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Book Review: 'Together In A Sudden Strangeness' Offers Poets' Views On The Pandemic

Earlier this year, as the coronavirus began to spread across the globe, Alice Quinn reached out to American poets to see what they were writing under quarantine. The result is Together in a Sudden Strangeness, an anthology that reflects the fear and isolation the pandemic wrought, as well as the deep reflection and creativity that has come from it.

Quinn, a former poetry editor at The New Yorker, says the title is drawn from a Pablo Neruda poem, “Keeping Quiet”:

“It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.”

The works in this collection are striking in their commonality, and reading them took me back to that surreal period this past spring, when it felt like the whole world was shut down, quiet, waiting, wondering. In “Leaving Evanston,” Deborah Garrison writes about a theater student mourning the loss of live performances. In “Flowers for Tanisha,” Rachel Eliza Griffiths salutes a real-life forensic technician in New Jersey who placed daffodils on body bags in the hospital’s morgue.

I was particularly moved by this one by New York poet Edward Hirsch:

“Eight people died
on my block in Brooklyn
last week
and I didn’t know
what it meant
to be living
at one remove
from each other,
locked up
with the relentless
bad news
while ambulances
cruised the neighborhood
which was otherwise
so calm and quiet
that I wondered
if God, too,
had gone into hiding
and sheltered in place.”

First published as an ebook and audiobook last spring, the print version includes 22 additional poems inspired by the racial unrest that occurred over the summer. As we hunker down again, many of us forgoing Thanksgiving get-togethers, this anthology offers strange but needed wisdom and companionship. As is so often the case, the poets speak for all of us.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.