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This article is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.

Something Momentous like a War
Text and Pandemic
Rachel Hadas
Intertextuality, according to Wikipedia, is ‘the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text. It is the interconnection between similar or related works of literature that reflect or influence an audience’s interpretation of the text….’.

I often tell my students that intertextuality is a cumbersome and abstract word (Bernard O’Donoghue, in his Poetry: A Very Short Introduction, politely calls the term ‘rather elaborate’) for a very simple principle: that texts refer to other texts, because that’s the nature of texts – and it’s our human nature too, to connect. Admittedly, the term has its utility; it refers to something real. Nouns, however clumsy, have a function when what they’re naming exists.

But I can’t think of a good name for another principle related to reading that also certainly exists – the way texts can suddenly, urgently refer to our lives at the moment we’re reading them. Relatable, my students sometimes say. Reader-response, like intertextuality is an off-puttingly-theoretical term for a process that comes so naturally it seems intuitive; and the same might be said of receptionsaesthetik. Thich Nat Hanh’s term ‘interbeing’ comes a bit closer to what I have in mind, as does, if I understand it, the notion of cosmic interdependence to which the term ‘Indra’s Net’ refers. Neither interbeing nor Indra’s Net refers particularly to reading, but both terms signify a vision that embraces everything, so that any tiny thing – a leaf, a bug, a tear, a breath of wind, or a paragraph – can encompass and call up immensity. Nothing’s irrelevant, nothing should be dismissed; everything somehow fits, and everything merits our attention – and more than merits it, commands it.

Thus I could be thinking about any phenomenon at all – but here I’m thinking about reading. Maybe the term I want is connectivity – not my favorite, but it may have to do.

When we connect something we’re reading to our lives, the author’s conscious intention in writing a passage may have nothing to do with the use to which we put that passage – that is, the meaning or pleasure we derive from it, the life-shaped slot into which we can’t help tucking it. In the case of a passage from Homer or Shakespeare, for example, chronology clearly rules out the author’s intentionally inserting the precise meaning that the reader then extracts, since that reader was unborn when the text was written. And yet to say that the writer’s intention has nothing to do with the reader’s interpretation isn’t the whole story. For that ‘nothing to do with’ overlooks the salient fact of the shared humanity of writer and reader across time and space. Whitman captures this gap, and bridges it, in ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’, where he addresses readers of the future in terms of the human experience that connects him to them: ‘time avails not, distance avails not.’

Whatever the writer’s intention, which is often unrecoverable or unknown even while that writer is still alive, readers cannot help making these connections, these leaps across time and space. And this connectivity is especially likely to happen, we’re especially likely to pounce upon a nugget of meaning, if we’re experiencing a difficult patch in our own lives. When you’re bereaved, you see grief and loss everywhere. A Rutgers colleague of mine, a Renaissance scholar who had often taught Macchiavelli’s The Prince, found that he read it differently after the sudden death of his wife. Now he was looking for clues about Machiavelli’s attitude to emotion – even though, as he dryly puts it, ‘The Prince has yet to be assigned reading for anybody experiencing grief’.

Another unexpected example of connectivity came in a letter I recently received about a poem of mine, ‘Love and Dread’. The poem is about lots of themes – joy and terror, the beginning and the end of life. The writer of this very kind letter had been making a practice of thanking poets, among them me, for ‘words that have added meaning to my experience’. She went on to assure me that ‘I don’t presume that in this poem you’re literally discussing sobriety, but as I read it I can’t help thinking about how I felt after my first few recovery meetings…’. Certainly an unexpected connection. But if my phrases in the poem ‘the clamor of chaos everywhere’ and ‘life bestows gifts past expectation’ meant something specific to this young woman in the light of her own powerful experience, so much the better. Meaning in poetry – in literature – has the same generative and self-renewing quality as names do, or anything that one can keep and pass on at the same time.

Examples of this kind of connectivity could be multiplied (why, for example, do lovers like to read love poems?). But I want to move to connectivity in the context of the overwhelming experience we’ve all been sharing to one degree or another for – is it only three months? The principle is the same: we can’t help connecting a great deal of what we’re reading or rereading to what’s going on in and beyond our lives, especially when what’s going on is so powerful.

Since the middle of March, I know I have not been alone in experiencing a feeling that one of my students captured eloquently in her final exam in April: ‘events that seem… unrealistic and imaginary can actually happen’. On the one hand, fiction suddenly seems more plausible; but by the same token, life feels closer to fiction – and to poetry. These days we read both fiction and poetry differently; and we connect them more closely with our own experience. And this difference, this new alertness to connections, applies not only when we’re reading the Iliad or Thucydides or Boccaccio or Defoe or Camus. Of course the larger situation of a plague descending on a city or country or the whole world is something we’re now hypervigilant for, hypersensitive to. But much smaller details also become something to pause over. Or, rather, they reach out and grab us as we read.

