by Christina Thompson
The last issue of Harvard Review featured a pandemic editorial, and I have to say I was hoping not to write another, but here we are. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Last April, during the initial lockdown, we launched a series called Dispatches from the Pandemic, short sketches about the experience by people from all around the world. My contribution, “Lincoln,” penned just as the forsythia was coming into bloom, focused on how much trouble I was having figuring out what day of the week it was. Now, nearly a year later, I am still having this problem, but it seems I am not alone. Not knowing what day it is turns out to be one of those pandemic things, like keeping a mask in the pocket of every coat you own.
Of course there are worse things to be worried about than whether or not you’ve missed a class (even when you’re the teacher). But it does feel as though we have been living through an endless Year of Anxiety, with worries that run the gamut from cataclysmic to banal. Perhaps, after all, this is the true meaning of pandemic. As Adrienne Kennedy puts it in this issue, “Just an hour ago at lunch I asked my son / Is this the apocalypse.”
The good news is that for those of us in the northern hemisphere (and especially here in the Northeast), spring is finally in the offing. Maybe it was an especially greedy hunger this year for a change of season—change of scene, change of story—that made me notice how many gestures toward spring there are in the pieces collected here. In John Poch’s poem, “A Word Problem in Spring,” a professor watches from his window as a group of young entomologists gambol about the college quad to the sound of cellists “navigating the musical waters like three sailboats toward the same destination.” In “Honey,” Vievee Francis writes of boys who, each spring, “dared to press themselves into the bees,” allowing their shirtless bodies to become covered with the insects. Such boys, she writes, were loners, eccentrics, “boys with their own / voices in their heads. But I’d like to think it was music / they heard, the song of bees, their dislocated thrum.”
Both poems celebrate, as odes to spring so often do, the urge to be, to do, to feel, to experience, even, as in the case of the professor at his window, “to live forever instead of eating his lunch of black beans and rice and his orange for dessert.” But spring is also, writes the Bosnian/ Croatian journalist Miljenko Jergović, a time for “airing out the graves.” “Just as people go in the early spring to air out their summerhouses and their country residences,” he writes, “so Nona decided on the first Saturday in March to open the graveyard visiting season.”
What follows is a description of physical and psychic spring cleaning—pruning broken branches, brushing away cobwebs, sweeping, scrubbing, tidying up after the ravages of winter. A communal experience, it is also a time to visit with friends and relatives who have come to perform their own graveyard rituals “and so announce the beginning of another Sarajevo spring.” Then comes the twist: “There will not be many more such springs for us, but we don’t know that, nor do we think about how many graves there are already and about how our familiar world is gradually moving away from this city into the world of the spirit.”
A time of renewal, a foreshadowing of death—these two crop up again in Megan Marshall’s “Without,” an essay on memory and loss that takes as its subject a trip to Japan and the search for traces of Kamo-no-Chōmei, “a disgruntled nobleman of the Fujiwara court” who renounced the world and went to live in a ten-foot-square hut “more than six hundred years before Thoreau.” Marshall, seeking relief from both bereavement and the pandemic, turns to the work of the thirteenth-century poet and finds there a consoling combination of empathy and detachment: we are “born into dusk / and die as the day dawns, / like that foam / upon the water.” Or, in Jennifer L. Hollis’s droll take, from her essay on healing, “We are all mice racing toward a glue trap.”
Other highlights of the issue include three marvelous poems by the Japanese poet Shuri Kido, beautifully translated by Forrest Gander and Tomoyuki Endo, and two stories of New York—one by Daniel Torday in which a young Ivanka Trump (“a tall swan-necked girl about our age”) makes a cameo appearance and a classic tale by Bibi Deitz that feels like a cross between J. D. Salinger and Donna Tartt. In “Lubitsch’s Angel,” Lloyd Schwartz writes of the loss of common cultural touchstones, an issue that becomes more visible with time, while in “Futurity” Alex Marzano-Lesnevich describes a future and present that to some may seem quite new.
We have poems by Rita Dove, William Logan, and the New Zealand writer Gregory O’Brien, whose work I first published in Meanjin twenty-five years ago. We have marvelous new stories by Lauren Goodwin Slaughter and Makenna Goodman, poetry by Susan Barba, Tina Barr, Colin Channer, Dana Levin, Carol Moldaw, Pádraig Ó Tuama, and Heather Treseler, as well as new writing by Darcy Frey and Jess Row, two consummate professionals whom we are delighted to see back in the pages of Harvard Review. In closing, I want to extend a personal thank you to Miciah Bay Gault for her warm, friendly, collaborative help as guest editor on this issue and tip my hat to two longstanding friends and colleagues, Major Jackson and Judith Larsen, whose knowledge of poetry and the visual arts, respectively, brings depth, breadth, and sophistication to the work we do.
So, here’s hoping that the next time I sit down to write one of these the pandemic will be over, the office will be open, and we will be meeting again with friends in person to talk about writing and books.
Published on September 1, 2021
First published in Harvard Review 57.
First published in Harvard Review 57.