Writing in The Time of COVID-19 :

A Review of Carla Rachel Sameth’s What Is Left


By Corinne Shearer

Jenny Qi
Some baked bread. Some found their green thumbs. Many got a crash course in new technology– if I click the little microphone button does that mean I’m muted now or was I muted before and now everyone just heard me groan out loud at the suggestion we do a team-building exercise in breakout rooms… (I, for one, did all of these things.) What was poet, essayist, and educator Carla Rachel Sameth doing? She was writing.
Sameth’s most recent collection of poetry, What is Left, published by Dancing Girl Press & Studio in Chicago, is a time capsule of the pandemic’s early days– you know, when there was still a certain novelty about lockdown; when we were inundated in equal parts by terror of the unknown and bad celebrity singing montages. Having been written between March and August 2020, her poems also track the flashpoint of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing, global demonstrations in the name of Black lives. What are now frequently referred to as two, simultaneous pandemics – one based in biology, the other in race – become intertwined by the close of Sameth’s collection; a diffuse, murky fear (which many of us will recognize) finds pointed clarity in the face of her son, a young, Black man.

There is an inherent risk in writing so explicitly about a moment in time. First, there is a question of longevity. Will future readers feel alienated by the specificity of the subject matter? Second, by the time of publication, will current readers really want to be transported back to this time? Admittedly even this reader felt some resistance returning to these months in 2020. There is something particularly depressing about the notion of the pandemic’s “early days” as mentioned in the title of a list poem, “Pandemic Pacing: 20 Steps in the Early Days.” This designation, “early days,” seems to have lost its meaning long ago; first referring to a period of weeks in March, then to a lost summer, and now we might, perhaps, count the pandemic’s early days as all of 2020. The phrase feels distinctly melancholy as we have yet to really reach the other side of the pandemic. To label something, to tuck it neatly under a heading and file it away, promises a kind of closure that is still denied us. Worse, it reminds of our collective naivety then; when there still seemed to be a possibility that we might “get back” to our lives as they were, that all this suffering could evaporate just as suddenly as it came. This was, of course, not the case.

A third risk of writing so closely to a specific point in time or event is that it will steal the show (a point I am, perhaps, proving right now.) There is a familiar doctrine in poetry-writing that one ought not utilize common turns of phrase or word pairings because they invite other associations into the work. Explicit mention of global events tends to do something similar; everyone comes to the poem with their own impressions or memories. Yet in this collection Sameth leans into it, inviting association– even relying on it for greater impact. The speaker in these poems is certainly aware of the reader, but Sameth goes a step further, often engaging the audience, quite directly, in discourse. Her poems are full of questions – familiar ones – that cover both the practical and the surreal. From the poem, “Four Principles of Resilience,” Sameth asks: “What if we have only one bathroom? What if I don’t know how NOT / to care? Is grief contaminating? Can resilience be stolen?” Some questions are poignant in their brevity, “how long,” others for their absurdity, “if I could pick one up in-store” (she is referring to a child) “how would I sanitize the baby?” Such absurdity – the ordinary thrown out-of-order, confused, or broken – forms the basis for the collection’s first poem, “Drive a Stake,” in which the narrator matter-of-factly implores us to “stay six feet away from regrets and be sure to sterilize after thinking / about the future,” to “avoid eating the mask while using it,” and to “make brownies with hand sanitizer.” The final line of the poem seems almost to surprise itself with its abrupt coherence: “At the end of the day be glad you woke up.”
What may sustain a collection tied so completely to a historical moment is its execution: If you’re going to do it, you should really do it, and Sameth does. The material she works with is that of daily life in lockdown. No detail is too trivial and no grief too small. As Sameth notes of a dying gardenia, her hurt “goes beyond” it; these small griefs are part of a larger, less namable or manageable pain, one which “like the wilted / gardenia” can leave us “thirsting… spent… stifled by need.” Here, too, is what may keep these poems from being relegated to a corner, somewhere in the future, to gather dust with the rest of art pieces about COVID-19, she is self-aware: “Most poems in these earlier / pandemic days feature viruses, / breathing, bread, / and 7pm cheers” or “what if there is no longer a proper way to end a poem, epics that just go on and on?” Sameth’s candidness is endearing in this collection; there is a sense that the narrator of these poems has given up artifice; any pretense of a kind of harmonious-world-of-the-poet where things can be controlled and made beautiful. As Sameth puts it in the titular poem: “My rind is being peeled away. / More naked than I’ve ever been…” 2020 required us to ask what and who is “essential”– to our society and to each of us personally. Similarly, Sameth’s poems decide that candor is more important than virtuosity. That being said, sometimes the poems say more than they need to, reading a bit like journal logs which meander and fret in circles. Yet we may excuse their doing so as they remind of those days spent at home – in comfy clothes, no thought given to makeup or presentation – when style was decidedly not essential to survival; when giving voice to our fears and questions was more important than how we did it.

