I would like to go back to 2012, when I wasn’t speaking for months and months, and the only thought in my head was: I’d like to die. I would like to tell that self that someday, perhaps in 2015, I will be glad I didn’t, and also perhaps, in 2020, I will be furious I didn’t.

I would like to go back to when I was seven or eight, when I stood before the body of my mother who pretended that she was dead, and give back the childhood that was horribly wrenched away from me in that single moment. I would like to go back to when I was eleven or fifteen or nineteen or twenty-two or thirty, especially in moments when I have raised my arms to ward off blows, and whisper to my own ears: you will survive this.

I would like to go to 2021 or 2022, hoping this pandemic is over, hoping that everyone I’ve lost has gone on to a world better than this one, hoping I am still standing and saying, well here I am.

I would like to go to 2009, when I would pick up the phone and hear my grandfather’s voice instead of the nurse saying frantically: hurry, hurry.

I would like to go back three or four months ago, when I am still able to take care of myself, when I still have people in my life who weren’t infected with the disease, when I still have a place of work that values me, when the world hasn’t gone to shit, but hasn’t this world always been shit hasn’t the police always been killing black men hasn’t the government always been the true terrorist hasn’t my white employer think I’m worth less because of the colour of my skin hasn’t been hasn’t been hasn’t been—

But maybe this would do, words softly spoken by a lover from some forgotten dream: I need you here with me.

Being in This World Makes Me Feel Like a Time Traveler
Kaveh Akbar

visiting a past self. Being anywhere makes me thirsty.
When I wake, I ask God to slide into my head quickly before I do.
As a boy, I spit a peach pit onto my father’s prayer rug and immediately

it turned into a locust. Its charge: devour the vast fields of my ignorance.
The Prophet Muhammad described a full stomach as containing
one-third food, one-third liquid, and one-third air.

For years, I kept a two-fists-long beard and opened my mouth only to push air out.
One day I stopped in a lobby for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres
and ever since, the life of this world has seemed still. Every night,

the moon unpeels itself without affectation. It’s exhausting, remaining
humble amidst the vicissitudes of fortune. It’s difficult
to be anything at all with the whole world right here for the having.

This is from Calling A Wolf A Wolf: Poems by Kaveh Akbar, published by Alice James Books, 2017.

The tips of my fingers are numb when I wake up. It’s been happening for weeks. There’s a dull ache—a pinched nerve—in my right knee all the way up to my inner thigh. One time I was standing in the kitchen, and I hiccuped—and experienced the most painful muscle spasm in my lower back.

Is it aging, or is it being alone, the way I notice all these twinges my body makes. When something hurts and I call out, no one will hear.

Outside, right now: people are still disinfecting the streets. Today, in the news: more cases. Scientists are saying it will get worse.

I’ve been staring at the blank page for hours now, willing myself to write. But what? Once again I circle back to questions upon questions, and never enough answers, words repeating until they lose their meaning, until all I have left is the silence.

“Why Is This Age Worse…?”
Anna Akhmatova

Why is this age worse than earlier ages?
In a stupor of grief and dread
have we not fingered the foulest wounds
and left them unhealed by our hands?

In the west the falling light still glows,
and the clustered housetops glitters in the sun,
but here Death is already chalking the doors with crosses,
and calling the ravens, and the ravens are flying in.

— 1919

This is from Poems of Akhmatova by Anna Akhmatova, selected and translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward, published by Mariner Books, 1997.

The fever is starting to bloom inside my body. I want to embrace the warmth but my fear is telling me I should worry.

The ache in my throat seems like I swallowed a small robin, its soft wings fluttering about in my larynx. I imagine coughing out feathers, but I open my mouth and I can barely hear my voice.

YOU FUCKING IDIOT, my sister screams while I listen to her disinfect and disrobe after two days at the emergency room. I am miles away from family and her voice sounds farther away the more she gives me a litany of medicines to take.

In a pandemic that has gripped the world, trust me to be a complete pillock. A pea-brain. A dunderhead. I have completely lost my bearings, navigating my pushcart in a sardine-packed supermarket the other evening, looking for my sister, getting whatever my hand could reach—chopped ham, lentils, chicken soup, fish crackers, hand wipes, two bottles of olive oil, linguine, jalapeños—before I hear a voice: is that your doomsday stash? I suppose it is.

Isn’t it enough, the grief I had to live with for awhile. Isn’t it enough, with the volcano raining ash on the city. Isn’t it enough to listen to him say, I don’t think it’s working. Isn’t it enough that I cry seeing Italians sing from balconies. Isn’t it enough that I know how joy can last a mere two seconds and yet understand that it was all worth it?

Diane Ackerman

And isn’t it enough that the mind’s caliper
widens to take in a log, can also

accommodate the hollow bones of a blackbird
flying elliptically to pinion a field,

does not overlook the sun bleaching the sky,
or how pinecone trees effloresce

into a highrise of spiny sea urchins and then
handgrenades frozen at the moment of explosion,

and never misses the dark hot muscle of a tuna;

I’ve got lots of sensibility and no common sense;
isn’t it better to lie low while the universe bombards,

to ride out the pendulation of the seasons,
straining not so often to embrace the moon, but more

to render it embraceable; isn’t it enough
that one branch, rocking before a storm, can gather

the lines of twilight like threads in cool fresh sheets;
and isn’t it enough that all creeks flow seaward;

isn’t it enough that riverbanks come in pairs?

This is from Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems by Diane Ackerman, published by Vintage Books, 1993.

How does it feel to battle depression, someone asked me last year. Is it a battle, I mused, glancing at the shadow nobody sees clawing at my back, wrapping its arms around my neck, a weight I carry every day.

