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It's that little souvenir of a terrible year
Which makes my eyes feel sore
Oh I never should have said the books that you read
Were all I loved you for
So the Sundays sing from the free-floating ‘90s in “Here’s Where the Story Ends.” But angsty, melancholy pop music, like much of popular culture, seems to wilt away in the face of a truly terrible year like 2020. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives to the coronavirus, and millions more have been seriously ill. Dining out, having a drink at the bar, catching a movie at the theater, going to a party, shopping without a mask—these seem like memories from a different life in an enchanted past. George Floyd was the latest innocent civilian murdered by police, repeating the tragedies of Philando Castile and Justine Damond; rioters gutted Lake Street, and Uncle Hugos was burned down. Wild fires and hurricanes, exacerbated by climate changes brought about by human activity, ravaged much of the southeast and west. And our current president is not only nasty, unscrupulous and corrupt—he’s obviously delusional.
“There is no greater sorrow,” Dante tells us, “than to recall in misery the time when we were happy.” And so films and TV shows from the pre-pandemic era, meant to be suspenseful or spooky or emotionally wrenching, spark only a wistful nostalgia, as we watch the characters living free-wheeling, carefree lives, and the only masks being worn are by the doctors in Grey’s Anatomy.
Yet literature somehow remains true to itself, even in plaguetime. Boccaccio’s introduction to the Decameron, for example, describing the Black Death in Florence (a third of the population is estimated to have died) makes COVID19 seem like child’s play. The battles in War and Peace, Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage prospects, Holden Caulfield’s mental breakdown, even Harry Potter’s study of magic—they still seem important and even vital. And above all, poetry still feels relevant—perhaps more now than ever. Michigan poet Theodore Roethke might have been describing the current mood in his piece “In a Dark Time”:
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
Roethke suffered from manic depression, and was prone to mental breakdowns. Perhaps his whole life felt, to him, like one long pandemic. As for myself, one with less talent but greater mental stability, the past year has been akin to a gentle retreat to a monastic community. All the same, I’m looking forward to kicking 2020 out of my life, the way we just gave the boot to Donald Trump, and meeting loved ones—including our Whistling Shade editors—in person again. Heck, maybe I’ll even attend a poetry reading. Remember those? Until then, here’s a healthy does of poetry, stories and memoir to fortify the soul against a dark time.
- Joel Van Valin