I became acquainted with this sensation some fifteen years ago, when I was first attempting to digest the massive and unpalatable reality of my then husband’s dementia. His insidious illness had been diagnosed only after years of willful blindness (my denial, his denial, everyone’s denial). Cavafy’s poem ‘Walls’ took on a dire new meaning.

With no consideration, no pity, no shame,
they have built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind –
because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they have closed me off from the outside world.
       (Translated by Edmund Keeley)

And in answer to the inevitable questions trouble and illness provoke – Why this suffering? Who’s to blame? Why now? – Hardy’s ‘The Subalterns’, a poem I stumbled on at this same period of my life, gave me these indelible stanzas:

‘To-morrow I attack thee, wight’,
       Said Sickness. ‘Yet I swear
I bear thy little ark no spite,
       But am bid enter there.’   

‘Come hither, Son’, I heard Death say;
       ‘I did not will a grave
Should end thy pilgrimage to-day,
        But I, too, am a slave!’

We smiled upon each other then,
        And life to me had less
Of that fell look it wore ere when
        They owned their passiveness.

Those poems read one way to me in 2005 and 2006; then they went out of focus for a while. Now they’re back, with a vengeance. Cavafy’s insidious walls convey the claustrophobic feeling of lockdown – ‘they have closed me off from the outside world’. More than that, the sly inconspicuousness with which the walls were built (and just who are ‘the builders’?) recalls the stealthy progress of the virus, moving around the globe while we all ‘had so much to do outside’. Similarly, Hardy’s personified yet bureaucratically impersonal Sickness, which has nothing against us but is ‘bid’ to ‘enter’ us, could well be COVID-19.

Part of what I’m describing here is the way texts renew themselves for us again and again, depending on the situation. Some examples are spiced with incongruity. Currently, rereading Henry James’s novella The Spoils of Poynton, I’ve been struck by a sentence that I hadn’t remembered, or had never noticed, on a first reading many years before: ‘She couldn’t leave her own house without peril of exposure.’ James uses infection as a metaphor; but what happens to a metaphor when we’re living in a world where we literally can’t leave our houses without peril of exposure?

Ever since Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, we’ve often been cautioned not to liken the experience of illness to fighting a battle. But what if, as many people including my dental hygienist neighbor have pointed out, the process of donning PPE does indeed resemble arming for battle with a fearsome enemy? And we’ve all gotten used to talking about people serving on the front lines. War and pandemic, pandemic and war; it’s hard to read (or talk) about one without thinking of the other. In Anthony Powell’s novel Temporary Kings, set in the 1950s, the narrator muses about what it is that attracts people to reunions with old companions from the war. But as the phrasing at the outset makes clear, the reunion phenomenon (‘How was your war?’) extends beyond shared military experience:

When something momentous like a war has taken place, all existence turned upside down, personal life discarded, every relationship reorganized, there is a temptation, after all is over, to return to what remains of the machine, examine such paraphernalia as came one’s way, pick about among the bent and rusting composite parts, assess merits and defects.

Rereading this passage recently, I immediately connected ‘something momentous’ to the pandemic. Not that everyone’s personal life has been discarded; but ‘all existence turned upside down’ seems pretty applicable, as does that temptation many of us, and not only editorialists, politicians, and academic administrators, are already feeling to look back, ‘after all is over’ (which isn’t yet), ‘to return to what remains of the machine’. We’ll be looking at institutions and at society; we’ll be asking each other ‘How was your quarantine?’; ‘What was the pandemic like for you?’.

Even before ‘all is over’, our momentous experience right now (Powell’s adjective fits our current situation perfectly) makes us look at texts differently – and also look back differently at texts we thought we knew. Given passages can come to seem uncannily proleptic. In March, when the ugly and inaccurate term ‘social distancing’ swiftly became part of our daily vocabulary and directed our daily behavior, I was reminded of the celebrated passage in the Odyssey where Odysseus, visiting the underworld, encounters the shade of his mother. He wants to hug her:

How I longed
To embrace my mother’s spirit, dead as she was!
Three times I rushed toward her, desperate to hold her,
Three times she fluttered through my fingers, sifting away
Like a shadow, dissolving like a dream, and each time
The grief cut to the heart, sharper, yes, and I,
I cried out to her, words winging into the darkness:
‘Mother – why not wait for me? – How I long to hold you! –
so even here, in the house of Death, we can fling
our loving arms around each other, take some joy
in the tears that numb the heart.’
       (Odyssey XI 233–45, tr. Robert Fagles)

