Published on September 17th, 2020 | by Carla Rachel Sameth0
Pandemic poetry: Carla Sameth on pacing and practicing the trumpet
asking myself is it
Happy Hour yet? Today, only 3:50 pm
and I couldn’t quite get those 16th notes right.
Take it to the ninth* my trumpet teacher tells me
and when you don’t know if you’ll be wearing a mask
or hoping for a spare ventilator or simply scrounging for the right
ingredients, faring much better than those folks living
in the tent cities your wife steps around each day on the way
to work to her shit job–it seems we might all take
it to the ninth. And yet the lips tire out and the breath
gets short too short to hit the high notes, anything above an E,
really, let’s be honest.
They say in Ecuador the bodies are just lying on the street,
my wife tells me in the morning. And walking across the street
mouth and nose covered by makeshift masks (we aren’t
makers, no sourdough starter here, this is inverted underwear),
we are almost hit by a car; she pulls me back
and the blue Ford 350 speeds through the red light.
What about the foster kids who aged out and have
nowhere to go? I ask and my wife says she can’t
think of one more thing to worry about. I imagine
soon everyone will take it to the ninth
if they are still alive and believe that the high
notes still matter.
Is it Happy Hour yet, almost four pm but the phone
stays surly silent. Wife will arrive later, dispose
of clothes, sterilize first, hope she hasn’t brought
anything home, later give me a kiss. Instagram
has cocktail hours and virtual dance parties
I don’t attend. Instead, I wonder where are all my friends?
Know the truth: I’m sure I’m not the only one
seeking oblivion. And if what if there
is no longer a proper way to end a poem, epics that just go
on and on. Still, you can’t help but hope that inspiration
will beat out boredom and you won’t be too damn hot
behind that balaclava mask come summer
to take it to the ninth.
My wife offers to give my son one of her balaclavas only to realize
a young Black man wearing one is a target, just like when he
was holding the huge wire-cutters to break into our garage that time
our key was in Europe and kittens were being birthed inside.
It’s 4:05 pm—I’m waiting
for an invite. I read the warning label: Watch out for signs
of Virus Fatigue like drinking alone early in the day and cutting
everything up in your house to make masks though you’ll never
leave the house again.
*By taking it to the ninth, one goes beyond the more comfortable tonalities that exists when the player stops at the 8th degree of the major scale. Taking it to the ninth adds a bit of tension that makes music so much more interesting… then it can resolve, if so desired, back to the 8th degree (the octave) and the tension is resolved. Tension and release is really a fundamental aspect of all great music, but in jazz, even more so…. the listener doesn’t have to know what is happening theoretically, but they can tell something is “going on.” – Bill Bing
Pandemic Pacing: 20 Steps in the Early Days
1. It seems like everyone’s making their own sourdough starter. Teaching their poodles
how to write a triolet, writing symphonies, or finally trimming their own nose hairs
so they won’t touch their faces. I’m not, stuck wondering how long before
wife brings the virus home.
2. Teacher friends scramble to learn about teaching online, while juggling childcare
their own kids unhappy clamoring captives, blank squares on screen.
3. How many babies will be born in nine months, or are people too afraid to fuck? At night, my wife and I hold each other tight and I wake up to restlessly lower the thermostat or write down a stray dream.
4. Wonder if we’ll see our relatives and the ones we love only in pictures? If babies have to be taught to ask for less, to not smile or reach out, tiny fingers wanting to grab onto a human that must be six feet away.
5. Maybe we’ll make up new verbs and translate wild parrot songs to Mandarin. Those with schedule fever will rise at six am to start their day, make breakfast, then homeschooling and go to bed early to stick with routine.
6. I roam my small house at all hours and plan foraging trips, inventing new uses for wild lavender and rosemary, look for secret deliveries of paper goods to the Big Lots around the corner on Lake Avenue.
