The calendar full, future unknown.
The cable hums the folksong from no country.
Falling snow on the lead-still sea. Shadows wrestle on the dock.


In the middle of life it happens that death comes and takes your measurements.
This visit is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit is sewn in the silence.

Like all good poetry, the first two lines of Tomas Tranströmer’s “Black Postcards,” translated here by Joanna Bankier, read like a psalm for the present. The fact that the poem was first published 37-odd years ago hardly seems to matter considering the resonance it bore in 2020—a year of impossibly crammed to-dos (Zoom meetings, home improvement projects, child care, nose swabs) that have somehow coexisted with that vast, seemingly unqualified emptiness. Canceled weddings, virtual graduations, flights “refunded” for dubious travel credits. No point in setting another date. No reason in looking to summer, to fall, to winter. The calendar is full and the future unknown. We target and protect the little we have to look forward to—those golden-hour walks and the blooming dogwoods in spring. An email in the summer from a friend who lives on a small island in the English Channel, a place that sounds much nicer than wherever we are. When the powerful disavow science, when in-laws condemn the movement for Black lives, relief takes hold in hearing someone speak truth, in the incisive lines of so many poets.

I live in Nashville—a city that seems to operate with two distinct versions of the world. These versions have been brought into relief in recent months, corroborated by one’s decision to live masked or un-masked. When COVID hit, I was teach-ing a writing course at Vanderbilt. Like many, we went virtual. It was a strange time, and as I was repulsed from the idea of writing, everything became an opportunity to become sidetracked. I swept the floors often and Googled “most remote places on earth.” Decidedly not on the front lines of this crisis, I’ve experi-enced a creeping quiet, a shocking ease in domesticity. Time spent scrolling, days canting toward dinner, when my partner and I acquiesce to the reliable pleasures of food.

Poetry has been an unlikely but welcome visitor dur-ing these borderless days—like a time-traveler piercing the void, speaking into a tin-can telephone from an era untouched by this one. In his poem “Provision,” W.S. Merwin draws us into a metaphysical version of space—one of memory and perception and the mind’s props:

All morning with dry instruments
The field repeats the sound
Of rain
From memory
And in the wall
The dead increase their invisible honey
It is August
The flocks are beginning to form
I will take with me the emptiness of my hands What you do not have you find everywhere

A illustration of letters on a sheet of paper

I miss crowds. Not the friendly ones, but the strange ones. The ones I could find in New York, on the subway and in the basement of Arlene’s Grocery, where drummers play too loud, where I’m forced to jam up against strangers without fear of infection. Perhaps it took me longer to get to this point than I expected—this lack of familiarity with myself as one in a sea of many.

Now I have more occasions to visit with poetry—more occasions of feeling startled into consciousness. I think back to what the novelist and poet Nick Laird said in March 2020: “In the stream of news the poems sit like stones, lambent under the surface.” They feel this way—weighted and physical in our minds—suggesting a lucidity opposite to our immediate mess.

During the summer of protests, of outrage over inac-tion, it was impossible not to think of Ilya Kaminsky, the Soviet-born poet who later sought asylum in the United States. His 2019 book begins with the poem “We Lived Happily During the War”:

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invis-
ible house.

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,

our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

There are ways this pandemic has forced a shift in how we see the world. When we can’t see our moment clearly, we heed the words of writers, bring the tin can to our ears. We step back from our lives, and see that death has always been everywhere, just standing behind a firewall. How can we define this time of pandemic other than through absence? I miss things, people. I miss New York, which I’ve too often criticized, and I am sorry for it. Today, I wonder what lessons we will bring into the new world, if there is a possibility that when we are together again, our perspectives on how to live will have deepened or expanded. Perhaps they already have.

Diaz received her M.F.A. in fiction from Vanderbilt University in 2019. Her work has appeared in Joyland, the Kenyon Review and The Adroit Journal.

Illustration by Lucy Jones

Tomas Tranströmer, “Black Postcards,” translated by Joanna Bankier, from Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986, edited by Robert Hass. Originally published in The Threepenny Review. © 1986 by Joanna Bankier. Used by permission of HarperCollins.

W.S. Merwin, “Provision” from The Essential W.S. Merwin, edited by Michael Wiegers. © 1967 by W.S. Merwin. Reprinted with the permis-sion of The Permissions Co. LLC on behalf of Copper Canyon Press, coppercanyonpress.org.

Ilya Kaminsky, “We Lived Happily During the War,” from Deaf Republic. Originally published in Poetry (May 2009). © 2009, 2018 by Ilya Kamin-sky. Used with the permission of The Permissions Co. LLC on behalf of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, graywolfpress.org.