I was gone for a while because I wanted to be gone. And then that morphed into a desire to stay gone. And then after awhile, it was easy to just remain a ghost rather than commit to filling your self up to the edges, like water gathering inside a balloon.

How does it feel to live on your own finally, wrote a friend after I shared my new address. I am getting to know myself again in the process, I said. One afternoon I just spent an hour at the balcony staring at the sunset, and then was motivated to cook an elaborate dinner for one that I couldn’t finish at all. And then the other evening—midnight solitude—which involved polishing and restringing my guitar and ukulele while listening to Ella Fitzgerald. That was nice.

I also tend to notice the spaces I occupy, how I—physically and emotionally—adjust to them, stretching or contorting, from curling up into a ball on the couch to legs sprawling where I can, just because.

How does it feel to celebrate your birthday alone? That one I asked myself on the morning of March 15th, in the middle of a city-wide quarantine and lockdown, a cigarette between my fingers watching the scene below me, which is nothing, nothing at all, the quiet both a gift and fuel for anxiety, thinking how my parents are old and sick, how my sister is at the frontlines treating dying patients, how I’m going to make spaghetti as an insistence of living, and not merely surviving.

How does it feel to be manic how does it feel to be alive at this time of the human race how does it feel to have a dog die on Christmas day how does it feel to break away from the cycle of abuse how does it feel to fall in love after a decade and then have your heart broken after four months how does it feel to see people fail to check their privilege how does it feel to feel it all how do you feel how do you feel how do you feel

It’s like self-defence in slow motion, swimming against the tide. Can we survive it, my heart whispers, for fear of being heard, and being denied.


for Robert Lowell

We smile at each other
and I lean back against the wicker couch.
How does it feel to be dead? I say.
You touch my knees with your blue fingers.
And when you open your mouth,
a ball of yellow light falls to the floor
and burns a hole through it.
Don’t tell me, I say. I don’t want to hear.
Did you ever, you start,
wear a certain kind of silk dress
and just by accident,
so inconsequential you barely notice it,
your fingers graze that dress
and you hear the sound of a knife cutting paper,
you see it too
and you realize how that image
is simply the extension of another image,
that your own life
is a chain of words
that one day will snap.
Words, you say, young girls in a circle, holding hands,
and beginning to rise heavenward
in their confirmation dresses,
like white helium balloons,
the wreaths of flowers on their heads spinning,
and above all that,
that’s where I’m floating,
and that’s what it’s like
only ten times clearer,
ten times more horrible.
Could anyone alive survive it?

This is from Vice: New and Selected Poems by Ai, published by W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.

There will be an end, I once wrote to myself, on a postcard one afternoon with the sun on my nape, my feet up on a chair. But not just yet, I eventually added. I was in another country and the city has been incredibly kind to me, and I was teaching myself about my limits and my fears.

Not just yet—perhaps my mantra for the past year as I pass through the days. You are here, I say. Pay attention, I say. How does one not become the very selfsame ghost that haunts one’s life?

I am here. Not yet shattered. Not yet dead. Beginning again. I am not entirely ready but my heart is open. Perhaps today that is enough.

The Leash
Ada Limón

After the birthing of bombs of forks and fear,
the frantic automatic weapons unleashed,
the spray of bullets into a crowd holding hands,
that brute sky opening in a slate metal maw
that swallows only the unsayable in each of us, what’s
left? Even the hidden nowhere river is poisoned
orange and acidic by a coal mine. How can
you not fear humanity, want to lick the creek
bottom dry to suck the deadly water up into
your own lungs, like venom? Reader, I want to
say, Don’t die. Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
something singing? The truth is: I don’t know.
But sometimes, I swear I hear it, the wound closing
like a rusted-over garage door, and I can still move
my living limbs into the world without too much
pain, can still marvel at how the dog runs straight
toward the pickup trucks break-necking down
the road, because she thinks she loves them,
because she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud
roaring things will love her back, her soft small self
alive with desire to share her goddamn enthusiasm,
until I yank the leash back to save her because
I want her to survive forever. Don’t die, I say,
and we decide to walk for a bit longer, starlings
high and fevered above us, winter coming to lay
her cold corpse down upon this little plot of earth.
Perhaps, we are always hurtling our body towards
the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love
from the speeding passage of time, and so maybe
like the dog obedient at my heels, we can walk together
peacefully, at least until the next truck comes.

This is from The Carrying by Ada Limón, published by Milkweed Editions, 2018.

Just checking in, writes J., one evening. To see if I’m okay. To see if I’m still alive. Maybe.

Too many people to grieve these days. One of them is myself although I don’t know exactly why I’m on the list. I just am.

I am alive—I guess—. Emily Dickinson in my head, but without the affirmation in the end.

Clear Night
Charles Wright

Clear night, thumb-top of a moon, a back-lit sky.
Moon-fingers lay down their same routine
On the side deck and the threshold, the white keys and the black keys.
Bird hush and bird song. A cassia flower falls.

I want to be bruised by God.
I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out.
I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed.
I want to be entered and picked clean.

And the wind says “What?” to me.
And the castor beans, with their little earrings of death, say “What?” to me.
And the stars start out on their cold slide through the dark.
And the gears notch and the engines wheel.

This is from Poetry Foundation.

Here is one thing I know: when my dog jumps on me and ruins my dress I am at once horrified at the paw prints but also secretly happy at this sudden display of love.

Here is another thing I know: when I put socks on my father before he goes to sleep I am telling him everything I can’t say because we are two people inept at tenderness even if we have never shied away from each other’s embrace.

What I don’t know I am practising to be grateful for.

Mysteries, Yes
Mary Oliver

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
   to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
   mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
   in allegiance with gravity
      while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
   never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
   scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
   who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
   “Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
   and bow their heads.

This is from Evidence: Poems by Mary Oliver, published by Beacon Press, 2009.