No Mask No Talk, The Corona Poems 2020-2021 by Eve Packer | Autonomedia, 2021
I searched out, and found, this new book by Eve Packer because I was wondering what she was up to. I had no idea of what I would find. I merely wanted to be reacquainted with a poet whom I hadn’t heard from in quite a while. When I heard that her new book was a reflection on the condition and experiences of Covid, to which we’ve all been subjected in the last few years, I was intrigued. Though miles of text have been written in commentary on the ongoing crisis of Covid, especially on those first couple of years, I had not yet seen a book of poems on it. Packer has dedicated two years of her life to a body of work that reflects upon her experience of living in New York, her hometown and the source of so much of the details and background noise that make up her poetic vision, as it was transformed by the crisis of the Coronavirus pandemic and the social and psychological repercussions it caused.
Perhaps some of you may be saying, oh no, here come the Coronavirus books. Well, it had to happen--writers need to record and give justice to their thoughts. It’s impossible to live through this historical moment and not reflect upon it. As a poet, Packer needs to be able to make intimate statements that lead over into lyrical territory. As a New Yorker, she feeds off both casual interaction and the ability to be verbally spontaneous. The expressions and rhythms that she absorbs from other people, ranging from family and friends, to incidental acquaintances, to random strangers, enter into her poetic practice. Her voice in the past was edgy and tough, yet wistful and resilient. Her voice still wants to be all of those things, but it’s also filled with awkward silences. The book is arranged like a journal, with nearly every section stamped with the date and the time, first lines standing in for thematic titles on the contents page. “No Mask No Talk” is comprised predominately of journal entries rather than poems, but while reading through its 108 pages, one begins to perceive a return to the poetic as desperation flags and hope rises. Poetry needs hope, because poetry is a form of expressive idealism, and requires a certain nobility of purpose. No Mask No Talk stretches the idea of what poetry can be because it presents intrinsic expressions of truth in a voice that is not specifically poetic despite being moved by a similar spirit. Parker’s book is a journal of waiting for life to resume, a year spent walking on eggshells.
The plain facts of a weekly schedule are not necessarily poetic, but they are to be treasured. Of all the many possibilities open to us, it’s what we choose to do regularly that adds to the richness of a life remembered, and considered, for its variety. There are immense pleasures to be gained from say, enjoying a few laps in the neighborhood pool, or sitting on the steps of a local historical home, dreaming up the world in poetic resolve. Life is about habits as well as about sharing. The Coronavirus era, or the two years encapsulated in this book, are filled with old habits that have been stripped from her life, and must be reconstituted, moment by moment, as she eases back into a habit of normalcy.
Our shared experience of the Coronavirus pandemic has led not only through a complex progression of physical suffering and emotional loss, but has also resulted in a need to respond creatively to these experiences. Unlike many other diseases that involved physical evidence of sickness and certain lethal consequences for everyone infected, Covid has been mutable, and therefore much more challenging and often mysterious. The writer or the artist wonders at all the resulting layers of possible experience, some of them still very much on the table as Covid, or the risk of Covid related suffering, remains a possibility into the future. So the poems in No Mask No Talk represent not merely a time capsule but a noted reflection that may continue to be relevant. For all of her entries about enduring the crisis that was the major upswing of the Coronavirus pandemic as experienced by New Yorkers, Packer does not speak of any of the symptoms of having been afflicted by the disease herself. She speaks of it merely as a subtraction from the everyday experiences that normally feed or minds and hearts, and which in her case, provides contextual sustenance toward the writing of poetry. One could say that much of the experience of the Covid era is absent in this book. One could doubt there was any real suffering beyond the limitations placed upon regular civil behavior for safety’s sake. I would say that any voice that dares to speak above a whisper on any subject related to the crisis of the past few years is still doing its job. Portents of doom have accompanied us for so long that any affirmative statement is a step in the right direction.
In these poems, Packer does the talking that she didn’t feel she could do in public, in person, for the last couple of years. She talks on the page, revealing to us the nature of her existence, in all of its humility, its fear, and its quiet rage. There’s a reason that most of these poems don’t have titles, only dates. They are poems to fill the innumerable moments. They are not epic accomplishments, unlike just staying alive, and keeping hope alive, and keeping care for others alive. They are her least dramatic but also her most honest words.
The Coronavirus era, as it may be called in the future, has been dominated not only by the disease itself, but by other social and political crises and a general unrest that was only compounded by the health crisis. Packer also reflects upon the protests that dominated everyday city life, surging through streets swept clean of not only communal activity and general neighborly bonhomie, but also of the expectation that our collective near future might readjust to any semblance of normalcy. The combination of enforced sheltering with shockwaves of protest made for an alternately anxious and benumbing atmosphere. Now, a year or two later, with a majority of local citizenry having been vaccinated, and infections leveling out, there does seem to be an air of calm. People are still cautious but also optimistic. They are seeing the beauty of their lives, and their love for hope, return. They can take off their masks sometimes—and they can talk. Packer has begun the cure from which we can all share.
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Eve’s newer poems can be found in Live Mag!
Great review of this singular collection. An effective blending of a diary and an epic effort of poetic reckoning. Heroic. A poignant, ultra personal portrait of a painful period we all went through together. Thanks, David!