go about our lives.
And it feels like being told, after the towers fell,
to go shopping again
and all will be well.
Normal is knocking.
But normal was the reaper too
pouring another poison
over everything in sight.
the lonely are lurching toward repackaged ruins,
the stores and bars we used to live in,
adoring a social garbage disposal
that was always teetering
on the edge of this chasm that swallowed millions
more than have ever been counted
or will ever be named.
So how do we live?
How did we live?
with the courage of masked rebels
who marched against death,
when death was in the air.
with the love that fed our neighbors
when capitalism closed its coffers.
with the power that sprang up inside
when we were split off into corners
trying to conjure something
in the space between.
And we did.
Because love has always happened
in gulfs and voids.
an electric extension
radiating and unleashing
a boundless defibrillation
that can resuscitate what’s wilting,
sending a charge across time
through the earth
millions of lives and names
re-embraced by the Earth,
in all the particles that make everything.
we can feel that charge rebound.
the death-makers are calling
to tell us we’ve won
a new monopoly board.
They say it’s the world we used to know
and that we can have it back.
But we don’t have to play.
We can seize the pieces and bury the board.
We can love as loudly as we’ve wept
and roar like cannons
and for them
and the world that should have been.
The battle has already begun –
a duel with normalcy,
a war against forgetting
The creation of a world
that would’ve saved them.
And our grieving hands will build it.
Note: If you are grieving and in need of support, the Mutual Aid Mourning and Healing Project can connect you with free grief counseling and other grief related services.