March 2020, and the drive-through COVID testing tent pops up on the other side of my fence. Our small rural hospital is my neighbor, and (without the leaves on the trees this time of year) I can see what’s going on. An opaque white canopy on aluminum posts open at both ends, like something to provide cover for a table at a farmers’ market, stands waiting for a car to drive in from the street, stop, and drive out the other side. The hospital has cleverly taken advantage of an almost empty parking lot and a small empty office building to set this up.
I first realize the tent’s purpose when I see a flash of white coming out the building door. Two people in long white coats, masks, and head gear hurry through the wet cold to what I now realize is a pickup truck under the tent. I see one white-coated arm reach into the window for a half minute, then recede. Some other small flurries of activity ensued, and then the people rustle back to the building. The pickup, its passengers a mystery to me, drives off in what I imagine as a cloud of hope and fear.
There are not many customers yet at our little drive-through, day or night. At night, the white tunnel glows under the low parking lot light. The building is dark. Nobody really knows what to do about the virus at this point, nor do we realize that we won’t for a while. The white glow addresses hope and fear. It seems to say: “We are here. You are cared for.”
When I began work on my current project a couple of years ago, I couldn’t have foreseen that this thing called COVID-19 would forestall my writing-related travel. That the locally-owned businesses of my friends would be closed, and in my town of 6,000, we would have to stand in lines to get into the grocery store. That pandemic would change everything. That instead of preparing for the windswept open vistas of the Hebrides Islands, I was watching the movements of medical testing through the open vistas of bare tree branches.
“Northern Run. A Journey Across the North Atlantic Following the Cod” is my hybrid engagement with geography—places, land, people, culture, time, the built environment and the natural, the price of salt cod. Poetry, fiction, essay, and even weather reports interweave with the landscapes of Maine, Newfoundland, and the Western Isles of Scotland. Barbados and Portugal are part of this story too, all because of salted cod. For a time, the better grades of this once plentiful fish were a delicacy in Europe, and the lesser grades were the staple food for enslaved people on West Indian sugar plantations.
I canceled two trips last year for follow-up research and immersion in Scotland and Newfoundland. Not only did I have a flight to Glasgow and places to stay lined up, but also visits to far-flung local museums and tiny libraries for chats with locals. I was looking forward to re-visiting places like the wee Ullapool Museum, where I would copy hand-written journal entries gathered in loose-leaf notebooks documenting the personal experiences of 18th-century emigration to the New World. I was planning to walk over the hills of Eigg Island again to the ruins of a long-ago sheiling—the summer pasture and hut where farmers’ daughters spent the season minding the cattle and making butter and cheese. My plans for Newfoundland later in the year were less mapped out.
The first few COVID months, I was still going strong, writing new material, organizing pieces, re-writing, calling upon my field notes from other trips. I wrote a “found” poem based on the oral histories of Newfoundland women who “made the fish” under dire circumstances. I finished a lyric essay on the spring phytoplankton bloom on the Grand Banks that starts the whole cycle of cod. And I began a short story I didn’t know I had in me. What a great time to get uninterrupted writing done, I thought!
But there were many interruptions—for example: the news, the exploding numbers, the confusion, how long it took to do simple daily tasks, the blasted putting on and taking off of masks that dug in behind my ears.
And doubt and fear kept creeping in. I wasn’t sure if I could, or should, write about salt cod in the middle of a pandemic. Was it even okay in these times to write about our personal obsessions? I mean, shouldn’t I be writing something that was needed? Shouldn’t I try to be relevant?
I Googled cases of past pandemics in Europe, like on tiny Foula Island in the Shetland archipelago, where almost the entire population of 200 was wiped out by smallpox in 1720. Residents on neighboring islands noticed they hadn’t seen any Foula boats out recently and sent a search party that found the devastation. “Okay,” I thought, “I can do something with this.”
I was doing “poet’s research,” a seemingly random searching for bright, shiny things, or dark ones, that catch the imagination. During the project, I had been drawing up “weather reports” based on internet information on a particular day in the life of some of the places I was writing about. Table headings were for latitude, temperature, wind direction and speed, local comments, and maybe the length of daylight. I decided to add a column of pandemic numbers for each location. It was somewhat tedious to pull all this information since there wasn’t consistent reporting, but I figured it would be an interesting tracking of change across the North Atlantic. By May, I was losing interest, and the hard realities of the global situation were sinking in.
Summer came, and I took advantage of all a Maine summer has to offer. I was recharging myself for my project come fall. Then the election and all that followed happened, and by then, it seemed the adrenaline of crisis after crisis had worn off. I was circling around and around the same material, the same approaches, hoping a gap would open up. As the painters might say, I was just moving my brush around the canvas, spiraling into a deep funk.
I was wandering in the wilderness—that’s not all bad, right? Visual artist Roni Horn writes about Iceland and creative wilderness: “The fact of this wilderness, the necessity of it, is basic to individual well-being.” That’s what I kept telling myself.
Then I saw a call for a poem on the theme of “outbreak.” There have been many such pandemic calls this year, but this one caused me to wail, “I want an outbreak! I want to break out of this self.” And so I began to write a new poem unrelated to my project.
Oh, how I long
for an outbreak—
a breaking out
of justice and beauty
and more than a token of love.
We’ll be like viruses leaping the globe,
spontaneous herds defying social
difference and distance, break-
airborne transmissions of despair.
Let us unmask ourselves
so we can see, really
see, the other, and know
our own faces whole again.
No longer will we isolate
our symptoms of a deeper self.
Immunity for all! Break free
from the confines of history and habit
and fear. Break
barriers! Break records! Break
out the champagne!
Fellow carriers, I ask you to trace
and embrace your contacts
so we all can break
from whatever lockdown
we may have imposed
Image at top: Linda Buckmaster, COVID Tent.
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