“Life is fragile,” my friend, a doctor, reminds me when I ask about his experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Later that day, his words return as I read Taiyon J. Coleman’s poetry. Early in the pandemic, Coleman began crafting a poem a day as part of Tupelo Press’s 30/30 Project. The seven poems presented in this issue of Minding Nature are drawn from this project and from what became the manuscript “Communication with the Dead”: a collection of poems written in the voices of people who died this year from COVID-19.
Despite great differences in generation, profession, passion, and place, the voices speaking through these poems share the experience of life in Black, Brown, and poor bodies. Structural racism, a pandemic of its own, was taking lives and suffocating our communities prior to COVID-19. And if we choose to look, COVID-19 reveals the complex and insidious ways racism is wound into the world today. The structural violence directed at our Black, Brown and poor neighbors, friends, and family assumes the form of grief in Coleman’s hands.
Graphs and statistics overshadow the human experience of COVID-19 in current news narratives. While journalists sometimes attend to the voices of the sick, those who have died quickly disappear in silence under the churning headlines. Coleman brings their voices back to us. In her poems, they breathe again, calling us away from the statistics and back to our own souls. These poems are portals. Particularly in this trying time of isolation, keeping company with Ancestors can return us to life more fully. We need to listen at these portals. The people who speak in Coleman’s poems remind us how to live.
The following poems provide an opening to empathy and a holdfast for our grieving hearts. In a culture where grief is hidden, silenced, edited, or denied outright, art offers one of the few places where we can rest our hearts following loss. Coleman’s words form both celebrations of life and containers of sorrow for the dead. Ultimately, her poems help us remember, in the swirl of our ever-changing present, the communities grieving, the families diminished, the love transformed, and the breath stopped.