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Constance Alexander: ‘Pandemic Lent’ a stunning collection of short poems that packs a punch

When I was a Catholic schoolgirl, the nuns insisted we should suffer through Lent, and we complied in our own childlike ways. We gave up treats we savored – cookies, candy, pizza – and vowed to make a daily practice of chores that did not come easily. Some of us trekked to 7 a.m. Mass every day or renounced common sins like arguing with siblings, talking back, and hoarding allowances so we could pitch into the class fund and sponsor more Pagan Babies.

Between Ash Wednesday and Easter morning, we practiced the solemnity of self-sacrifice, with little grasp of their link to the “big picture” of resurrection and renewal, but our focus was riveted on the end of the season. The reward came after Mass on Easter Sunday, when we could tear into the baskets filled with marshmallow chicks, jellybeans, and chocolate bunnies.

As an adult, I abandoned the formal rites associated with Lent but still embrace the importance of self-examination and prayer. The results of my introspection have involved lots of wanderings, some of them aimless. This year, however, I was fortunate to discover “Pandemic Lent: A Season in Poems” by Jayne Moore Waldrop, as a guide through the wilderness.

Composed mostly of haiku, the collection is composed of 17-syllable poems that pack a wallop in their precise simplicity. In the preface, Waldrop explains the path she took through Lent in 2020. Instead of giving up something, she developed a habit of writing daily haiku “as a commitment to find stillness and awareness of the world around me.”

Her inspiration, Brother Paul Quenon’s “In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir,” emanated from the cloistered life he has lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural central Kentucky. According to him, incorporating haiku into his daily prayer and meditation, offers “an articulation of the gift of that moment, a brief conclusion to the time spent in silence.”

Echoing the one-day-at-a-time approach, Waldrop started on Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020, with a riff on the ritual of ashes on the forehead, a reminder we all are “returning to dust.”

On February 27, the cold became a undeniable force, accompanied by snow and ice, but the birds, searching for seeds, were a reminder of the truth we seek in any climate.

At first, the poems are like looking out a window, observing nature from the shelter of indoors. But with constant reminders of mortality, other factors come into play as the settings for the poems change.

March 3 brings a shift in tone:

Life transforms in an
instant, delivered on winds
or with doctor’s words.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

In the preface, the poet described the dread associated with the progress of COVID as the pages on the calendar turned toward Easter. “We sheltered at home,” she said, “as confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and unemployment rates soared.”

“Schools, churches, and businesses closed,” she went on, with no word of a cure or vaccine.

Her family circumstances were part of a more personal maelstrom. Anxiety about the impact of COVID on family members, including a niece-physician in New York City, was impossible to ignore. Additional angst was sparked by another relative with a diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer; a devastating tornado that roared through Nashville, disrupting the lives of family and friends; the specter of a medical procedure for blurry vision resulting from a complication of eye surgery.

In spite of the sense of foreboding, Waldrop observed April 1 with wry humor:

Everything is fine.
We’ve got this under control.
Happy April Fools.

As Easter neared, nature reminded her of hope. “Miracles happen,” the poet insisted. The rituals of Holy Week brought comfort, if only in metaphor. The poem from April 9, 2020, Maundy Thursday, suggested we must find ways to wash feet from afar.

By Easter day, April 12, 2020, there is evidence of light as “…bare limbs turn/ to living color.”

If I had to pick a favorite in this stunning collection, it would be the last poem, entitled “What I’ve Learned in a Pandemic.” Part confessional, part word play, and infused with measured optimism, Jayne Moore Waldrop acknowledges the revelation that humans can easily survive and even thrive, “unpainted, undyed, untrimmed.”

“I’ve learned love remains the last cure,” Waldrop concludes, leaving readers to examine their own sore spots and hurt places.

“Pandemic Lent: A Season in Poems” by Jayne Moore Waldrop, was published by Finishing Line Press, which also published Waldrop’s 2019 chapbook, “Retracing my Steps.” A native of Paducah, Jayne is a graduate of University of Kentucky with a B.A. and a J.D. She is also a graduate of Murray State University’s MFA program. An attorney by training, she now concentrates on her writing. Her novel in stories, “Drowned Town,” was published last year by University Press of Kentucky. She has extensive publishing credits and awards, and is currently working on three children’s books, the first of which will be published later this year.

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One Comment

  1. Anne Adams says:

    Well done…..always!

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