This passage, imitated by Virgil when Aeneas, visiting the underworld, encounters the shade of his father, no longer seemed ‘unrealistic and imaginary’, in my student’s words. On the contrary, it described and still describes an experience that more and more people came to feel viscerally when it was a question of loved ones far away, or even not so far away but as physically inaccessible as the dead. The trouble with Zoom is that it doesn’t allow hugs. Only today, an article in the New York Times suggested some relatively safe hugging modalities, because we human beings so manifestly need to hug and to be hugged.

This visceral ache, this tug of war between emotional and physical need and distance, is the subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets 46 and particularly 47. I quote only the latter, though both should be read together; the astonishing line in 46, which refers to the heart as ‘A closet never pierc’d with crystal eyes’, is worth a lot of thought in our glassy era:

Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took,
And each doth good turns now unto the other.
When that mine eye is famish’d for a look
Or heart in love with sighs himself doth smother,
With my love’s picture then my eye doth feast,
And to the painted banquet bids my heart.
Another time mine eye is my heart’s guest,
And in his thoughts of love doth share a part.
So either by thy picture or my love,
Thyself away are present still with me;
For thou no farther than my thoughts canst move,
And I am still with them, and thee with thee;
Or if they sleep, thy picture in my sight
Awakes my heart to heart’s and eye’s delight.

If for ‘heart’ we substitute something like ‘emotional need’ or ‘longing’ or even ‘the desire to reach out and touch’, this poem perfectly captures the frustrating dilemma of feeling ‘famished for a look’ – and yet how satisfying can a ‘painted banquet’, ‘love’s picture’, a mere visual, be?

That same sense of the hungry gaze, which seems so wrenchingly relevant to our current state of separation, is the subject of a wonderful paragraph in a student’s recent answer to a question on a take-home exam about how the pandemic had affected her sense of what she was reading. In discussing Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Chelsea is of course referring to a text which has an intertextual relationship to the Odyssey. But she goes one step further, away from Homer and straight into Atwood and thence to 2020:

In examining the quarantine aspect of this pandemic, I felt a resemblance to deceased Penelope in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. Every day we are forced to stay within the confines of our own homes; restricted from the outside world and only connected by what seems to be a window looking out. In this way, I feel the same way Penelope did when she peered out from the underworld: ‘Every once in a while the fogs part and we get a glimpse of the world of the living. It’s like rubbing the glass on a dirty window, making space to look through.’ (Atwood 17) Like Penelope, we are trapped behind the fog of anxiety and the unseen attacks of the virus itself. All we can do is remain trapped inside our own homes and hope the fog parts every so often to see the light the world has to offer.

By referring to a passage in Atwood’s novel which (departing from Atwood’s intertextual dependence on Homer) turns out to have a subtle and poignant relevance to our present moment, Chelsea elegantly illustrates an unexpected and powerful connection between a text and life as lived right now.

In her 1926 essay ‘On Being Ill’, Virginia Woolf ponders: ‘one would have thought that novels… would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache.’ A passage in this essay anticipates the image in The Penelopiad which reminded my student Chelsea of the deprivations of quarantine. Woolf compares the sick person to someone gazing disconsolately through a smudged pane of glass – except that instead of a window, the glass appears to be the body which encases the besieged soul: ‘The creature within can only gaze through the pane – smudged or rosy ; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant.’

Woolf is here describing the experience of illness from within; Penelope in The Penelopiad is telling us how the dead can occasionally catch glimpses of the living; and Chelsea is evoking the sensation of a healthy person who is cooped up. From their respective angles, all three passages approach one experience: the sensation of being isolated, even imprisoned – a way of living which in our current pandemic is one of the ways we can try to protect ourselves.

That sense of isolation as protection came up for me recently with wry urgency in an unexpected place – but then many overlaps between text and life do seem to emerge in unexpected places. Putting in a vegetable garden earlier this spring, we were reminded that a large woodchuck, familiar to us from past years (unless it was some woodchuck forbear we remembered), was living under an old apple tree at the far end of the vegetable patch. Once we started looking and asking, lore about woodchucks turned out, of course, to be abundant – how many doors their burrows have; how hard they are to get rid of; various repellants one might try. Then I remembered that Robert Frost has a poem about woodchucks.