7. Hear sirens all day and night. In earlier times, I imagined my mom or dad or son, the 911 call, the sirens. Imagined, my son overdosing, eyes rolled back, a parent choking, collapsing, pneumonia, distended belly, no breath, no breath. My son as a baby, a young boy, stopped breath from croup, from asthma. But outgrew his asthma as he got older, got sober when he was 18. And both my parents are dead.
8. I imagine all those others, the industrious, making their sourdough, learning new languages and writing novels. While I binge-watch episodic TV, only at night, but into the wee hours, as if we had no time and must finish when what we have is nothing but. Lots of time. And gone are my days of children at home or in rehab, parents alive, in assisted living or the hospital. Still I’ll imagine the day long, interminable, when I first wake up. The vast store of blank canvas ahead of me while others, like my wife, part of the tribe unknown “essential workers” risk their lives at low wage jobs.
9. Vow to complete those put-off projects: the application for Canadian citizenship before the borders are completely closed to Americans, finally making the photo album of my son’s Bar Mitzvah, which took place more than ten years ago. All the undone when single mommying and working ate up all my time.
10. I don’t make sourdough bread and I don’t get to the Canadian citizenship application though the quarantine’s not over yet. I’m missing my 24-year-old son’s poetry book he wrote in second grade and the garage is still full of moist boxes of writing, lives momentarily discarded in the rush of moves.
11. I change up ingredients, instructions and amounts to bake mango, strawberry bread
that falls down and dinner recipes from the NY Times that only take 40 minutes but take me a few hours. Hoping the curry chicken breast with chickpeas and spinach
will quell my wife’s pounding chest as she asks the hoards of unmasked officers
to step back from her desk and one says, “How about I just hug you?”
12. My son one of the many millions whose industry shut down when he was just getting
started. Bring him chicken and pork adobo, chocolate chip oatmeal cookies,
handing to him, masked and gloved.
13. Still I manage to mourn, to miss a real face other than my wife’s (which I quite like). I miss those dear friends, family, close up front and personal. Wonder if I’ll keep seeing my son, which expands our circle of contact exponentially, his two roommates and their friends. His best friend (my surrogate son), and his roommates and their friends, his good friend S., her roommates, her friends and that’s a math problem I won’t solve but I know the equation.
14. They are stockpiling eggs now, but did you know they are also hoarding chicks? Yesterday, I spoke by phone with one of my Bay Area cousins and we related our futile trips for toilet paper. We stop and marvel. “Yes, our grandparents.” Could be their conversations about food lines and rationing. And the dead.
15. I think about writing “Love in the Time of Covid-19” for the New York Times “Modern Love” column but it’s already been written and sounds too much like another essay of mine, “Love in the Time of Foreclosures” I wrote in 2009. A new twist. No more passionate clinging to impossible love. No more wild sex. Skin to skin.
16. Woe to the weddings and funerals and first year birthday parties. The book launches and all the rest. The baby namings and the britot. But we could have done without that well-attended bris we had for my baby boy back in the day. The next day after that bris, a good friend and his friend arrived a day late. “You have to bury the foreskin,” they insisted and his friend said, “Give it to me, I’ll do it.” I gave him the little patch of foreskin. Now I imagine a huge bean stalk with a giant grown penis in the back hill behind that house on Escarpa Drive where we once lived.
17. I digress.
18. At two am this morning, I’m scrawling lines of poems and random thoughts, spoiled dreams and a lone to-do list. I still haven’t looked up recipes as I’d planned. And I’ll never bake sourdough bread or make my own starter. Tomorrow, we have a forager day planned to look for paper goods, sanitizer, milk and eggs.
19. At three am, it’s time to sleep again or try. After all there is now a daily eight am Zoom meditation on my schedule.
20. All I want is to hold the ones I love, not elbow bump, but I guess I’ll be lucky if I’m not
looking for a place to scatter their ashes. And I think death is a lame way to end this poem, gratitude for survival even sappier though
“Each Day” was previously published in Sheltering in Place (chapbook anthology), Staring Problem Press