In March, as the terrible wave of sickness and loss gathered its forces and crashed down on us, as trips were canceled and my classes went online, and as those of us who were not essential workers were confined to our homes, I took War and Peace down from the shelf and began reading. Six pages in, I placed it on my coffee table, and there it remains.
I’ve built my life around books. Ever since I could sound out words, I’ve turned to books for pleasure and connection and ideas and escape and solace. In those early days of the lockdown, I’d read a paragraph of this or that, then find myself wandering around my apartment, surveying my beans, counting my cans of tomatoes. Not being able to read shook my sense of self.
I couldn’t even concentrate on Netflix. Mostly I spent hours on the phone with my sister in France. I read to my three-year-old niece from the strange assemblage of picture books that I happen to have: Pish Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch, Teaser and the Firecat, and a very dark book about vengeful slugs. At the end of March, when my sister caught the coronavirus, she was often too sick to hold up the phone, so I’d lie worried on the pillow beside her while she drifted in and out of sleep.
My sister recovered, but it seemed that all other news was bad. Ahmaud Arbery murdered while jogging. Overpacked mortuary trailers in New York City. Breonna Taylor, an essential worker, murdered by police in her own apartment. Armed anti-mask demonstrators occupying the Michigan statehouse. John Prine playing over and over on the radio. Just as the weather was turning truly warm, and it was becoming clear that the pandemic was only gaining steam and there would be no federal response, George Floyd was crushed and suffocated by police.
Poetry finally drew me back to reading, especially poems about love, loss, and hope. Lucille Clifton’s “blessing the boats”: “May the tide / that is entering even now / the lip of our understanding / carry you out / beyond the face of fear.” Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy”: “But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme.” Tracy K. Smith’s “Wade in the Water”: “O Lord—O Lord—O Lord— / Is this love the trouble you promised?” Friends and I emailed poems back and forth, and the lines repeated in my head like prayers.
In the months since, I’ve returned to Ross Gay’s 2015 Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press, 112 pp., $17). It’s a gorgeous, sweeping collection of poems, shot through with light and love, and pain, too. It’s a celebration of joy—and Black joy. To read these poems is to walk through an overgrown garden of ripe figs and heavy sweet mulberries, where “cherry tomatoes shone like ornaments.” These poems hold everything: friendship and shit and bright fruit and rot and sweetness and sorrow splitting the skin of the world. Joy and pain exist in a line, in an image, in a word. In “Spoons,” the grief over a friend’s murder exists alongside the pleasure of syrup swirled on a plate, and the friend is beautifully and exactly evoked, kept alive by the speaker’s love.
I turned next to Iris Murdoch’s The Bell (Penguin Classics, 320 pp., $16). It took me nearly six weeks to read it, and in those weeks I was transported to Imber Court, a lay religious community in Gloucestershire, on an estate attached to a convent of cloistered Benedictine nuns. The novel is an absolute delight: wry and smart, sexy and funny and painful. It follows Dora, a lively young woman who decides to return to the contemptuous older husband she’s left, because in his “weekly letters of reproach,” she feels the “demonic energy of his will bent always upon her.” She joins him at Imber Court, where he is studying fourteenth-century manuscripts. It’s not a promising reunion.