When we wrapped up this issue and sent it to the printer, we were already tucked away in our isolation, campus closed, photographs of its green belts and familiar icons floating around on social media from the few who stayed behind in Lubbock. One post captured the familiar red tulips that fill the flowerbeds each spring; another post, Will Rogers riding Soap Suds through the Key; and in yet another, the desert willows blooming or the wide blue sky of West Texas. These are pictures filled with objects we recognize and love, and yet they are portraits of emptiness. Not a single student or car in the background; no voices or hubbub rising forth.
At the end of every academic year, I’m glad to say farewell to Texas Tech, to flit away to some secluded mountain cabin or bustling city to get some writing done. To see my parents for an extended visit rather than a whirlwind weekend. To fill my days with to-do lists comprised of tasks I choose—writing, reading, swimming, catching foreign films at the Siskell Theater in Chicago or blockbusters at the drive-in near Lubbock, lunching at outdoor cafes with friends—rather than duties I’m assigned. But cut the year short, steal the conclusion of a semester from me, and suddenly I realize how much I adore the campus where I teach. I miss the students’ physical presence. I miss the rattle of air conditioning in my office, even in January. I miss the trek to the library or the union for lunch. I even miss those damned ubiquitous green scooters.
The pandemic has been a time of sharp awareness—what gifts and joys I possess but could easily lose. “Normal” is more fragile than we realize. Downstairs, my father, growing tinier and tinier, watches television, waiting to share a smile with me, to plan our dinner, and later, when we retire for the night, to promise that we will do it all again tomorrow. I’ve become conscious that when I read a book, go for a walk with my dog, even nap in the early afternoons, the pleasure of these activities is sharpened by the security of knowing that everyone I love in the world is still in it. This cannot always be true. At this particular moment, Americans are losing their loved ones, and everything they had imagined, even the narrative of farewell they had counted on, has been stolen from them. People are living in isolation, and they are also dying alone.
This issue reads differently to me now, the poems chosen in the fall semester when we had no idea what was coming. They seem more nostalgic to me today, filled with people and places, whether real or imagined, that the poets love. Where there was rage in them, it seems more like sorrow. Where there was sorrow, it seems more like hope. I know that we will not be able to distribute this issue as quickly as we receive it from the printer. I cannot know how soon we will be in our offices again, and I suppose, by then, these poems might transform again. But I do know, they hold up to multiple readings. I know they are capable changelings.
The cover photo is one I took during the summer of 2014, on a day when I rented a car with the help of the Chmielewski family, the sponsors of the Time and Place Prize, and drove across France, from Ouradour-sur-Glane to Brittany, in one day. I had spent the morning at Ouradour, a village the Nazis torched, its women and children held inside the church, its men cornered in the town’s stables, all 642 of them burned alive, because the Nazis suspected them, falsely, of “traitorous” behavior. Afterward, I headed northwest, back to the writer’s residency, along an isolated road and through Confolens, which I fell in love with and promised to return to some day. Outside this village were fields of sunflowers, so broad and deep I could see nothing but their nodding heads following the path of the sun. I stopped to take several photographs. I had the time then—was in the right place, with new friends kind enough to assist my travels, and the world felt secure—to travel, to witness history, to stop for photographs, to speak to strangers, to learn better a language other than my own. The privilege of it is so overwhelming now that it makes me dizzy. I cannot imagine ever again thinking of such a moment on the side of a quiet road in another country as merely normal. It was an extraordinary gift.
Maybe the world will survive Covid-19. Maybe safe travels will be feasible again. But, more importantly, maybe what I didn’t recognize as privilege will become a reality for everyone—if we work to define “normal” in significantly different ways when the world reboots. I may never see the campus of my beloved Texas Tech again, but I have known and loved her. I may not make it back to Confolens, but I was there one day, among the sunflowers; I have experienced what it feels like to imagine a joyous return rather than never meeting possibility at all. I cannot help but think all of our lives would improve if we shared possibility rather than hoarding it alone.
Buy your copy of our annual National Poetry Month Issue here for $5. Due to Covid-19 budget cuts, international readers will receive an electronic copy only.
Poetry by: george bilgere | traci brimhall | taylor byas | grant clauser | sarah cooper | chris ellery | oscar enriquez | christian anton gerard | clemonce heard | rachel mennies | sarah nance | janice northerns | cindy juyoung ok | emily pérez | doug ramspeck | anna sandy-elrod | troy varvel
In the Saddle: The IHLR Covid Digs