review by Albert DeGenova
The pandemic is now in its second year and all of us are fatigued. Many of us want to put all the sheltering in place, social distancing, and mask wearing behind us. But we cannot. Many of us want to forget and move on. But we cannot. And because we cannot simply move on, Sheltering with Poems, a new anthology from the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets and Bent Paddle Press, is a book that belongs on every family bookshelf.
Sheltering with Poems is more than a fine collection of poetry from 74 Wisconsin poets. It is (as former Wisconsin Poet Laureate Max Garland writes in the introduction) a deeper kind of sheltering, a sheltering in which reflection breeds renewal, or consolation at least, and words are called forth from the abiding depths of shared human experience. But this collection is even more.
This anthology bears witness to the specific history of our times. Sheltering with Poems presents experiences that cannot be forgotten by us or by the generations that follow us. The poems in this anthology were written in the midst of the COVID crisis. This perspective makes the pandemic experience reflected in these poems feel very immediate, very real and as such makes it an invaluable document for future readers. Indeed, the poems included in Sheltering with Poems present the perspectives of nurses, teachers, business owners, artists, booksellers, scientists, lawyers, as well as a number of former state and county poets laureate.
The poems included in this anthology cover the wide range of emotions from bleak sadness, fear and isolation, to finding humor in toilet paper shortages and the need for haircuts. Poems included also reflect some of the politics and biases of Americans today. This is poetry of witness, what will never be covered in history textbooks.
This reviewer cannot call out the best poems included in this anthology. It is not possible, nor fair, since every reader will find their own favorites, poems that strike a chord in each individual heart and experience. However, the poem “Isolation Roster” by Eau Claire poet Daphne Daugherty reverberated strongly with my own experience: I don’t even remember the last person I touched before the world turned upside down…but I wish I’d known when we connected because I would have held on a little longer, breathed a little deeper, looked them in the eyes and said, “You will be the last.”
Another, “You Can’t Keep Her from Tapping Her Toes” by Paul Walter reflects on his mother’s socially distanced 73rd birthday celebration:
…while we wheeled Mom into the dining room, / and connected with family through Zoom. / We listened to Mike / play a love song written for his wife / and the classics Mom and Dad knew by heart. / Mom smiled and mouthed the songs / as we all tried to sing along. / Dad simply closed his eyes / and gently tapped time on Mom’s arm.
How else but through poetry will future generations know the “history of the human heart” (as poet Billy Collins defines poetry). Someday some young person will ask you, “what was it like to live through the COVID pandemic” and you can hand them this book, Sheltering with Poems.
Sheltering with Poems: Community and Connection During COVID is available for purchase at wfop.org/sheltering-with-poems