2020 by Phil Saunders

North of Oxford – The Pandemic Issue # 3

Leaves and Stays (1)

Painting – Leaves and Stays by Belinda Subraman


Thanks to the poets for contributing to The Pandemic Issue #3 from North of Oxford. In order of  appearance we present: Don Riggs, John Macker, Lorna Wood, Michael Steffen, Matthew Ussia, Belinda Subraman, Susan Champion, Carlos Hernández Peña, Phil Saunders, Arlyn LaBelle, Peter Scheponik , David Kozinski, Maria Keane, and Ben Mazer,
Covid-19 Sonnets by Don Riggs
In 12th grade, Mr. Gallagher taught us
about Leibniz, and how he thought monads
made up the world, whatever “monads” were.
Now I think that Leibnizian monads
are individuals isolated
in their apartments with the radio
or TV or computer bringing word
of what individuals who make up
the collective are doing outside, one
by one, talking on Skype from their kitchens,
communing on Zoom from their living rooms,
or venturing out in their bandannas
to see the city empty except for
other masked loners keeping their distance.
con notation
Social distancing’s an oxymoron
of sorts developed just for this current
situation to convince everyone
we come together by staying apart.
To cooperate is to operate
with, but it is in isolation that
we work together, “operate” coming
from “opus” or “work,” one’s magnum opus
being one’s great work, by which the future
will remember us, if it remembers
us at all, as Catullus was almost
totally forgotten, one manuscript
of his works surviving by chance, a lone
flower uprooted by the passing plow.
Testing the Waters
After a day or three alone at home,
I took the bus downtown today to do
some things I had to do despite the ban
on leaving your apartment and putting
yourself in the possible position
of contacting other human beings,
any of whom could have contracted the
disease of the moment, but since they all
thought that I could have been a carrier,
they kept a good six feet or more between
us and only a handful rode the bus.
I asked the driver if there was any–
“Saturday,” he said without my asking
the question, “It’s Saturday all week long.”
Be Careful What You Wish For
Okay, I’ve been hoping for some event
to occur to relieve me of the duty
to show up Monday for jury duty,
not that I’d hate it, but in the event
that the trial, if I were chosen, would
go on and on for weeks without being
resolved and keep me from my job, being
a teacher, who can’t cut class when he would,
and somebody in the collective has
said, be careful what you wish for, for you
may actually get it, which I have
never taken seriously, but has
happened big time recently; perhaps you
have noticed: all the free time I now have…

Don Riggs is author of Bilateral Asymmetry, his poetry has appeared in many publications and he teaches several courses for the Department of English and Philosophy at Drexel University.


Four Poems by John Macker
If I stay out here in this spring garden
exile long enough, the sun will return.
They say at the bottom of the gravest doubt
there is satori: it’ll brighten
even the dimmest of our sad hearts. I’m
missing their life stories already, their
voices compatible with all the other voices,
the cordiality, timorousness or genius
of their incomplete sentences.
I follow a shovel into the earth. This is what
the desert once was, a brazen hike through
unaccounted for territory, where the
inarticulate prayers rise like smoke signals,
easily believed and dispersed.
No answers
from the government or the bobble-headed Poe
figure all dressed in black on my desk or the
photo on my wall of the firing line of Apaches,
     “fighting terrorism since 1492.”
To reconcile what matters most with what might not,
these brazen sorrows,
                                    the first apricot tree blossoms
puncture the frigid air.
Imaginary Dolphins of Venice
The wishful thinking of dolphins swimming
in the canals of Venice
lousy panacea, beautiful hallucination
not to mention serendipitous swans, the
color of no more war.     Social distancing is
six feet to a thousand miles depending on
the color of your eyes. This light breeze-
spiked chime sounds either resigned or
aloof, I can’t tell which, and the thrashers
emote as though nothing is as communicable
as music.
The space between myself and everyone else
advances with age and I’m aging by the speed of sound.
This morning there was chicken sausage sizzling
and scrambled eggs, scents filled the kitchen.
Empire is now sharing a cup of coffee with the
rest of humanity. I don’t even know their names!
Empire is her holding me like I was the last
hermitage on earth. Our berserk dogs need their
Sunday hike, bereft of parishioners and sometimes
I don’t think the desert will summer us out of this
any more than dolphins will carry our grey ashes
out to sea.

