A 21st Century Plague: Poetry from a Pandemic
Edited by Elayne Clift
70 Poems ~ 110 Pages
Price: $24.95 Paperback ~ $9.99 ebook
Publisher: University Professors Press
ISBN: 978-1-939686-76-3 print
ISBN: 978-1-939686-77-0 ebook
To Order: www.universityprofessorspress.com

Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

In the summer of 2015 I was present at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, when U.S. Poet Laurette Juan Philipe Herrera gave a reading. At that reading Herrera, remarked “When people are hurting, they don’t ask, ‘Do you have a sermon?’ They don’t ask, ‘Do you have a song?’ Instead they ask, ‘Do you have a poem?’ ” I shall never forget the impact that remark had on my life. I have no idea if editor Elayne Clift had ever heard that specific saying by Herrera or not. However, it is apparent that Clift’s heart is committed to its meaning. A 21st Century Plague is part of the Poetry, Healing, and Growth series published by University Professors Press. There have been 11 previous anthologies all with the same goal: healing and growth targeted toward specific people groups. Therein lies the significant of Herrera’s observation. People need poetry; poetry plays a key role in ministering to the needs of hurting people. Thus, our purpose as practitioners of the craft. Thank you, Juan and Elayne.

The volume’s dedication sets the stage:       

“For the health professionals, the essential workers, the bereaved families, and friends,
the recovered victims and all who tirelessly support them.”

“Plagues,” by Rai d’Honore, is the perfect lead poem emphasizing as it does, that today’s 21st century plague left no one untouched. Here is an excerpt:

        The black Death it was called, the bubonic plague,
        As nasty a death as can be,
        From India, Persia, and Africa,
        It sailed across the sea.
        On the back of rats, so quickly passed,
        By the bite of an infected flea,
        The lymph nodes swelled, the pustules grew,
        The disease on a rapid spree.

Clift’s editing skills rise to the top as the collection develops its plague coverage in a rough chronology discernible by titles: “Anger in the Time of Covid,” “The Long Summer,” “Early Days,” “Lockdown Day’s, Early Spring 2020.” It is possible to pre-read the table of contents and flip to poems that jibe with a particular interest readers may have.

Once Covid-19 appears on the stage of history, as previewed by d’Honore’s poem, who answers the call to provide care? Ginny Lowe Connors’ tender poem “Her Eyes” provides the answer:

        Above the mask, behind the face shield,
        her eyes are huge; they’re falling out of her head.
        They’re red-rimmed, gritty, glassy.

        She yearns to close them. Open or closed,
        there is so much she can’t unsee.
        It’s required of her—to witness

        this human devastation. And will anything she does
        make a difference? She tightens the mask.

Connors, an ICU nurse, develops with uncommon pathos, her experience with the hurting, the confused, the dying.

Some of the best poets writing today offer keen insights. Marge Piercy’s “Are You Lonely or Bored Tonight?” engages the despair-factor in this excerpt:

        We balance desire and risk daily
        during this plague year. Which
        friends do we dare to see? Which
        we can’t see at all—they live elsewhere

        and traveling is dangerous. They
        are in essential jobs so their
        health has to come secondary.
        They take chances we won’t.

The pandemic has included (and continues to do so) many nuanced changes and pressures upon our lives: Quarantine, testing, distancing, depression, feelings of helplessness, the sense of being held captive, new ways of educating our children, political upheaval, violence, and concerns about free expression of faith, comprise but a partial listing. In the face of all of this, Alison Stone asks, “What If I Admitted I like It”:

        Not illness and death, of course.
        Not people bankrupt and starving,
        not the bills I have no way to pay.
        Not the crisis, but the quiet—
        my dog and I alone on clean dawn streets.
        My teen daughters home for every meal.
        Time at night to look for patterns in the stars.
        Can we keep some of this when businesses open?

        or will we barrel forward, even faster than before
        to make up for lost time?
        Will the lions taking naps on roads
        fade into myth along with neighbors
        joined in song, the smog-gray sky
        turned back to its true blue?

I like the wisdom Stone exhibits. She is doing more than simply suggesting we make the best of a bad situation. The poet has in mind the kind of life that offers true satisfaction no matter the outward circumstances. Indeed, if this 21st century plague has a lesson, perhaps this is it. In fact the sentiment expressed in the foregoing poem is made abundantly clear in a single line by Mary-Lane Kamberg, in her poem “When This Is Over: I will

        squeeze my grandkids till they squeal

And so we shall … and so we shall. Friends, this latest anthology dedicated to an unprecedented season of suffering, has planted seeds of optimism in the heart of your reviewer. I’m betting it will do the same for many of you.


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