Corona Sonnets

March 17, 2020

Driving to clinic. An Italian pulmonologist on the radio
speaks of having to choose among the dying whom not to try
to save. I picture Whitman, wending his way through wounded Union
soldiers—his democratic nostrils, the smell of dead
or dying flesh. And in all the dooryards, the smell of lilacs.
It was gorgeous today, and marked the 52nd death
in the Evergreen State. Everyone’s eyes seemed wider
above their face masks. Fear
lends an urgent sort of beauty to the days.
When he got back to clinic this evening, Benny told me it was crazy
at the gun shop: people buying up everything,
all the ammunition, all the guns.
“Business has never been better,” said the man behind the counter,
whom I picture wearing latex gloves the color of lilacs, only darker.

March 18, 2020

The color of lilacs, only darker—the clouds
that cover the top of Mt. Rainier like a shroud
this evening. Another beautiful day. Disturbing
to see so many people walking the waterfront
as if the sky weren’t burning. The fish market is closed.
The café is closed. The bar is closed. The daffodils
are heedless. Today, the first death in Tacoma. A woman
in her 50s. Droplets cover me, probably. My neighbor veers.
Conversation grows heavier by the word.
In clinic I don plastic face-shield and heroic
gown of goldenrod when seeing a person
under investigation
. The nights are growing quieter.
We no longer hear passenger trains, only freight trains,
and fewer, from our cabin.

March 19, 2020

From our cabin, we keep the world.
Home from clinic, I throw my clothes
straight in the wash and jump in the shower
before I touch my wife and daughter,
which means she has to hide her
so she doesn’t see me first when I come in.
What I bring home with me: mortality
and an empty thermos. 160 new positives in King County.
The number doubles by the day, and will,
and from the bureau last week’s tulips bow their purple,
ludicrous heads. This may be the end
of irony. The sky again so blue it could break
from blueness. Sterilized, I hug my girls.
In our cabin, we keep the world.

March 20, 2020

We keep the world, the world keeps us,
the way the oceans keep the continents—
nowhere to go now but down, and in.
Friends’ and family’s faces on my phone—
pixelated flesh-tones. Are they choking
up? The familiar cups of their eyes
overflowing? Or is it just a bad connection?
I miss connection—the compassion of hands—the heat
of faces. The sharp curve of new cases
like a sudden middle finger from a fist.
What if we can’t withstand this?
The dog, thank God, tangential as a dream.
I can’t wait for a time when I say, “this”
and you don’t know what I mean.

March 22, 2020

You don’t know what I mean, but if beauty
is truth, truth beauty, then life is layered
in redundancy. It was fog on fog on fern-
moss this morning when I took
my daughter for a walk in the woods. From the palm
of my hand she picked bits of granola. Corona-
virus has killed its thousands now, and now it has killed
its tens of thousands . . . two teenage boys
jogged by us on the path and the smell of their deodorant
reminded me of a time when the world was exuberant,
or buoyant, at least. It’s sinking in,
this sinking thing. We didn’t see another soul all day.
The air felt prehistoric on my naked face.
I shaved my beard so that the mask might fit.

John Okrent is a poet and family doctor. He works at a community health center in Tacoma, WA, where he lives with his wife and daughter in a fisherman’s cabin built on stilts.