The Day Ornette Coleman Played “Sadness.”

The deadened sky worships Buddha anarchy
I smile at the flummoxed president
New York Home Improvement Jesus says
we all ought to get together for the
future of jazz in America. Did you know
that at 8:45 a.m. hominid rush hour
someone on earth became a mother
a rockstar    a Golem     a bluebird
or eats a peach blessed by the pope?
Performs a black mass
watches a busy urban river
lose all of its nerve endings?
I watch my wife undress and I bounce
a feather off of her shadow, chilled April
light, a lost season’s pink moon.
The world prepares Ornette’s lips again
for Sadness.    Through the early spring cobweb
of a window, one shovel full of compost
after another. Not so far away on the steps
of the capitol, armed true believers defy the wind.
Without a Mask
I’m a pariah in the produce department
stuck between the okra and pomegranates
between a celery stalk and a hard place.
Americans in Sprouts are avoiding me
like the plague. I am Judah Ben-Hur’s
desperate leper.      I show them my
disposable gloves, one for each damned
hand and they see only my face indelibly
etched, a wizened map of pestilence and
war. I’m obviously from some alien land
that refused to protect itself from assault:
What did Macbeth do?      Believe Burnham
Wood or his own lying eyes?
All they see is a miscreant who quit shaving,
who came from some disheveled 1950’s Auden-
scape that “reeked of stale coffee grounds, tarry
nicotine and toe jam mixed with metro pollution
and catshit . . .”
A teenager was sanitizing all the cart and basket
handles. All the shoppers had my number and it was
tattooed on my face where a mask should’ve
been, protecting them from my army of
pathogens.     I social distanced my cart
up to the register. Next time, I’ll wear my
homemade mask to protect, if nothing else,
my compromised anonymity.
John Macker’s most recent books of poetry are Atlas of Wolves and The Blues Drink Your Dreams Away, Selected Poems: 1983-2018, which was a finalist for an Arizona/New Mexico Book Award. For several years he was contributing editor to Albuquerque’s Malpais Review. He has published 11 books of poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Pandemic Spring, with Azaleas by Lorna Wood
Isolate behind our glass,
feverishly wiping our droplets,
we are interrupted.
Wantonly they gather on boughs
that have given their all to bend
under the mad choir.
They hide their fragile stamens coyly in
crumpled white petals like nested tissues.
They flaunt themselves from delicate pink but
full-throated clusters, aspire unashamed
from lavender blooms, or (nostalgically)
with red and white stripes, hint at holidays:
aprons, candy stars, carefree homecomings.
Rank on untidy rank, the choristers,
trumpet mouths agape, peal out
rebukes. Their thoughtless burgeoning
is not for us. We must turn
to sterile wisdom, fervid fears.
Lorna Wood is a violinist and writer in Auburn, Alabama, with a Ph.D. in English from Yale. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in DASH, great weather for MEDIA’s 2020 anthology, Leaves of Loquat V (second prize, 2018 Loquat Literary Festival), Poetry South. Lorna has also published fiction, creative nonfiction, and scholarly essays, and she is Senior Editor of Gemini Magazine. Follow her at https://lornawoodauthor.wordpress.com
Days at Home by Michael Steffen
The fridge hums early in the morning with
unsettling urgency to get out of
the house, though it should know by now, a month
of Sundays on, we’re hanging in the cave
another day, and likely will all through
the merry month of May. The garbage trucks
groan out the window where little else moves.
The world for drama ‘s lost our look to Netflix,
gatherings on Zoom to beguile the distance,
a book on Churchill with a cup of tea,
this silence in the sky looming. It dims
unseen and weird like something out of science
fiction, all in subdued anxiety.
It’s spring. Leaves are dangling from their limbs.
Michael Steffen lives and works in Somerville, Massachusetts. His poems have been published, including in Another Chicago Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Connecticut Review, Ibbetson Street, and recently in The Concord Saunterer, His first book of poems, Partner, Orchard, Day Moon, was published by Cervena Barva Press in 2014.
Leakers: a Covid Poem by Matthew Ussia
