Thursday, March 31, 2022

John Okrent, This Costly Season



            John Okrent, This Costly Season.  Arrowsmith.  2021. 62 pp. $20.00

             Review by Ruth Hoberman


            In March 2020, the Northwest and the Northeast shared a peculiar horror: that first onslaught of deathly ill people, the sirens and scrambling for masks and ventilators, the fear of contagion—all weirdly juxtaposed with daffodils and nesting birds.  John Okrent’s recent collection of sonnets, This Costly Season, recreates the anxiety, despair, and rare glimmers of hope so many of us felt during that time.

            A physician as well as a poet, Okrent practices family medicine at a community health center in Tacoma, Washington—the state where the first coronavirus case in the United States was confirmed on January 21, followed in late February by the first death. By March 17, the date of Okrent’s first poem (each poem is titled only by its date), the U.S. death toll had surpassed one hundred:  “Driving to clinic,” the poem opens, “—on the radio a pulmonologist/in Italy tells of choosing among the dying/which ones not to save.”  Fear is becoming the norm.  The gun shop is packed, the poem notes, and “Everyone’s eyes seemed wider/above their face masks.”

            Okrents experiences as a doctor give him credibility, but he turns his attention mainly to what he sees going to and from the clinic, and to the pandemics impact on his family.  “Home from clinic,” he writes in “March 19, 2020,”  “I throw my clothes/straight in the wash and get in the shower/before I touch my wife and daughter.”  He’d like to think he can protect his family:  From our cabin we keep the world,” the poem opens.  But its ending acknowledges that home can’t be partitioned off:  “In our cabin we keep the world.” The poem that follows, “March 20, 2020,” elaborates on our interconnectedness, “We keep the world, the world keeps us.” And “March 27, 2020”:  “If you die, I die too.”    

            Okrent’s book is subtitled A Crown of Sonnets, evoking the sonnet’s long history of exploring love and time. While his poems deviate from the traditional rhyme scheme and meter, they retain the form’s fourteen lines, meditative pace, and narrow focus.  Some include internal rhymes, and many end with a turn or summation that has some of the feel of Shakespeare’s concluding couplets.  Most powerful, though, is the repetitive impact of the crown:  as one poem’s last line becomes the first line of the next poem, the scene darkens and intensifies.  That first poem, for example, which opens with the Italian pulmonologist, shifts to an image of Walt Whitman tending to Union soldiers amid “the smell of dead/or dying flesh. And in all the dooryards, the smell of lilacs.” The image evokes the book’s project as a whole—to salvage what there is of beauty during fearful times.  But it also sets us up for the poem’s ending, which imagines the man working at the busy gun shop in his “latex gloves the color of lilacs, only darker.”  And then “March 18, 2020” opens “The color of lilacs, only darker—the clouds/that cover the top of Mt. Rainier this evening/like a shroud.”  Those echoing lines create a sense of claustrophobia, of consequences unfolding, of contagion.  

            Okrent’s title comes from W. D. Snodgrass’s “April Inventory,” a poem quoted in the book’s epigraph and again in “April 20, 2020”:

            That time of year when every crow you see

            carries clump of hair or twig or tuft of down

            into the trees. They brood and hover

            over our duress while spring repays last summer’s

            debts. “We shall afford our costly seasons,” said Snodgrass.

            But this one?  Like a stain, desperation seeps into things:

            the grocery bag, the steering wheel, little hand

            in my hand, midnight bowl of cereal.

Spring’s bank account is full; our own, emptied by loss. The allusion to Shakespeare’s “That Time of Year” is equally bleak:  Shakespeare links winter, fall, and twilight to the approach of death. For Okrent, however, death is already there at daybreak: “The mist hangs low around the whole horizon/like the lid of an eye that’s closing. But it’s only morning.”

            Unless morning means there’s time still to hope?  Okrent’s forty-eight sonnets mention disasters besides the pandemic—the murder of George Floyd, hurricanes, wildfire, a divisive President—and also hints of change, like the Black Lives Matter movement. In “June 1, 2020,” he calls for “more gentle/more genital, more wrestling with angels, more asphyxia’s opposite.”  “June 5, 2020” notes, of a protestor knocked down by police, “blood leaked like a secret from his ear.”  And the next begins, “From the ear, to please the muses, music/reaches for more music”; the speaker and his family, newly tested for Covid, visit family “for the first time in months.” Ultimately, Okrent suggests, in the book’s final poem, “Nothing is wasted,/love least of all.”  That poem concludes, as so many others have begun, with the words “Driving to clinic.”  But this time, there is no mist like the “lid of an eye that’s closing.”  Instead, “day breaks its glass of light on the harbor/and I take it—like a chance—like a cure.”

            With their repetitive box-like form and those reverberating final lines, Okrent’s poems are at times despairing, but always graceful and controlled. There’s a muffled quality to them that I found added to their impact, as if the speaker were too stunned to probe too deeply or to let loose emotionally.  If, in ten years, we’ve forgotten what these last few years have felt like, This Costly Season will be there to remind us:  I bow my head to the gun/of the infrared thermometer, then enter the clinic” (April 23, 2020”).

1 comment:

  1. Intensely thought provoking and touching review.

    Bridget Seley Galway