Thomas Centolella’s pandemic poem
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.