Dead spring falls
in the neighborhood
warm breezes but
too early for shade
Libby is eager
to pull me out of a
webinar lecture PowerPoint
and into the empty streets
the busses roll by empty
she lunges at squirrels
three walks a day makes
the era of social distancing
the time of her young life
And while she stops
to sniff a tree-trunk
I wonder
how many folks
are in these houses
when they went
into self-quarantine
now liquefying into
their mattresses
becoming one
with the floorboards
until the neighbors
notice the smell.
Matthew Ussia is an English professor, writer, and thereminist from Pittsburgh.  Previous works have been featured in the Dreamers Anthology, Winedrunk Sidewalk, The Ekphrastic Review, and the Open Mic of the Air Podcast.
Five Poems by Belinda Subraman
Going Inside
Here I am eating
the best snacks
I have for quarantine
forcing myself to the backyard
planting flowers and buddhas
building a garden
nourishing peace
grasping for calm
with panic vibes darting
the atmosphere.
I meditate neurotically
paint, write these notes
to the world from El Paso
where I self-isolate now
with a dry cough
occasional sneeze
slight sore throat
addicted to pandemic tv.
Nearly a thousand died today in the USA
of the novel coronavirus.
I push myself to do the solitary walk outside
as my husband is not well enough to accompany me.
I’ve made a thick green womb
around a tree
in my backyard garden
I can no longer buy plants, pots or dirt
but I can split profuse aloe vera
and it likes stretching out
filling in new places it is welcome.
An aloe finger offers itself
from an elevated perch
next to my outdoor chair.
It actually curves on the end
as if it wants to be held.
I clasp its cool finger
and feel comfort
and connection to life.
Isolated in quarantine
I take comfort where I can.
I have a husband, two cats
and plants who love me.
Brief Escape Bummer
The trip to the fast food place
wasn’t exciting as I expected.
Three people were clumped
behind the window laughing,
one handing out food
with no mask or gloves,
yet we ate it
sitting in the car
outside a park
closed due to Covid-19.
El Paso had 225
confirmed cases today
and one death.
Quarantine felt safer,
a huddling in a womb,
cozy and familiar
with someone I love.
Home is a comfortable prison
and I just wanted to go there.
El Paso: 393 Confirmed Cases, 6 deaths
I’m living an inverted dream
waking up in a nightmare
of being trapped in a 50s
black and white B movie
bad script, stiff actors.
When the villain shoots
the Sheriff with the prop gun
he dies. At first we think
his acting has improved
but the fake blood doesn’t stop
because it’s real.
The stone stare
of the whitening face
is becoming a monument
to life, a reminder it all ends.
He won’t get up again.
The killer is invisible.
The theaters are closed.
Life is not a movie
and this isn’t a dream.
Tonight We Tried Out For a Sci-Fi  Movie
April 18, 2020, El Paso: 505 cases/ 8 deaths
We were two old hippies
on a mountain top in a cool wind.
One sat banging on a clanky
knock-off pan drum
while the other played the car door
with one hand
clicking the fingers on the sun visor
with the other.
People may have been stunned
entertained or bemused
three parking spaces apart
while the deadly unseen
stalked and threatened.
From the darkness arose
music to match the mood.
We were aliens who hear
another register
no human can detect
pleasing our own race
in another galaxy
saluting our infinite connection
to all graced to hear
together touched by grief
and compassion
with hope for at least
the most boring day we ever had
before Covid-19.
Belinda has been writing and publishing for about 30 years. Her own writing has grown to span a vast array of subjects, styles and publications. She has traveled in over 20 countries, lived in Europe for 6 years and was part of an East Indian family for 22 years. These cross-cultural experiences often inform her work as well as her experiences as a Registered Nurse. These days her poetry, stories, and art can be found in hundreds of journals, reviews, anthologies, books and chapbooks. Since 1994 her archives are housed at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, in the Center for Southwest Research.
War and Peace By Susan Champion 
How to retain our peace?
In this germ war
Enemy hidden, like a sniper
Bullets ejected silently