The collection takes a definitive shift, however, with “Body = Target.” This is the book’s sparsest poem; its prose is clipped, breathless, as it describes the video of George Floyd’s murder. The poem, like the video itself, is more than this single moment. For Sameth, it is Floyd crying out for his mama which cuts deepest:

“Mothers everywhere
live the pain of impending
               loss, our Black sons
a daily target. Give
instructions. Warn: danger
constant, your skin
               in this world. How…”

This is the only poem in the collection which uses white space with true deliberacy– and it is effective. White space juts and interrupts with indentations and short lines, dragging the poem out across four pages (longer than any other in the chapbook) while also condensing what is written in black lettering. The white space is meant to be oppressive, too much; its effect on the black text within it, overwhelming.
Though COVID-19 is a container, holding and unifying all these poems, the collection aptly includes pieces featuring memory and family. Such things of meaning, reminders of who we are, bubbled up to the surface for many during this time of isolation. The collection’s second poem, “Zaftig,” begins as a letter of sorts– to whom or what we do not know, having only the forced intimacy of a direct address to an unnamed “you” to go on. As the speaker drifts between memories of nursing her son, of solitude on a beloved ranch “shrouded by the breeze” among rocks which “are perfect for sharpening thoughts,” a first memory – the genesis of comfort for this speaker – arises: “Grandma Pearl: / holding me, her soft bosomy / body, rounded contours, billowing into mine…” Like a grandmother, the speaker recalls how this “whispering land” once held her and how she, in turn, held her son and played songs once sung by her grandmother which “her heart recalls / when her brain does not.” We cycle through these comforts alongside the speaker, watching one memory slip into another, until – like a gust of wind which envelops and then dissipates – we are returned to stillness; to the one-word echo of the poem’s title, “Zaftig.”
This collection of poems is for COVID-times as much as it is of them, but because Sameth is also a seasoned poet there are many small delights for any regular reader of poetry. One such moment featuring a well-placed enjambment comes in “Jeannie in a Bottle.” The speaker has just gotten a surprise visit from a friend, Jeannie, who “appears armed / in protective gear, gloves and mask, / as if an astronaut first landing / on our porch…” Jeannie brings a bouquet of flowers: “garden roses of red and orange…” The line breaks, but the speaker cannot help themself and continues; gushing, accelerating: “oh, and the purple. Enchanted indigo / veronica, fragrances of hope / float into our home.” Another such moment comes with the collection’s final poem, “When We Could Take the Train,” which comes in the form of a 5-stanza pantoum. In this form lines repeat and rotate from one stanza to the next, their meaning becoming altered as they change their orientation to one another. The effect is slightly dizzying; one of remembering– or, perhaps, misremembering. Sameth uses this form well, the cycling lines evoke the repetitive nature of days locked down in a way which is one of the more successful in the collection. Though we should not discount the compounding effect created by the variety of attempts Sameth makes in conveying that disorienting, almost dream-like way, that time seemed to lose track of itself. And important to that notion of time passing unusually is the way Sameth lets older memories – some impactful, some rather mundane – enter into the poem: her son at two “pushed up against white Southern strangers’ startling questions,” or simply taking the Amtrak to Union Station with its ceilings “high and golden as dreams that don’t end.” In a pantoum poem, we always end where we began. Here it is, appropriately, with a question or, by the end, perhaps an invitation: “Remember when each day was either a new adventure or one you simply push mud through?” There is a message here, that repetition and change are equally inevitable, but as another line, earlier in the poem, reminds us: “We are like figeater beetles belly up; hard to right ourselves, but we are fluorescent in darkness.”
In reference to a homemade mask fashioned from underwear early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, Sameth is quick to tell us she is not a “maker;” “no sourdough starter here” she writes. Yet this admission of hers cannot entirely be trusted. She is, in fact, a maker– just of another sort. What was all the bread-making, gardening, home improvement, and sewing for but an attempt at making sense – in some tangible way – of our reality, changed as it was? Like the jigsaw-puzzlers who found solace putting something back together, piece by piece, Sameth’s handiwork arranges all the stuff of “our new normal” in ways that do and (and more importantly) do not fit together. The best time capsules do not just include the exceptional, they make space for the collapsed pastry and the dying plant; they say something about the world as it was, and about the people who once survived there.

Corinne Shearer is OyeDrum Magazine’s Book Review Editor and an interdisciplinary artist based in New York City. She’s currently completing her MA in English Literature at The City College of New York. Corinne works predominantly in dance and theater as a performer, choreographer, and teaching artist. She’s been featured as an artist-in-residence at The Triple Nine Festival and named “Director’s Choice” at Spoke The Hub’s Winter Follies. She is also the founder and curator of Spitball, a performance series for artists of varying disciplines. She is currently accepting published or soon-to-be published books for review in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

What is Left is out now. To purchase a copy, click here.