Pandemic Poems and We Are One, edited by Kevin Solez and George Melnyk respectively, are complementary collections, both rising out of our shared ordeal of the last year. Each book assembles a range of heartfelt, evocative responses to a tumultuous moment in history. Reading these anthologies is a kind of time travel, a return to the early days of the pandemic and a journey that allows the reader to marvel, in written company, at how much has transpired.
The poems in both books process hardship through humour and resilience based on what has been weathered thus far. The second poem in Pandemic Poems—following Christian Bök’s “A Virus from Outer Space,” a meditation on the curative powers of language—is Cobra Collins’s “Bannock at the Last Supper.” Collins’s ruminations on end-time style remind us that devastating eradicants have, for many, long since arrived:
“We sit in our apocalypse chic
and contemplate which aesthetic
is best suited for the end of the world. Again.
Jingle dress or cocktail.”
The poem’s final line is a doozy: “Imagine / being able to wash your hands in all of that / clean water.” As of April 9, 2021, 52 long-term drinking water advisories remain in effect across Canada—the meaning of a novel health crisis is complicated when in “normal times” many do not even have safe drinking water, let alone the means to stockpile supplies.
Placing such a reality-check poem at the outset of Pandemic Poems is both a bold editorial move and a boon to the anthology reader. By acknowledging the colossal role that privilege plays in our pandemic experiences, this ordering opens up our ability to mourn even the more frivolous joys of pre-COVID life. Solez seems aware of this, as his own poem “We Used To Rescue Each Other” directly follows, asking: “Do you remember / O Wealthy One / moving over the Earth / almost unhindered / and finding / in every place / an industry geared towards / your welcome?”
Alongside free verse are experiments in poetic form. Christie Schultz’s “From the Inside Looking Out” is a series of seven haikus that embody the form’s calm introspection: “the geese keep coming / not worried about this thing / focused on return.”
“The Birds Have No Idea” is the title of Thomas Trofimuk’s contribution to Pandemic Poems and a recurring theme in both volumes. A heightened appreciation of nature and a slowed-down sense for detail illuminates poems of bonding, worry and wit. Poems range from confession to consolation, from Nisha Patel’s “Things I Do Between Naps” to David Reddall’s “Blight Ideas” and Jason Shine’s “I am Becoming my Dog,” which asks: “Is this a pandemic / or a metamorphosis?” The answer appears to be both, as many of the most affecting poems in these books are not the finely wrought sophisticates full of lyrical turns—though such flourish is a pleasure to be savoured—but rather the direct, everyperson missives of people moved by circumstance to express themselves. This inclusivity means that these volumes speak to poetry lovers as well as those who don’t usually read poems. For all who survived these trying months, as George Melnyk puts it in the editor’s foreword to We Are One, “These poems are a tribute to you.”
An example of the witnessing power of these works is Leslie Y. Dawson’s “Pandemic Plumbing,” which appears in We Are One. The poem’s opening line declares “Always Plumbing and Heating sent me an email” before going on to articulate relatable wisdom:
“A problem like a clogged toilet
could be a blessing
a problem so discrete, so manageable,
that you can call for help
and someone will come.”
We Are One differs from Pandemic Poems in that it is organized according to sections such as “Family,” “Nature” and “Resilience and Reverie.” Intersections abound, but this thematic presentation packs an emotional punch. John B. Lee’s “Sometimes it’s the Rain that Puts the Fire Out” sees a father speaking by phone to a distant, grieving son, their grief shared through the sound of rain down the line. That poem’s emotion is heightened by the next piece—Vivian Hansen’s “Making a Man,” which begins with the couplet “Sometime during lockdown, / my grandson’s voice changed.” Loss and moments missed are described, held close and shared.
Satire and social discontent are also given voice, such as in Bruce Meyer’s “Biography of a Pathogen,” which appears in the “Distancing” section of We Are One. The personification of the virus is chilling: “the pathogen bought an expensive car, / a big house with a swimming pool… Now, the pathogen says we’re useless, / says we’re expendable: get back to work.”
Weyman Chan’s “Spring Song for Friday, March 13, 2020” is a standout in We Are One, an impressive musical work that weaves Chinese medicine with identity-based strife: “would fasting while flagellating garlic hallucinate me a new normal?”
Both books are balm to the surreal confusion we’ve all been through, recommended for readers interested in tangible, sense-making creations from our community at large.
—K.B. Thors is a poet and translator from Red Deer County and the author of Vulgar Mechanics (Coach House, 2019).