Not from your enemy,
Your best friend, your neighbour, your child
…. This war, turned feral, wild
How to retain our peace?
In this germ war
Stay home, you’re not alone
Sing praises, rejoice!
With gratitude, for life
For love, give voice
In prayer
For those in danger
Warriors, going over the top
To save a stranger
How to retain our peace?
In this germ war
Remember older wars, conquered
Real or imagined, you came through
Learnt to cope with loss
Regained your sanity
Among the broken pieces, tossed
Into your soul, your brain
Put your trust in Jesus
To regain your peace again
Susan Champion  April 2020
Alicante, Spain
Three Poems by Carlos Hernández Peña
hibernation, beginning spring 2020
so, during the day
parents work from home
while kids are schooling on line
at night, there are no concerts, no shows,
no theatres for plays or films,
no restaurants, coffee shops or bars
streets and parking lots
like airports and train stations
also, pretty much empty—
people fear their savings
will be emptied soon, too
like at the grocery stores, toilet paper
gone within a few hours
among other hygienic and food items
until 8pm, so far, only open spaces are open
most of us enjoy that—since temples
and gyms have also been closed
where is Gretchen? —I’d say it myself:
perhaps, this is just a reminder
from Mother Earth, to stop fighting
among our arrogant selves, instead
care for each other, including her, Earth
daily walk, Thursday, March 27, 2020
floating shadows of apparently aimless branches—
my thoughts about our current predicament:
confined to present safety and uncertain future—
another day, another walk, connecting smiles
and greetings, we are on a sci-fi stage with COVID-19—
who will come to our rescue—
can’t jump into these branches like a monkey
for sanctuary far above in the clouds
or deep into the water… how long patience—
cold spring outside my window, a never-ending weekend shutdown
this is not a fork on the road, this is not a mirador
across endless fields at the top of some high mountain
neither that clear moment in time
where you can see forever, no, it’s more like a stop—
regardless of where you were or where you are,
corona virus doesn’t care about delicate health
of relatives, friends or bank accounts,
a new romantic relation, traveling plans,
the last months of the school year, or daily work…
almost all came to a stop: such an uncertainty
hasn’t hovered in our time this long, philosophers
and mystics perhaps disagree with scientists—
none trust politicians—not quite our best hope, better
befriend nurses and doctors, now—show them gratitude
Carlos Hernández Peña was born in Mexico City and is the author of Moonmilk and Other Poems. He translated into Spanish Behind God’s Back by KányádiHis work appeared in Drunken Boat, Fox Chase Review, US1 Worksheets, Hayden’s Ferry Review and other journals.  He recently retired from Segal, employee benefits consultants and actuaries in Princeton, New Jersey.
2020 by Phil Saunders
empathy’s spirit
empties into deep currents
chasms of disaster
in cries for relief
songs and jokes bring lost laughter
soothe for fearful hearts
unwanted curves speak
globe’s painful barometer
our lives saved or lost
for the common good
severe measures presented
isolations test
short term wilfulness
fuelling disaster’s whirlwind
undoing good work
country lives fearing
strangers bringing pestilence
joining fires ruin
facing people’s loss
Treasury’s bounty given
hard line rules foregone
one’s dignified Queen
contrasts pompous President
inspiring subjects
during ‘great lockdown’
creativity soared
giving morale wings
minds looking forward
passed current never never
awaiting respite
work in progress – 29 March to 20 April 2020
Phil Saunders – Belair, South Australia
Two Poems By Arlyn LaBelle
The morning that you died, I read about a flood
about the earth growing soft, walls
splitting like fruit.
I would not have waited either.
There is no place to store
our grief, no
white walled room
pierced with uniforms
for mourning, no
so when it comes we breathe
opened mouthed, like children.
I’m found
sitting on the floor.
When they mail me things of yours
they will sit in a corner of my room
for days, a floor adrift in muddy waves
until they cannot harm me.
I built a cave in my body
for the three of us to hide.
I will do the breathing for us.
They will not take you

