Poetry

“Even Now” by Susan Zimmerman

Even Now

we are permitted to celebrate.
even now. “not like it was
so great in the middle ages,”
says my son, the new father.
true it is, especially for those
of peasant stock, like us.

in the ravine, small clusters of
people in masks step aside
as I push Emma in her stroller.
light falls through the leaves
like confetti over Emma.
she is perfect, though born
under the flag of Covid.

by ancient law it is said:
if a bridal party meets
a funeral party in the path,
the funeral party
must step aside.
Emma smiles
as if she knows.

 

Susan Zimmerman is a retired lawyer who lives and writes in Toronto. Her poetry chapbook, Nothing is Lost, was published by Caitlin Press in 1980, and her poems are published in periodicals such as Room, Fiddlehead, The Ontario Review, Fireweed, Matrix, and Calyx, and the anthologies Landscape, Writing Right, and The Third Taboo. She taught a creative writing course called “Writing like Breathing” at a healing center, and since her retirement in 2015, she has returned to participating regularly in poetry retreats and workshops.

 

 

Poet’s Note

I’ve always been attracted to the Jewish idea that a funeral party should yield to a wedding party. Life over death. My granddaughter Emma was born on March 16, just after the Covid lockdown. After not seeing her in person for her first two months of life, we arranged a meeting in the park. It was a glorious, bright, breezy day. I wanted to speak up for celebration, even in dark times. The poem mostly wrote itself, probably because the idea had been rattling around in my head for a long time. The confetti was the last touch.

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

It’s been a tough ride these last months, readers, even if life does now seem sometimes to be settling into a bearable, if grimmer, ‘new normal.’ The whole world is worried about another flu-season Covid surge, and our country is about to endure what is sure to be a divisive election. Here in California, we are on tenterhooks waiting to see if the offshore winds will pick up to ignite the next catastrophic fire event, just as people in other parts of the country are keeping a weather eye out for hurricane chains and derechos and other weather events that, before 2020, would have seemed almost mythical.

We look to poetry for many reasons: to be moved, to be instructed or illuminated, even just to be entertained—and certainly to be comforted. If we can’t get the news from the news anymore, neither, said William Carlos Williams, can we get it from poetry. And “yet,” he also said, people “die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” [from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower & Other Love Poems] That is, poetry embodies some nutrient essential to the human spirit. It may not be the only source of that nutrient—we can get it, too, from religion or philosophy or even music or other forms of art—but people do tend to turn to poetry when times are hard. Many sources have noted, for example, the remarkable flowering of interest in writing and reading poetry following 9/11 and again following the 2016 election.

Sometimes we rely on poetry as a sort of goad—to bear witness, expose evil or hypocrisy in others, or expose ourselves to ourselves. Poetry can equally be a comfort, a reminder of the beauty and hope that persist in the world. I love Lucille Clifton’s adage, paraphrased here, that she intends for her poetry to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Reading poetry has been always been source of both solace and disturbance for me, especially this year, and I will be adding today’s poem to the stock I go to when I need a lift.

“Even Now” is free verse in 19 lines divided into three stanzas of roughly equal length: 6, 7, and 6 lines. Line length is short and fairly consistent until the last three, much shorter lines. It is non-metrical and non-rhyming; in fact, the absence of even occasional or internal rhyme is striking. In the poem, the first-person speaker (sometimes the plural “we” and sometimes the singular “I”) tells a story about a stroll with her grandchild, a simple, brief event illuminated by the twin lenses of Covid-19 and an old Jewish tradition. The language is plainspoken, using short, simple, declarative sentences and conventional punctuation. There is a slight departure from convention when it comes to capital letters—except in the title and to designate the “I,” the poem does not use them—and the effect is to increase the feeling of intimacy and access to an already inviting poem. “Even Now” wants to welcome readers in and to give us a gift, a balm.

The poem’s strengths are its compression, imagery, and a keen sense of the fitness of an ancient proverb or practice to the situation in which we now find ourselves—the bon mot, the right word at the right time, as it were. “Even Now” opens with a simple, direct statement of its intent. “We are permitted to celebrate,” it tells us, reminding me of the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese,” which opens with these oft-quoted lines: “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” [Source here] There is no hide-the-ball here, no desire to be inscrutable or clever—just a simple, direct statement of what the poem is going to tell you or teach you, what lies at its heart. We don’t need an epigraph or other statement for context; the context is now a global one, of problems like pandemic and climate change that put everyone into the same, obviously leaking and listing boat.

The poem does go on to provide some historical context, though, by reminding us that the world has been in a tight spot before, perhaps an even tighter spot than we now occupy (it’s “not like it was so great in the middle ages”), and that is, by itself, a powerful source of consolation and hope. We past and present generations in the  “the new father,” the speaker’s son, and her love and pride for him shine without getting sentimental or cloying. The speaker allows what her son has said as “true” and reflects further that medieval times were especially hard on the “peasant stock” her family hails from. So, the poem has already given us three tools for coping with our current situation: an admonition that it is okay to celebrate even in times of great human suffering, a reminder that we have survived tough times before, and a sense that life, with its renewals, still goes on.

Stanza two moves out of conversation and into action as the speaker pushes a stroller holding her new granddaughter, Emma, through a park in which there are “small clusters of people wearing masks.” I like the use of the word “clusters” here, a friendly word that denotes not just a grouping but also one that is natural, voluntary, and organic. (Think of how different it would have been if the speaker had used a word like “knots” instead of “clusters.”) As the speaker approaches, the people “step aside” to let them pass, and that is when, in an exquisite image, the speaker notices how the light filtered through the leaves and falling on Emma looks like “confetti”—what we toss in the air in celebratory moments. Emma “is perfect” in that unique way that only new babies can be, perfect even though born into a most imperfect world “under the flag of Covid.” I like that last image, too. It reminds me of the flags raised to mark ships contaminated with plague in the past, and it suggests a future when the cursed flag might one day get taken down.

The last stanza recalls an ancient law—one the speaker says in her note arises from the Jewish faith—recalled to the speaker by the action of the people making room for her and her granddaughter to pass. The law is simply, powerfully, and movingly stated: “if a bridal party meets / a funeral party in the path, / the funeral party / must step aside.” Here, the people wearing masks represent the funeral party, and the speaker and her daughter represent the wedding party. That is, death and grief must make way for life and hope, and joy is what triumphs in this poem. The aspect of ritual gives an everyday act a significance that makes it feel like a blessing.

When I came back from the hospital with my second child thirty years ago, a team of workers was there installing a fence on our property. Upon our arrival, they stopped work and stood in a line, shovels down and hats off, smiling and nodding at us as we carried our new daughter into the house. I didn’t even know those men’s names, and yet they did this, evidently from a culture that teaches reverence and respect for new life. At the time, I remember feeling honored and thinking that our society could use a little more of that way of thinking. When I read “Even Now,” I recall that moment and am doubly moved. Maybe we should all try to live by that law now and make our fear and sorrow stand down when confronted with the joy of a new life or any other occasion for joy. Because, readers, we are “permitted to celebrate”—even now.

 

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