Love in the Time of Coronavirus, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.
Summary: A collection of poems written over the first year of the pandemic exploring the pilgrimage of those confined to their homes, exploring the ways we come to terms with endless days, the small gifts of love, and moment of hope amid the horror.
We all remember those days of 2020 when we discovered how an invisible virus changed our world–all the precautions, the lockdowns, the empty streets, and rising infections. Angela Alaimo O’Donnell lives in New York, which became the epicenter of horror last spring, with morgue trucks outside of hospital. Like most, the scope of her and her husband’s life narrowed down to the confines of an apartment. With the lockdown, she began a pilgrimage in words to chronicle her experience.
She takes us through the seasons of the first year of the pandemic: lockdown and rising cases, illness, recovery and relapse, staring at an unworn wardrobe, and finding herself oddly touched by the thank you’s of students on Zoom. The growing realization that this is not going away quickly, the relief of a contemporary lull, injuring oneself exercising in one’s apartment, Advent and the advent of a new wave of cases, standing in line for vaccines and the tentative steps of emerging into the world. We trace the church year from Easter to Advent, unchanging hope of resurrection and Christ’s coming in a changed and dying world.
The poems, nearly sixty, are written more or less in the form of sonnets. The songs capture both the small things of daily life and the horror of mass graves on Hart Island. The changing of the seasons reminds us of the resurgence of life as does the resurgence of wildlife in a world temporarily devoid of people. There is love. The lost love of the aged who have died too soon. There is the love for children one cannot visit, for students on a screen, for the small kindnesses of delivery. All this is dwarfed by the love in the ICU: “The old man who gave up his/breathing machine to the young man beside/him. The nurse who grieved him as he died./The EMT who knelt beside the body/long after the heart had ceased to beat.”
This collection captures the deep passion we have to live, to love, and to hope in the face of the most daunting challenge we have collectively faced in our lifetimes. We grieve, we tremble, we sicken, and hopefully recover. Then we enjoy the beauties we see in a simple walk. As the author concludes, “The virus can’t destroy/this urge to bless our life & praise/even these pandemic days.”
What is striking though is that this collection reflects a particular posture, a particular response to the pandemic. One that allows the pandemic to deepen and transform, a metamorphosis of sorts. Instead of clamoring and contending, there is a kind of quiet acceptance that the pandemic is what it is, but the things that truly make life worth living, goodness, truth, beauty, and faith, hope, and love only shine more brightly when the distracting noise of our pre-pandemic normal is silenced.
If we look back over the last year, and have second thoughts about our own responses, a new variant and another wave offer fresh chances to lean into the lessons of the pandemic. Someday our grandchildren will ask us about this time. Will we change the subject or share a glimpse of the depths we cultivated in these years? These poems give words to what all of us have experienced. We still have time, it appears, to be formed for better, or for worse. These poems invite us into the better. Will we follow?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.