‘A Drumlin Woodchuck’ begins in the first person but soon switches to third. By the fourth of this poem’s eight quatrains, the woodchuck is speaking not only for all woodchucks but also very possibly for all creatures who are intent on surviving. In a time of holing up or hunkering down or sheltering in place – choose your phrase – the woodchuck’s way of coping has a lesson for everyone. Here are the poem’s final three stanzas:

And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),

I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,

It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

It was easy to see the relevance of the final two lines. But only on a fifth or sixth reading did I finally notice the word ‘pestilence’. Born in 1874, Frost lived through both the First World War and the 1918 pandemic. It seems entirely possible that the hunt thundering past ‘with double-barreled blast’ while the woodchuck prudently stays underground is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or at least two of those four horsemen.

Because I wasn’t expecting ‘A Drumlin Woodchuck’ to be about a pandemic, I was struck first by the poem’s preoccupation with shelter and survival, whether on the animal or the human levels. But pestilence is there too, and war and pestilence are more threatening to people than they are to woodchucks. (Katherine Anne Porter’s 1939 novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider is about, precisely, those two of the four apocalyptic horsemen.) By 1936, when ‘A Drumlin Woodchuck’ was collected in his volume A Further Range, Frost had survived both war and pestilence; ‘instinctively thorough’ about sheltering, he was still there. The place where my husband and I have been holing up, or hunkering down, happens to be in rural Vermont. A local friend recently reminded me that ‘woodchuck’ is an affectionate (or more or less affectionate?) term for a Vermonter.

It’s one thing, as one reads, to come upon texts from Homer to Frost that seem to pertain to our present crisis. To find such proleptic passages in one’s own recent work is something else again. Or is it? I observed earlier that an author’s intention is hard to discern even during their lifetime. More than that , the author may well be uncertain of her own intention in writing what she wrote. Maybe there was no conscious, specific intention – which is one reason poets, and maybe other writers too, dislike being asked ‘What were you trying to say?’.

So I’d like to close by pivoting from my reading of other people’s writing, and seeing how that writing connects to our COVID moment, to considering a few of the poems I wrote before March 2020. My intention in these earlier poems, whatever that intention was, isn’t the point; their uncanny relevance is.

My poems draw a lot – not exclusively, but a lot – from dream imagery. Dreams and some poems share a charged, ambiguous space between past and future. Like the Mirror of Galadriel in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, both can seem to show a vivid picture of something, an image that captures some essential truth. But whether that picture belongs to the past, present, or future isn’t easy to tell. The prophet Calchas is described early in the Iliad as one who knows what is, what will be, and what was; dreams can seem to work that way too.

Of the poems I wrote in 2018 and 2019 that I’ve been returning to, those that seem to fit into what is now a present and what was then a future reflect two preoccupations; contain two sets of images. Naturally, both these preoccupations originally connected to realities other than the pandemic, but as they read now both are all too easily applicable to the pandemic.

In April 2019, I fell and hurt my leg. Waiting in an ER cubicle to be X-rayed, I turned on the tiny television angled above my bed – and there was Notre Dame in flames. Was the tiny glassy image even real? In a poem entitled ‘Same Screen’, which owes nothing to dreams but plenty to reality recalled, I recall a couple of experiences of glassy remoteness, beginning with the food at Horn and Hardart’s Automat, when I used to be taken there as a child, displayed behind thick glass windows and ending with Hart Crane’s line from ‘To Brooklyn Bridge’: ‘Foretold to other eyes on the same screen.’ My poem also remembers the line from Ionesco’s absurdist play The Bald Soprano: ‘a stone caught fire.’ How could a stone burn? And yet there was Notre Dame before my eyes, on fire – or rather, an image of Notre Dame on a small screen. ‘Same Screen’, which was written in April and May 2019, had a refrain: ‘Behind glass, behind glass.’ I couldn’t know at the time that behind glass, the same screen, would come in less than a year to be where much of life was conducted.

Several poems I wrote in 2018 and 2019 are grappling both with my experiences in the classroom and with my knowledge that in not very many more years, I’d be retiring. How did that knowledge feel? The poems give a clear picture of cloudy feelings, and they all do draw on dream imagery. ‘Teaching the Tigers’ accurately depicts a dream-derived image of a large and somewhat unruly class I was teaching at the time, all facing me, all masked. The poem reads in part:

Arms folded, wearing tiger masks,
students sit. Questions? No one asks.

Loss and grief, exile, return:
How much of it can they take in?

The Iliad: to go to war.
The Odyssey: and come back home.

Epic’s relentless forward motion,
lyric’s gossamer attention,

adventure parsed as allegory,
the iterations of the story,

and then to choose the right translation
for a fearful generation.

