Don’t stop us from asking: Was it living before? (Plague poem #7)

Chers lecteurs, Ce poème m’a semblé très new-yorkais, et techniquement il est un peu complexe. Así que no he intentado preparar versiones en francés y español, sino que he traducido la poesía inglesa a prosa francesa (Était-ce la vie, la vie d’avant) y española (¿Estaba realmente vivo, como vivimos antes?). And, before beginning, let me—touching wood—stress an idea of the “right,” italicized side of this poem: So far with this pandemic many of us have been exceptionally fortunate, but there are plenty who have not.

Don’t stop us from asking: Was it living before?

(This could be Plague poem #7)

Many people report hearing the birds,
Species and colors never seen before.
Must they want to return to pre-crisis ways?
Was it really living, how we lived before?

We do not forget those keeping us alive –

People at home have been talking more;
Chatting with families, chatting with friends;
To offices not hurrying, nor to the gym,
Our phones not dragging us off to the wars.

And we do not forget the many who have died –

Some people are sewing, many are cooking,
Making cotton masks and noodles from flour.
The things that they’re making feel special somehow.
Many are wondering: what was special before?

Alone in the night, reaching out, wishing – to survive –

People at home, they don’t miss all the noise –
The traffic, the spending, the credit-card gore.
They long to visit places they’ve seen before.
It’s the old that seems new – the spring outdoors!

And we do not forget our attachment to life!

Many people report hearing the birds,
Living moments unlike the moments before.
We don’t want to go back to the days of yore.
Don’t stop us from asking: Was it living before?

Odd selfie shot, photo by William Eaton,April 2020

Français

Était-ce la vie, la vie d’avant ?

Beaucoup de gens disent avoir entendu des oiseaux, et avoir vu des espèces et des couleurs auparavant jamais vus. Après la crise leur faut-il reprendre les cadences d’autre fois ? C’était réellement vivre, comme nous vivions avant ?

Nous n’oublions pas ceux qui nous maintiennent en vie –

Les gens chez eux ils parlent davantage ; ils discutent avec leur famille et avec leurs amis. Pour se rendre aux bureaux ils ne se pressent pas, et ni pour les gymnases. Les portables affamés ne nous ramènent pas aux batailles.

Et nous n’oublions pas tous ceux qui sont morts et en grand nombre –

Certaines personnes font de la couture et d’autres de la cuisine. Ils fabriquent des masques en coton, des nouilles maintenant à partir de farine. Les choses qu’ils font se sentent spéciales en quelque sorte. Beaucoup se demandent : qu’est-ce qui était spécial avant ?

Seul dans la nuit, tendant la main, souhaitant – survivre –

Les gens à la maison, tout le bruit ne leur manque pas, ni le trafic, ni les dépenses, ni l’hémorragie mensuelle des cartes de crédit. On a envie de visiter des endroits qu’on a déjà visités. C’est l’ancien qui semble nouveau – le printemps qui réapparaît au-delà des fenêtres !

Et nous n’oublions pas notre attachement à la vie !

Beaucoup de gens disent avoir entendu les oiseaux, avoir vécu des moments pas comme avant. Nous ne voulons pas reprendre la cadence d’autrefois. N’empêchez pas nous de poser la question : Était-ce la vie, la vie d’avant ?

Español

¿Estaba realmente vivo, como vivimos antes?

Mucha gente habla de escuchar a los pájaros, y de ver especies y colores nunca antes vistos. ¿Deben querer volver a las formas en que vivían antes de la crisis? ¿Estaba realmente vivo, como vivimos antes?

No olvidamos a todos los que nos mantienen vivos…

La gente en casa ha estado hablando más; charlando con las familias, charlando con los amigos. No se apresuran a llegar a la oficina o al gimnasio. Los celulares hambrientos no nos apresuran a las batallas.

Y no olvidamos a todos los que han muerto y en gran número –

Algunas personas están cosiendo y otras están cocinando. Hacen máscaras de algodón y fideos con harina. Las cosas que hacen se sienten especiales de alguna manera. Muchos se preguntan: ¿qué era especial antes?

Solos en la noche, extendiendo la mano, deseando – sobrevivir –

La gente en casa no extraña el ruido, ni el tráfico o los gastos, el sangrado cada mes de tarjetas de crédito. Quieren visitar lugares que ya has visitado. Es lo viejo que parece nuevo,… y ¡es la primavera que reaparece detrás de nos ventanas!

¡Y no olvidamos nuestro apego a la vida!

Mucha gente dice que han escuchado a los pájaros, que han experimentado momentos como nunca antes. No queremos volver a como estaban las cosas. No nos impida hacer esta pregunta: ¿Era la vida, la vida anterior?

— Poem, translations and photograph by William Eaton

∩ I am glad to thank Chris Carlin, a sports-talk-show host on ESPN Radio, for putting the “exceptionally fortunate” line in my head.

See, too, from Sigmund Freud, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, published in 1915, in the midst of the First World War: “Life has indeed become interesting again; it has once more received its full significance.”

Finally (?), my favorite English-language poetry anthology (though its actually a textbook) is J. Paul Hunter’s The Norton Introduction to Poetry. Hunter includes passages from Adrienne Rich’s writings about poetry, to include the following two excellent paragraphs. They raise, in another way, this question of “Are we really living?” Or even better: What might really living look like?

Most, if not all, of the names we know in North American poetry are the names of people who have had some access to freedom in time—that privilege of some which is actually a necessity for all. The struggle to limit the working day is a sacred struggle for the worker’s freedom in time. To feel herself or himself, for a few hours or a weekend, as a free being with choices—to plant vegetables, and later sit on a porch with a cold beer, to write poetry or build a fence or fish or play cards, to walk without a purpose, to make love in the daytime. To sleep late. Ordinary human pleasures, the self’s re-creation. Yet every working generation has to reclaim that freedom in time, and many are brutally thwarted in that effort. Capitalism is based on the abridgment of that freedom.

Poets in the United States have either had some kind of private means, or help from people with private means, have held full-time, consuming jobs, or have chosen to work in low-paying, part-time sectors of the economy, saving their creative energies for poetry, keeping their material wants simple. Interstitial living, where the art itself is not expected to bring in much money, where the artist may move from a clerical job to part-time, temporary teaching to subsistence living on the land to waitressing or doing construction or translating, typesetting, or ghostwriting. In the 1990s this kind of interstitial living is more difficult, risky, and wearing than it has ever been, and this is a loss to all the arts—as much as the shrinkage of arts funding, the censorship-by-clique, the censorship by the Right, the censorship by distribution.

— Adrienne Rich, “How Does a Poet Put Bread on the Table?, from What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, 1993.

2 comments

  1. This poem is so insightful. Truly, things will never be the same as before. We can survive if we can adapt.

    On Thu, Apr 23, 2020, 10:35 AM montaigbakhtinian wrote:

    > William Eaton posted: “Chers lecteurs, Ce poème m’a semblé très > new-yorkais, et techniquement il est un peu complexe. Así que no he > intentado preparar versiones en francés y español, sino que he traducido la > poesía inglesa a prosa francesa (Était-ce la vie, la vie d’avant) y es” >

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