“Dispatch from a Pandemic: New Mexico” by Ioanna Carlsen

On Sheltering in Place with Lies

Andrew Reilly

I can tell you that when this new world crisis started coming down, one of my first reactions was a memory I had of a movie by Robert Altman called Shortcuts, based on five stories by Raymond Carver. I only remember one scene from the film; it’s this aging hippie-stoner couple who are anticipating an earthquake; the last scene in that story is them, standing in their doorway with the remains of a probably unpaid house in ruins all around them, …they didn’t get killed and now they have to keep on surviving in the midst of even more ruin than they were facing before. It is priceless, the looks on their faces.

And that reminded me of that Cavafy poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians”—since, by its last line, the barbarians have never arrived, the poem ends with “Those people had been some kind of solution.”

Losing everything and then being pulled up short when you do lose, if not everything, a lot, but being still around to face whatever strange new world replaces the status quo: those were my first thoughts in reaction to this strange catastrophe, which comes amid the catastrophe of the tRUMP administration in general. If the Dems and the left can’t save us, the universe will have to send us (at least those who are old) like lemmings, over a cliff.

The shock of the undefended lie has worn everybody down. A whole nation watches a politician deny what he just said on public television yesterday, or a week ago, and no one can do a thing about it. And people defend the politicians, go to their rallies, and even vote for them.

Because of that, everything seems almost a parody of itself. So even when you see positive things, you almost wonder if you are seeing straight. If something good could really be true. If you are understanding it correctly.

I can tell you that in my own state New Mexico, our governor, a woman, and her name is Grisham, saw what was coming and did all she could to stop it and prepare for the worst.  So far therefore, in my state, COVID is still out there more than in here, and so there’s still an aspect of T.S. Eliot’s “humankind cannot bear too much reality…”, that here in New Mexico we do not have to bear. For now, at least we can wear it like a cape we can, for now,  take off through methods we devise to do that, instead of like a skin we inhabit and die in.

I can tell you that I saw an old couple walking their dog. Have I never seen this before? Or did it always happen, and I just never noticed. I mean an old couple doing something together. I even saw an old couple going to the gym to walk together. Yes, he walked out in front of her and she had to catch up, and she has to keep on keeping up because he’s an old white guy and she’s just his old used-up wife, but still…eventually they walked together around the grounds at the gym which was closed.

I can tell you that people at home getting on each other’s nerves and having to walk the dog about a thousand times a day, is great for dogs, and also that for some people there may be connections with their families they have to work at, but if/when they succeed, it’s like some new kind of life, one they have forgotten they could have.

I can tell you that the upside of a global virus is that traffic is less, and animals are coming back into towns, and  therefore for a moment the planet seems to be making a comeback….

I can tell you that as in inveterate reader, now that I have all the time in the world to read, I am even pickier about what I read…because there’s even more I can’t take now….I can’t take a memoir of someone’s friend dying of cancer that I accidentally bought, not because it’s not well written, (I can’t read about people being tortured either, and I have to pick mysteries in which people are not murdered in ways that are too hard to bear),  because I can’t take reading about being trapped inside conditions the world imposes on helpless humans. I can tell you that in spite of that, I have just taken down from my shelves The Plague by Camus and that that book I will read with maybe a kind of desperation, but with interest…because it’s from a different time, because it will probably be true. It’s from a world in which America was still something good, instead of just another evil power representing nothing but greed, and which has become,  on top of that, the laughingstock of the world.

If we fail to keep the GOP and tRUMP revivalists at bay, it will be hard to see all that go away again, the unpolluted re-polluted, the national parks opened again, not for the people, but for drilling, destruction of species, marginalization, and death of human beings, as the powers that be fight their way back through oceans of dead and bring money back to the top of the heap, again.

–July 10, 2020


Ioanna Carlsen has an MA in linguistics from the University of Illinois; she has been writing for most of her adult life; she lives in the country outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Her work has appeared in AGNI, Poetry, Field, Alaska Quarterly Review, Nimrod, Poetry East, The Hudson Review, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, Quarterly West, Beloit Poetry Journal, the Yale Review, many others. Her work was featured in Poetry Daily April 9, 2001, and May 15, 2006. Her book The Whisperer placed second in the 2015 New Mexico Press Contest. Her book Breather won Off the Grid Press Poetry Contest 2019 and won a 2020 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award. Work is forthcoming in the Midnight Oil and the American Journal of Poetry.

Andrew Reilly has published many photos in Another Chicago Magazine.