The First Six Months: Poems During a Pandemic
Anthology by Southern Chapter, Illinois State Poetry Society
Editor: Kathy Lohrum Cotton
51 poems ~ 107 pages
Price: $7.50
Publisher/Copyright: Southern Chapter, Illinois State Poetry Society
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Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

As I compose this review, (mid-March 2021) much has changed in American
life. March is the official 1-year anniversary of the nation’s lockdown, an effort
to “slow-the-spread” of an unseen and mysterious evil which became known as
Covid-19. The term “pandemic” is an appropriate term to describe what the
country and the world would face, since the prefix pan is a synonym for all or

At this moment light is pushing black and blue clouds beyond the horizon.
Hope is on the way through the hard work of many to produce and distribute
vaccines. My wife and I have received both doses and tolerated them quite
well. More businesses, churches, sports venues, and the like, are breathing the
fresh air of returning life. A kind of resurrection fervor permeates the air.

All of this leads me to underscore the importance of the anthology in my hands.
The First Six Months: Poems During a Pandemic, edited by Kathy Lohrum
Cotton, is a first-rate survey of the feelings and experiences of many across our
nation. What I like about this collection is the unique voice these poets bring to
their topic. The contributors are the accomplished poets of the Southern
Chapter of the Illinois State Poetry Society. A palpable genuineness resides in
these poems. I sense no political “axe grinding;” just good poetry.

Judiciously laid out under 5 broad divisions: COVID-19, STAYING SAFE,
PROTESTS, the collection includes just enough poems to offer a full-orbed
treatment of each category without undue repetition. Contributors display a
wide range of craftsmanship, including formal verse, free verse, couplet rhyme,
interlocking rhyme, and more. There is tongue-in-cheek humor, pathos, and
tears of grief. Cotton includes two pages of excellent “Pandemic Haiku.”
However, the most unique feature is the 23 pages of “Notes” woven into the
volume. The notes accentuate each theme. A typical Notes page contains a
black and white photograph along with commentary from newspaper articles or
other sources.

One such note features a photograph of a movie theater named “World.” The
letters on the marquee read: “The World is Temporarily Closed.” Another
features an empty roll of toilet paper inscribed with the words “Don’t Panic.”
The acrostic poem by Jim Lambert, which appears beneath the image, is
offered herewith in full:

       Pandemic Emergency Supplies

               Ink for the printer
               Laundry soap
               Tater Tots

               Printer paper
               Energy bars

The Southern Chapter is blessed to have credentialed medical personnel among
its members. Sherri Lohrum Baker, a radiology department technologist writes
about critical supply shortages in her poem, “At the Hospital, March 2020.”

       This is what it’s like at a hospital in the pandemic:
       work hard, cry more than usual, risk your health …
       maybe risk your life.

You won’t want to miss Bill Harshbarger’s take on reopening schools.
Harshbarger, an educator by profession, enlightened me through his poem,
“Schooling the ‘Vid’.” He writes:

       You wouldn’t put your kid in a tiger’s cage.

       I mean … really … you can see tigers.
       They kill people.

Moving into STAYING SAFE, I couldn’t resist Jacob Erin-Cilberto’s wisdom
in his poem “epidemic”:

       social distancing
       we’ve been doing that to ourselves for years
       as we hide behind our computer masks
       technological facades

       compartmentalize cyber touch
       physical dangers of arms encircling
       already out of the equation

       soon we will run out of masks
       and then we might happily
       all die smiling

       less than six feet apart

For all that might be said about “masking up,” I was shaken to my core by
Cilberto’s deeper more pervasive application.

Having lost my stepmother to Covid while in nursing home hospice care, I was
particularly moved by the six poems collected under OUR SORROWS. A
recent study has revealed that one-in-five Americans has suffered the loss of
someone close during Covid-19. Candace Armstrong’s tender poem, “Death of
a Friend” speaks to many hearts. Here is an excerpt:

       It came without warning
       neither sought nor planned for
       the life erased brimmed
       with ideas for living.

Marie Samuel’s “Boats and Storms,” is rich in similar pathos:

       Rowing, paddling, dipping or drifting
       A pandemic Storm has us each and all
       Adjusting our mainsails to a new Norm
       Clinging to driftwood or yachts so fine
       Whatever our vessel, we all wish for home

Kathy Cotton’s “Memorial Day 2020: Adding a New War,” lists all the wars
our nation has fought beginning with WWI through Vietnam comparing them
to U.S. Covid-19 deaths in a mere 13 weeks. Her tender treatment of grief and
loss opened my eyes to truths I had not noticed before.

PANDEMIC BACKDROPS reminded me that seasons, unlike our lives, do the
things that seasons do. This is both reassuring and, during Covid-19, a bit novel
given that the world (our personal world) changed irrevocably. Candace
Armstrong’s poem “Intrusion” cuts to the heart of this phenomenon:

       Grass-kissing clouds hover.

       Days of skin-splitting heat
       give way to waves
       of rolling thunderstorms.

       Summer in the upper South
       delivers a new kind of stickiness
       born of confusion.

       Clacking disbelief
       settles into hardship,
       silent acquiescence.

       Will resistance
       is worthless.

       The tiny pathogen
       preys without discrimination,
       interrupting human plans.

       Nature rumbles on.

Cotton rounds out The First Six Months, fittingly, with seven poems which give
seven perspectives on RACIAL JUSTICE PROTESTS. This theme will be
studied for decades before it is fully sorted out. Carole Bolinski’s poem “The
Embers of Change” comes close to capturing the elusive mood of the country
during this period:

       There’s a fire
       that burns in each of us
       igniting behavior
       of hate and violence.

       As the world cries
       from misuse
       we don’t learn the lessons
       of caring and loving
       something other than ourselves.

       Like rainbows, our colors splash
       on the streets of life
       as we mimic
        “We are all in this together.”

       Black power
       White power
       Red Blue and Green power
       separate us
       on a planet about to explode.

       The embers of change are upon us
       and I only hope
       the imposters for equality
       don’t hold the power.

After reading the work of these wonderfully talented poets, I plan to open a
special niche on my library shelf dedicated to The First Six Months: Poems
During a Pandemic.

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