The Poor Empress
You work on paper which is smooth, supple and offers no opposition to your imagination or pen. But I, a poor Empress, work on human skin which is rather irritable and sensitive.
— Catherine the Great to Diderot
Pity the poor Empress
who must contend with human frailty
while seeking to weave, almost against nature,
a far-flung and discordant empire together.
Pity the Party Secretary
who has reason to fear
the duplicity of his rivals
and the resistance of an exhausted populace
to promises of a glorious tomorrow.
Pity Presidents and Prime Ministers
who must sacrifice their privacy
to the full glare of prying eyes
and the pursuit of personal gains
(or so they claim)
to the blandishments of power.
Pity the poor subjects
whose skin and bones so often pay the price
for what those who wield dominion over them
determine to be their fate.
On a Passage in Dante
Rejoice, Florence, since you are so great that you beat your wings over sea and land, and your fame spreads throughout hell.
— Inferno, xxvi, 1–3
America, the beautiful,
the free, the powerful,
the most envied state on earth,
unflappable in its self-confidence,
a league or two above its would-be rivals
in technological prowess, in material abundance,
in its approximation to El Dorado.
Florence had been no backwater in its day,
its commerce spreading far and wide,
its artisans justly esteemed,
its architects, painters, sculptors, literati
setting the gold standard for the Renaissance.
But the exiled Dante in visiting the Inferno
noted how many of its illustrious denizens
had ended up down there,
their self-preening the flip side of the disaster
which endless conflicts between Guelfs and Ghibellines
and factions within each could not allay.
So with America in the year of the pandemic,
its failures too conspicuous to conceal,
its racial tensions, its venal rulers,
its overweening rich
amidst a sea of hapless losers,
its divisions even more bitter
than Dante had ever had reason to record.
In Illo Tempore
It doesn’t matter if you’re stupid or smart, if you’ve got money or not, if you’re handsome or ugly. The earth swallows us all.
— Miguel Braga, São Paulo gravedigger
Some lock themselves
behind concrete walls and gardened villas,
others throwing caution to the wind,
party as though there were no tomorrow,
a few seek solace in jogging for hours,
others in yoga or stern meditation,
myriads suffer from hunger, others from gorging,
some from solitude, others from crowding,
experts declaim on the need for strict measures,
white coats compete for a miracle cure,
tensions show no signs of abating
as infections keep surging and reprieves prove hollow,
and despite the bromides one hears from one’s leaders
the gravediggers prove the wisest of all.
A Global Age
Crafty inventions, subtle beyond believing, now onto evil bring them, now onto good.
— Antigone, 364–5
It seemed a global age had dawned,
consumer goods to adorn the shopping malls,
connectivity reducing the barriers of space and time,
air travel for a song, exotic holidays,
a burgeoning middle class’s dreams fulfilled.
Multinational corporations had proven more powerful than states,
wooing politicians with the glitter of high tech,
promises of jobs in droves,
tax havens with their pots of gold.
Journalists and academics, the paparazzi of the age,
made the rounds of global entrepôts,
touting a fail-proof economic model,
a perpetual motion machine,
destined, in the ripeness of time,
to lift les misérables from the planetary slums.
Like a Sunday sermon to the faithful,
globalization had become a generation’s credo.
Yet nature held a trick or two in store,
ice sheets melting in the polar regions,
the atmosphere overheating,
ever fiercer tornadoes, floods, desertification, droughts,
with zoonotic interlopers driving markets to a halt.
Only for a brief intermission, to be sure,
for the push to economic growth and global domination
would inevitably resume,
with continuing rivalry between contending powers,
the intrepid lifting themselves off the ground
as they had always done,
convinced that they too could become
masters of the universe
and put the lie to doomsayers of old
warning that overarching ambition
heralds an ignominious fall.
Slowly we have learned to shed
simple verities we took for granted,
easy intercourse with strangers, friends
now that the very air had become a lethal conduit,
venues where we had turned for simple satisfactions –
restaurants, bars, gyms, cinemas or sports arenas –
the workplace with its endless bustle,
subway lines, airport hubs,
vacation getaways, family celebrations.
