By Nancy Cook
WHEN THE MOON HAS FALLEN
At last the thermometer has broken into
double digits. I and my friend Hsiufang
don our snowshoes and head for the meadows.
The snow is sterling white in the sunshine.
It is as if last night’s moon had fallen
and spread herself atop the hills. We walk
and walk in companionable silence
at each other’s side. The miles glide by.
In time, Hsuifang speaks. She has family
living in Wuhan where a virus rampages
the city; but she does not talk of this.
She tells me of a recipe she found tucked
inside a box of photos, passed down
from her great-great-grandmother. She
mentions Xue, her cousin, quarantined in
Hong Kong, and I’m reminded of my son,
his once-cocooned body, trying to survive
childhood leukemia. To even say his name
would bring forth tears. I merely sigh.
We walk and walk and lose ourselves
along unmarked terrain. Afternoon
shadows cast by slender birch trees
paint tiger stripes across the landscape.
The woods draw close. We are silent
once again. We have no need to speak.
My thighs begin to tire and my fingertips
grow cold. I lift myself above the hills
and travel to my favorite haunts. In my
fantasy, a pleasant brew awaits in every
ale house. A pint at each, into sweet
oblivion, forgetting and remembering.
Still we walk. Ahead, a herd of deer nibble
clumps of brush. In the open field, two young
bucks meet face to face. They test their antlers,
roughly teasing one another, unmindful of
the birds’ discouraging twitter. Spring cannot
be too far distant. Life begins anew. And as
we make our way, my friend Hsuifang and I,
our thoughts on reaching home, our snowshoes
leaving wreath-shaped tracks upon the soothing,
softening, moonwhite snow, the present melts away.
ITALY IN THE TIME OF THE PANDEMIC
What is strange
about the city this morning,
you can hear the rush
of fountain waters,
you can hear the sparrows
light as snowflakes.
Police roam the piazza,
they do not stop to speak
to one another,
lift a gloved hand
You will see them
approach the many ghosts
who wander up
from the river;
they ask for paperwork,
ask what is your purpose
for being on the streets?
The ghosts do not answer.
They suffer from plague
four hundred years old.
They greet their needlers
with noxious breath
and waft away
on invisible chords.
It is a sad song
the ghosts sing
as they disperse,
a polyphonic requiem
for the disinterred:
Galileo, Santa Rosalia.
The polizia shrug. This day
the city’s burdens do not
weigh on their shoulders.
They enjoy the view
of the bell tower
in air clear of
car emissions, clear of
the people come out
on their balconies
one by one or two by two,
like nestlings cracking
out of eggshells.
A handsome youth
picks up his violin;
his father, shirtless
in the spring sun,
Nessun Dorma aria.
Mother and sisters
are in shadows behind,
at the crucifixion. Then
across the neighborhood
of open windows, decks,
and rooftops, listen:
a harmonica, a whistle,
soon a clarinet, drumbeats;
soon, a soprano voice
with wings of an angel,
soon a chorus of voices,
and soon, soon, the music
shall defeat the menace
that confines them.
As the sun lays down,
priests alone and idle
in the churches
bow their heads.
Campanile bells chime
and chime and chime
and resound in the
IT’S A JUNGLE OUT THERE
The elephants are hungry.
This tropical wonderland is low on tourists
and it’s the tourists who feed the herd.
An eerie quiet has fallen on the place,
the likes of which hasn’t been seen since
the days of Yul Brynner and the King and I.
It’s about time for my semi-yearly grocery
run anyhow, and I could use some of that
fancy biodegradable toilet paper, so it’s off
to the city I go. I don’t get far into the forest
before I come across a coven of witches
gathered about a giant caldron, stirring
the pot so to speak. Listen, I say, this
is not the ideal spot for your witchery.
I think you’re scaring off the tourists.
Fuddle fuddle in the muddle, they croon,
there are no tourists anywhere. Now that’s
a major downer, so I say, well, listen,
my elephants are hungry and that concoction
smells awful good, would you share a bit?
The elephants, they’re not likely to forget
a kindness. Ha ha ha they all cackle.
It takes a couple hours to make it to town.
I’m not exactly dawdling, but everything
is a little out of sorts, birds feasting
on breadcrumbs, frogs begging to be
kissed, and at least a dozen gated
communities ivied over with “Quarantined!”
signs hanging from their locked and gilded
palisades. I get distracted but this is no time
to go looking for princesses to rescue.
I finally reach the grocery and they’re all out
of toilet paper and canned goods too but
I pick up all the carrots, bananas, and
apples I can find, plus handfuls of rampion,
and on a whim I grab a bag of colored beans
the sales clerk has told me grow like magic.
I follow a rainbow back out of town, but
keeping to the brick trail yellowed from years
of China’s pollution drift. The colored lights
lead me to a blooming flame tree where I stop
to take my rest and ponder the situation.
I can almost hear the elephants’ toe-tapping
and I know it’s only a matter of time before
they trample the jungle in search of botanous
delights. Beside me I notice an old lava lamp
someone has dumped. I think what the hell
and start to rub it. Suddenly from beneath
a bridge a troll appears, hands on hips. “Dude,”
he says, “this ain’t no fairy tale. I don’t know
what you’re wishing for, but that won’t do a lick
of good.” Trolls have never given me much flack
but still, I’m not sure I should trust him. I tell him
the elephants are hungry. “Okay,” he says, “but
you know, elephants always somehow manage
to take care of elephants. What you should do is
check up on your sickly grandma, bro. The wolf
is at her door. Make sure she’s still alive.”
FROM THE HUNDRED POEMS AS TOLD BY THE NURSE
it pains to look for long, like
gazing at the sun –
outside, unmasked urbanites
walk about oblivious
a pirated ship:
aides steal TP from restrooms
doctors drink from hidden flasks
fingers try to touch
through window glass and loved ones
say good byes by phone
new mothers dare to breast feed
anxious fathers kiss the air
if a patient is
sent home, a collective sigh,
a song: Here Comes the Sun,
a chorus of well wishers
interrupted by Code Blue
how normals survive:
screens alive with online sports
Zoom parties at night –
nurses sleep alone in cars
nurses dream of suicide
they carry no protest signs
there’s no time – on call,
long shifts on their feet –
outside the White House they leave
long rows of silent white shoes
Since last fall, I have been working on a poetry compilation that involves writing one poem a week based on the week’s news. When I started the project, I of course could not have anticipated that a global pandemic would so dominate the coming year’s world news. These poems were inspired by the following headlines:
“Moon” BBC News, Feb 24, 2020, Coronavirus: World must prepare for pandemic, says WHO
“Italy” – New York Times, March 14, 2020, Italians Find ‘a Moment of Joy in This Moment of Anxiety’
“Jungle” – New York Times, Mar 24, 2020, As Tourism Plummets in Thailand, Elephants Are Out of Work.
“100 Poems” – Washington Post, June 7, 2020, ‘I have never felt so helpless’: Front-line workers confront loss