Poems for People Who Aren’t Ready To Move On

Image: Laura Chow Reeve

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.

Reckon: Reclaim
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 

going back 

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
for days
before I realized
I was the one screaming.

Millions of people
were here
celebrating birthdays
and sitting in cages,
losing house keys
and ending affairs,
praising selfies and haircuts,
forgetting passwords
and planning dinners,
greeting casually with embraces,
or clutching grudges
that now mean nothing.
Because millions of mothers,
big sisters,
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,
into hospitals
and unseen rooms
and corners
gasping for air
until their faces blurred
beneath headlines
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
and pleading
hoping to horrify, or shock, or compel
caution, care or at least
a reverence
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 isolation
over empty bottles
and over
we wept.
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.
And now
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?
We live
with the courage of masked rebels
who marched against death,
when death was in the air.
We live
with the love that fed our neighbors
when capitalism closed its coffers.
We live
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.
Love is
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
and narratives
re-embraced by the Earth,
and reborn
in all the particles that make everything.
And sometimes
we can feel that charge rebound.

But now
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
for us
and for them
and the world that should have been.

The battle has already begun –
a duel with normalcy,
a war against forgetting
and disposal.
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.