Social Distancing

a poem by Max Garland

Say there came a pandemic; some newsdrunk virus
set its hooks in us. And only the sky for a nurse,
arced and empty and barely even blue.

And only the musical pulse, and the several senses
for consolation, except for a stream of distant words
like waves bearing the rush, curl, and foam of elsewhere

arriving, the distant rhythm of others to bridge the gap
between head and heart, dark and day, fear and whatever
it is one feels on the brink of

when walking next to great waters, how the surf catches
and releases the light, and the waves and bones tremble
like the distant cousins of constant thunder.

We know salt tumbles eventually from ocean to body
and back, and forth. We know it takes ages to regather
the shaken self into the good world again.

I remember a ritual once where hundreds of tiny
boat-like baskets were lit and launched with prayers
and flowers and misfortunes, ignited and cast out

on the water until the bay was ablaze, a rocking
constellation of human woe uttered in small tongues
of flame, until little by little they drifted, burned,

blinked out, and then it was just dark water again,
and we all went home. Did our troubles never return?
Were we really less burdened, or better people?

What I mean is sometimes worry needs to be ignited,
launched into words, if only to blaze awhile among
flotillas of sorrows we thought were ours alone.

What I really mean, of course, is– Keep in touch.
Even if you don’t know what to say, especially
if you don’t know what to say. Kind words,

fellow castaways, mind-lit emergencies of fingertip
and tongue, float this festival of downtime and distance,
repopulate the dark with your fledgling human light.

Max Garland is the author of The Word We Used for It, winner of the 2017-18 Brittingham Prize. Previous books include The Postal Confessions. Originally from Kentucky, he is professor emeritus at UW-Eau Claire, a former Writer in Residence for the city of Eau Claire, and the former Poet Laureate of Wisconsin.