A few weeks ago, when the Novel Coronavirus became, almost overnight, something more than death at a distance, when a collective shudder started through Toronto, and rice and toilet paper disappeared from grocery stores, I pulled Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard from my book shelf. I’d first read it back in the ’90s. It’s set in Kiev, in 1918, during the Ukrainian revolution and civil war. The officers of the occupying German forces are deserting the city by night, Petlyura’s rebellious Ukrainian peasants are on the outskirts, and the Bolsheviks are waiting in the shadows. What had stayed with me was the sense of people huddled against a danger that hovers in colliding rumours and uncertainty. I opened the book to find it again.
“Their sister was worried. To hide it, she started to sing the tune with her brothers, but suddenly stopped and raised her finger. ‘Wait. Did you hear that?’… All three listened. There was no mistaking the sound: gunfire. Low, muffled and distant.”
Here it was on the page, the unfixed, amorphous danger. Bulgakov articulated it through his characters, made it a nameable thing. Named, manageable. Reading as catharsis; reading that found the day’s atmosphere repeated within the broader span of history and human experience. Okay, something inside me said when I finished, here’s where we are now. I Googled “pantry recipes,” stocked up on tuna and frozen veggies.
An important part of my reading these days, momentarily set aside for Bulgakov, is the poetry of Brenda Hillman. I’m lucky to be exploring her work with a small group of poet friends. We meet (now on Zoom) to read her poems aloud and to muse over them together, their imagery, structures, and concerns emerging as we pool what we notice, what speaks strongly to us. We began with Extra Hidden Life, Among the Days, and have continued with Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire. Hillman addresses the precarious state of our world ─ anger at our lack of social justice and our willful blindness to approaching ecological disaster sparks from her poems. But this is couched within a marvelling attention to the particulars of the natural world, and offered in language that is by turns (and sometimes all at once) inventive, lyrical, witty, playful. Underneath and within all of this there is something like a calm faith, a sense that the world will go on (with or without us). Important here are the decomposers, both actual ─ the lichens that grow, extra hidden life, on bark, leaves, rock ─ and metaphorical:
“My wife of decomposers has brown skin,/ she visits me among the forms. Lichen says/ accept what is then break it down.”
These lines, so striking when we first read them, have taken on the comfort of a mantra, a way of looking at each day.
And then there’s Proust ─ another shared commitment, providing companionship and motivation to keep going. These long quiet days invite those paragraph-long sentences, intricate and needing to be savoured. Looking up from my reading, looking out the window at sky and bare trees and backs of houses in afternoon stillness, the hour dissolves, and the afternoon stretches ─ like the Proustian page ─ out into the slow movement of the day’s weather, with its sudden visible gusts, its subtle underlying shifts, all that will become what will have changed.
Sue Chenette is an editor for Brick Books and the author of Slender Human Weight and The Bones of his Being.