May poetry keep finding ways
of piercing the miasmal haze

and reclaiming a clear space
behind each young and guarded face

and washing through the walls that hide
whatever’s bubbling inside.

The masks, the miasma, the walls that need to be pierced, the fear, the guardedness – they’re all here. Coincidence? Very possibly.

In ‘Tiger Stripes’, the tiger masks of the previous poem seem to melt and morph into one tiger, languorous and lazy, prowling the streets of a deserted city, where the one named building is the Anxiety Hotel. I know a dream contributed to this poem too, but I don’t recall it as well as I do the tiger mask dream. Did the images of the empty city come from this second dream? I don’t remember. But read now, the poem is about disruption, melting down. The concluding stanzas read:

Camouflage stripes of gold and brown:
the tiger world is melting down.
Caught in a beam of morning sun,
massive transitions are going on,
each nation and each generation
vying for who will take possession
of the Hotel Anxiety.
(Who wants to manage it? Not me).
Who gets to stay? Who has to go?
Process laborious and slow.
Who moves ahead? Who stays behind?
Musclebound combatants grunt and grind.
Who’s the owner? Who’s the heir?
And will the fearful future care?

Striped camouflage of grey and black:
there’s never any turning back.
Once the place is emptied out,
what was all the fuss about?
The fissures in the family,
the rivalry, the enmity:
door now ajar, each vacant suite,
blank windows staring at the street,
hotel abandoned, no life left –
we barely even feel bereft.

Camouflage stripes of grey and brown,
the tiger world is winding down.
Disruption on a local scale –
no one is forwarding the mail.
Shadows slide down a blank wall.
Our hotel is very small.
The stripes are vibrating: illusion,
the camouflage of our confusion.
The cat sits up and licks his paws.
We’re all obedient to laws
too big to assimilate.
It’s still early. And it’s late.

The fearful future (that word ‘fearful’ again); the world melting or winding down; the vacant suite with its blank windows; disruption; the small hotel; the laws too big to assimilate. What did I have in mind when I wrote this poem? I’m not sure. It’s tempting, though, however impossible it would be to prove, to say the coming ‘invisible’ pandemic, after an ‘interlude out of sight / curled up away from noise and light’, had me in mind, was writing through me. We’re told that viruses have no character, no consciousness, no purpose except to replicate. But my own fearful subconscious seemed to be aware of a not-human force inexorably approaching.

Another dream-based poem I wrote in 2019 also features emptied-out spaces. A leopard pads down the aisle of a classroom; the tiger-masked students reappear (in bringing them back, I was most likely referring not to a dream but to my earlier poem). Is ‘The Last Lecture Hall’ such a valedictory poem because I was mulling over endings? From the vantage point of June 2020, as I write this and as college administrators struggle with impossible decisions about reopening their institutions in the fall, the lastness isn’t the farewell of a departing professor but an elegiac vision of a space that is itself on the way out, or that will be transformed. ‘The Last Lecture Hall’ reads in part:

Theaters that were never ours,
classrooms empty and refill.

We cross the stage and disappear…
The empty theater becomes

a lecture hall…
Tiger-masked students fill the seats

of the amphitheater...

Lights go on in the theater.
We stumble out. Class is over.

As schools and colleges struggle to achieve social distancing, lecture halls may well be replaced by amphitheaters.

In early February 2020, a dream that didn’t make it into a poem presented me with the image of a hospital bed somewhere deep within the marble bowels of Columbia’s Low Library. Less than two months later, some colleges were being asked to fill their dorm rooms with hospital beds.

It might be said that the images in my dreams, like the images in all dreams, are archetypal, nonspecific; this may well be. Certainly the dreams, like all dreams, are capable of multiple interpretations. Like most dreams, these present a series of vivid images rather than story lines. Nevertheless, the proleptic aptness of some of the images these dreams fished up remains remarkable.

All these dreams of mine, dreams I only remember because I spun poems out of them, seem so vividly congruent with the waking world as it manifested after the poems were written. Likewise, all the texts I’ve been considering here could easily translate into the realm of dreams. In this period of pandemic, our lives feel bafflingly double: nightmarish and yet quotidian, outlandish yet bound by routine, unimaginable and yet pressingly real, severely limited in space but curiously fluid as to time. Stuck in the ‘very small’ Anxiety Hotel, we can still read, and dream, and remember. Bounded in a nutshell, we can, for moments at least, count ourselves a king of infinite space. Unable to see our friends except on a glassy screen, we can feel companioned by the throngs of predecessors who somehow saw this moment approaching (didn’t they?), and who wrote about it.

This article is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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