Intimations of Mortality

Thomas Centolella’s pandemic poem 

Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth

I thought the teacher had to be kidding.

Come up with eight moments of immortality.

First of all, wouldn’t one moment do?

Second of all, I was already working al fresco,

painting window-sized blossoms of velvety burgundy

and buttery yellow against a background of emperor green.

I was like Picasso in the documentary, wild-eyed,

always in motion, master of the fluid hand.

I wasn’t yet like Pollock, who had entered so deeply

the canvas spread on his studio floor he couldn’t get back

to a simple cup of coffee. Teacher was breaking for lunch

but first she looked me in the eye. Eight moments. Immortality.

Did I pick up a glint of mischief, or was it something more

serious? Can you be cryptic and condescending

at the same time? I supposed you could. It didn’t matter

this was a dream—I had my assignment. When I woke up

to the larger dream, I thought of my own students,

each sequestered in their rooms, which I hoped

hadn’t taken on the dimensions of a prison cell

or one of Dante’s infernal circles. All we had to do

was wait out the pandemic together

with generosity and humour and whatever creativity

we could muster. All we had to do was flatten the curve

of the infection rate, including the newly perished

who, through no fault of their own, had died alone

out of sheer arrogance and incompetence and fear,

and who would not be honoured with a proper burial,

their caskets stacked like cords of wood

in the empty churches. I wondered how soon I’d get sick

of sheltering in place, of wearing gloves and a mask

to the corner store, of cursing the hoarders and the empty shelves,

of gorging myself on too many statistics. And touch,

without which we’d be spectral sadness, touch had become

something to shun: the automatic hug, a homely doorknob,

even my own face. This was the larger dream

turned nightmare, and all any of us wanted

was to return to normal, whatever that was. It seemed

there was nothing more loved. Not even the immortal.