Mass Quarantine as Aquarium

Before everything shut down, we took a walk

        through the fish, immune

    inside their walls.             Too close,

   we wanted to enter their waters.

Hands longing                  against glass, our fingerprints

clung like suckers.

They didn’t look viral.

    In the tunnel

we looked up      into silver herring circling wild,

     containing a clear blue, inhuman eye.

   We looked away

from their maelstrom                     staring like a kraken.

Whale songs called from black speakers.

     We were sinking

   past blue rays and green anemones,

separating among hammerhead sharks,

   their heads stretched like masks

     and hiding secret faces.                  They could help us

understand.       In the glass

we watched ours                 bend wide and smear.

Then starfish appeared, blue and tan arms

      sticking to our reflections,

       the happy murk

of our crowds bobbing in public one last time

before we hit bottom

at home, alone-together.

Now we rely on tentacles like jellyfish,

       deep down, behind screens

in our sea of weird life.  Wanting to touch,

we reach from afar. When we find

                           beloved faces

we change color, excited.

     We remember their kisses—

the trails of loving spittle

left across our cheeks long ago

like the steps of the first creatures

                           come from the sea—


Click here to read Michael Walsh on the origin of the poem.



Image: “Dream of Shark” by Groonn, licensed under CC 2.0.

Michael Walsh:

When the pandemic spread into the USA, and all of a sudden many of us were at home and interacting primarily and primally through screens, I remembered notes I had taken at the aquarium in San Francisco. Going back to them after more than a decade, I noticed how my observations could be applied to the onset of the American version of the covid-19 pandemic, a collective descent into the underworld.

At the same time, I rediscovered many observations about jellyfish, about which H.D. writes in her essay “Notes on Thought and Vision.” In particular, in a state between life and death, H.D. had a “jellyfish experience,” the result of a post-war influenza that nearly killed her and her unborn child. A metaphorically quick way to say it would be that long feelers extended from her body, perhaps her womb, and eliminated her isolation through connecting her to other people, creatures and ideas.

Writing this poem, I asked myself whether we could be having a national “jellyfish experience.” If H.D.’s ended in joy and connection, why can’t ours, when we find our way out or through?

Michael Walsh
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