poetry

Not long ago, as the world was halfway into week whatever of suspended animation, a man who lives with his wife and children in the Midwest arrived in New York City. He is a writer and a musician in his early fifties. His age means that he grew up listening to the Violent Femmes and Jim Carroll, reading poems by C. K. Williams and Galway Kinnell, and writing songs about the limited options available in a small city where the interstate keeps people flowing through without stopping. He became a career military man, medically trained, who did tours in Afghanistan and other unenviable places. His latest deployment was to New York, where his expertise could be put to use saving lives and alleviating suffering in a temporary facility for coronavirus patients.

In the days after his arrival, he began documenting what he saw. Walt Whitman, nursing the sick, wounded, and dying in the Civil War hospitals of Washington, D.C., famously wrote that “the real war will never get in the books.” The military man’s notes, jotted down between fourteen-hour shifts, are glimpses into the real war currently being fought in hospitals around the world. (He has not been authorized by the military to speak to the press.)

“I am double gloved at all times and wear a gown,” he wrote, of his routine. “After I get home, every time I cough I think I have caught the virus. When I am floor leader, I have to carry a radio in case I need to call security. I always want to call just to tell them I am feeling insecure.” He is bivouacking in a high-rise hotel, the kind of place that is normally packed with tourists and honeymooners. He and his colleagues are permitted to roam no more than a few blocks in any direction. He often records his observations in verse:

New York
is a
ghost town
where
even the
birds took
the last
train
to Jersey
and
the night
rises blue
black as
an alley
cat and
my combat
boots echo
across
Broadway
like gun
shots or
a heartbeat
fading into
a silence
so complete
you can
hear the
crying
voice of
each and
every star.

He wrote about the constant threat of losing a patient:

He was
too tall
for the
Army
hospital bed
and had
an eagle
tattooed on
his arm
he was
older than
60 and
looked
like a
biker the
kind of
guy who
thought he
could still
take anybody
the kind
of guy
who loved
to tell
people he
wasn’t afraid
of anything
so it
really shook
me when
he spoke
in a
voice as
small as
my daughter’s
asking me
if he
was going
to die.

There are funny bits, too, like his anecdote about composing a cute text message to one of his kids but accidentally sending it to fifty hospital colleagues instead. “I received almost fifty return messages of love,” he wrote. “Hope at least a few actually mean it.”

He wonders how long this hitch will last, and where the virus might take him next, as it leaps from city to city. Like Whitman in the eighteen-sixties, he thinks about how future generations might see us. “When I left home,” he wrote, “I thought about what I would do when I arrived in New York: treat the sick and pray for the souls of the dead and wonder about 100 years from now, when all of this is just a fairy tale about death becoming a person who takes the form of a bat to fly across the world: the next generations’ story of the witch that eats children.” ♦

Source: www.newyorker.com/feed/everything