We have come to face
new trials and tribulations,
clouds of locusts,
wildfires of surreal proportions,
surging seas with cyclone after cyclone,
diluvial downpours from the pages of Gilgamesh.
Peeling away layer after layer,
we have discovered how little we had progressed
from civilization’s earlier foundations,
from the Cro-Magnons who had preceded us,
from when sheer survival as a species
sweeps away all sundry preoccupations.
The Second Wave
It was tough enough adjusting
to incessant calls to wash your hands with soap,
avoid touching your face,
remember to mask up,
stay as far away from strangers in your path
as safe distancing dictates,
work from inside your domicile when possible,
help your kids negotiate
the bargain basement classes on the screen,
and keep your sanity intact.
Now comes a second wave,
perhaps less lethal than the first, perhaps not,
where congregating together, eating out in groups,
rallying in numbers for some cause,
praying communally to some god,
are once again taboo.
This time the young, or young at heart,
are designated as the carrier group,
as overstretched hospitals and staff
prepare for yet another round of testing sites,
improvised wards and ICUs,
the mood out there darkening with the autumn sky
as folks who thought the virus was a one-season pest
learn that visitors like this
have come to call our species home.
The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.
COVID-19 has passed the official one million mark,
though we know it is a good deal higher,
for statistics are lacking or suppressed in scores of countries,
and many who die outside of hospitals and nursing homes
will not be properly reported.
Those who have lost a loved one
can pin a face, a life story,
a tragic turn of fate,
to their disappearance.
As for the millions who may be lost
in the carnage still underway
– the little father of the people was an expert in such matters –
we struggle to think of them
as more than a statistic,
given the challenge to our constricted human minds
to grasp the full significance of seven-digit numbers.
An uninvited stranger masked in red,
crashing the survivalists’ retreat
in Poe’s macabre tale,
Verdi’s masked ball,
where jealous rivalry
does in a reigning king,
a geriatric on a Kyoto bus,
face masked from hostile gaze,
as squealing kids, suitably disguised,
weave their way
along toffee-dappled streets,
and now a universal presence,
bedecking rich and poor alike
in one bold planetary sweep.
You must catch the October sun between 10 and 2,
before it begins to wane
as fog descends on the beach once again
and a breeze off the sea
sends shivers through the spine,
forcing you to hurry along.
For if temperatures are surprisingly mellow
for this time of the year,
you sense this is but a side-effect
of climate change,
even as the virus continues to eat away
at familiar things,
turning us into hermit crabs,
self-absorbed in the only world we still know,
the one contained within our shells.
You wake as the infection rate or R
ticks up another notch,
even as the morale index or M
incrementally continues to collapse.
The Horror, the Horror (For Samuel Paty)
Like a scene out of the Reign of Terror,
a decapitation in broad daylight
in a quiet suburban town
of a high school teacher who had dared to show
a caricature of the prophet Muhammad
as part of a classroom discussion of free speech
in what passes for a secular republic.
Knowing what had preceded
– the Charlie Hebdo massacre,
the rampages of ISIS and its associates
through Africa and the Fertile Crescent,
9/11 and its aftermath –
should we be in shock?
Intolerance seems to be the mantra of our era,
not only of the religious sort,
but political, ethnic and racial as well,
and one more horrific martyr
will do little to stem the spiral.
Violence pandemic like a new disease.
— W.H. Auden, “Sonnets from China,” XIX
For leaders right and left
we are at war with a pandemic
which unchecked would put our hallowed civilization
– GDP, consumer goods, jobs,
health care and vaunted pension plans –
into meltdown mode.
And well it might,
for who but a few Cassandras on the battlements
might have foretold
what zoonotic transfers might unleash?
What of the other kinds of war,
the ones that marked the century now passed,
with their mangled corpses in the muddy fields,
their incarcerated bodies,
their starving masses and burned-out towns
or closer to our age
the civil wars that rage
from the sands of the Sahel to the Afghani hills?
And what of the lies
with which puppet-masters
with their fake blond hair, military swagger,
wooden sloganeering Maoist-style,
arrogance of Sultans from yesteryear
hold populations in their sway?
So many pandemics to endure.