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The award-winning poet, Jim Moore, author of the poem that follows in this issue’s column, writes in his autobiographical statement that as a young teacher two of his students dropped out of school. These students were subsequently drafted, sent to Vietnam, and killed. In response, Moore returned his draft card, and was therefore imprisoned for 10 months.

“This experience changed everything for me as a writer. I had never lived outside of academic institutions. At first, I hid the fact that I was a poet. Eventually this came out, but instead of finding myself ridiculed, I found myself respected (and far too much) for it. Inmates of all ages, mostly Black and Hispanic, wanted me to teach a poetry class. So I did…the stakes were raised in prison about what poetry could do, how it could actually help sustain people’s lives in extreme situations. From that point on, I wanted my poetry to be the kind of work that people might take into life-and-death situations."

In “Poem that Ends at the Ocean”, recently published in the New Yorker and soon to be included in a new volume of his poetry entitled Prognosis, Moore speaks to the trauma of a never-in-our-lifetime experience of a pandemic quarantine. The themes of loss, grief, mourning and adaptation slowly emerge from the quiet three stanzas.

I’ve always wanted to write a poem that ends
at the ocean. How the poem gets there
doesn’t much matter, just so at last
it arrives. The manatee will be there
we saw all those years ago,
almost motionless under the water
like a pendant swaying at an invisible throat, the one my mother used to wear on the most special occasions. My God
is still there, the one I prayed to as a boy:
he never answered, but that didn’t keep me
from calling out to him.
I turn off the notification app for good,
no longer needing to know exactly how many gone.
After all, clinging to life
is what we have always done best.
We are still trying to hide
from the truth of things and who
can blame us.
Lists don’t make sense anymore,
unless toilet paper and peanut butter head them.
Last-stage patients are not being told
how crowded the ferry will be
that will take them across the river.
We are forbidden cafés, churches, even cemeteries.
Fishing by ourselves, however, is still permitted. As long
as we keep nothing at all. As long as we walk
back home, in darkness, empty-handed,
breathing deeply, having thrown back
what was never ours to keep.

To end at the ocean seems to be a near universal metaphor for coming to the end of life – no more land to stand on.  Moore’s poem “gets there” gradually by remembering a comforting image of swaying manatees seen “all those years ago,” which he further associates with his mother and a swaying pendant around her throat. That image evokes his boyhood sense of God and unanswered prayers.

The second stanza reminds the reader of the relentless deaths of the pandemic. A mixture of avoidance and denial helps us cope emotionally and shifts our attention to the mundane and practical – “toilet paper” and “peanut butter.” All the while the multitude of pandemic deaths crowd the Stygian ferry to the afterlife.

The third stanza highlights the societal prohibitions that intensify grief. We can’t congregate, we can’t work together, we can’t even bury our dead. We are left with solitary “fishing” and the realization that ultimately, we keep nothing in this life.  Breathe deep, accept.

“Poem that Leaves Behind the Ocean” from Prognosis. Copyright © 2021 by Jim Moore. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org