I was on sabbatical when the virus arrived, so already in quarantine of a kind – an innocent kind – concentrating on the piece of work I’d promised myself to finish before going back to work in the Fall. Since March that seclusion has been surrounded by the global and distinctly less innocent kind of quarantine: there are days when I feel I’ve become a Russian Doll, and my centre is a tiny replica of myself with nothing inside. Although it’s easier for me than most: I have a job and a house, I’m used to spending large amounts of time alone, and I don’t have young children who need to be entertained, or family clamouring at a tantalisingly close distance. Still, we suffer each alone – or as Larkin said, striking a more secular note: ‘Mine is happening to me’ – and while my lucky life is less depleted than most, it still feels like a poor imitation of itself.
What to do, that’s the question. Not what to do about getting through the days – that’s comparatively easy (and, as it turns out, days whizz past; nothing obviously comes very easily of nothing). But what to do when this plague passes? What lessons have we learned, individually and in a larger way? The answers are endless and endlessly complicated, or feel so in Baltimore where I live. Even at the best of times Baltimore is an unusually complicated and, in many ways, a very unhappy place. Poor, with a very high unemployment rate; grotesquely unequal; very violent and corrupt; and socially paralysed. The public transport is lousy, and for good and for ill, especially for ill, people tend to stay where they find themselves. In other words, the city already practises multiple forms of social distancing of the most reprehensible and tragic kind. As I write this, the food banks in the most run-down districts are having to deal with unprecedented demand, and are running out of money.
So that’s one obvious lesson for the future: pay better attention to the infrastructural things, America: allow for greater mobility, and then make sure that this mobility brings greater justice, more equality and less violence. We hardly needed the death of thousands of people to make the point, but now it stands clearer than ever. Unignorably clear, one would like to think. But what can an individual do to boost this betterment? Vote for a progressive government when the time comes. And meanwhile volunteer: there’s a heroic amount of that happening here already. But also think about how to make a practical contribution of their own, that derives from their special interests and qualifications. A sixty-something university professor such as myself, stuck for most of his day in front of a screen or in a classroom, might seem short of options. And the one option I have taken, which is to teach a course about poetry in translation to my graduate students (by some means or other) in the Fall, may seem very small beer. But at least it’ll mean keeping the faith with what I hope is the momentum of the time. We live in one world, and even before the virus arrived that world was burning. If the generations after mine are going to have any chance of saving it, they’d better know each other’s languages, and learn the ways that poetry can teach us to hear other’s hearts beating.