Arlyn LaBelle is a poet and flash fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared multiple times in the Badgerdog summer anthologies as well as The Blue Hour, LAROLA, JONAH Magazine, The Oddville Press, Songs of Eretz, Grey Sparrow Press, Cease, Cows and The Southern Poetry Review.

Two Poems by Peter Scheponik
Flowers and Loneliness
Violets and dandelions, what pleasure they bring
with their purple petals and sunshine smiles
lining the grass along the edges of the walking path
running beside the Perkiomen Creek.
In the distancing of these lockdown days,
the closeness of these flowers have a way
of healing my heart, of filling my soul
with the promise of new life, of being whole,
even when the world is spinning out of control
with separation that makes me lose my balance.
Until I see these perfect blooms,
offering beauty to brighten darker moods,
to lift my mind to higher realms,
to make me see my better self,
petal by petal, making a heaven of this hell
of feeling alone.
Easter Sunday Elegy
There was such a ruckus raised when the churches were closed for Easter.
Headlines of the Pope preaching to an empty courtyard in the Vatican.
Bocelli’s Ave Maria filling the streets of Milan.
People bemoaning the fact they couldn’t gather in the Father’s house
to praise the Son on His special day.
But I say, what is all this fuss?
Is not the blue sky a cathedral roof?
Is not the flowering earth a cathedral floor?
Do not the birds’ wings bring to mind the angels?
Does not the return of the tulips and daffodils ring belief
in rebirth and resurrection?
Do not the robins sing sweet hymns of musical perfection?
What need have we of mortar or stone,
of steeples or stained-glass windows?
Whether we’re in a group or all alone, God’s doors are always open.
There are congregations of faithful trees, whispering prayers
through the lips of their leaves.
There are flocks of birds like practiced choirs, singing alleluias
that bless the hours.
And God, in His holiness, richly showers His countless blessings on all.
Peter Scheponik has recently been published in Adelaide, All the Sins, Big Windows Review, Boned: Skeletal Writings, Del Sol review, Grey Sparrow Journal, North of Oxford, Ottawa Arts Review, Peeking Cat Poetry, Poetry Pacific, Red Eft review, Sincerely, Smoky Blue Magazine, The Black Lion Journal, The Phoenix, Time of Singing, Visitant, Westward Quarterly, WINK: Writers in the Know, The Wire’s Dream, and Streetlight Press.
Nostalgia in the Year of the Plague by David Kozinski
At the PNC in Graylyn Shopping Center,
I knocked on the lobby door
wearing accoutrements of a bandit
or a surgeon; waited, communing with the ATM,
watching crows and gulls own the parking lot
through the big wide windows.
Long ago, when shares of companies
came in paper form – as ornately inked as currency
in violet, indigo, rust, oxblood, olive –
I lodged my sheaves in a rental at the bank.
When I was told, by my girlfriend, no less,
that I was a cold S.O.B.
I said I liked stopping by the branch
on a chilly morning, opening my box
in a cozy cell and spending
a warm quarter-hour renewing acquaintances
with my blue chip buddies.
They stood for support, traded only in facts,
always presented splendidly, and spoke quietly
if at all.
Now those friends are gone – consigned to insubstantiality,
memorialized in artless keystrokes. Yet, somehow
I need a bigger box – for wills, testaments,
titles, bits of jewelry, death certificates,
deeds both current and done.
Instead of handing the little key
to the woman who led me to the vault
she had me slip it in with my latex-gloved fingers.
We exchanged muffled pleasantries
about strange days, about Easter
that was more like Halloween and I joked
that I hadn’t walked into a bank wearing a mask
in a very long time – and by appointment,
no less. She chuckled at that, even though
she’d heard that one before,
like earlier that morning, more than once.
A Reckoning by Maria Keane
I beg
to hear the river rushing
an incessant rocking
down a deep corridor
where darkness—
it’s there
I am tied to it.
Not even wings can free me.
from the black
for a reason we suppose—
is for the good.
Night- blooming  trees
feed a need to breathe.
Their perfume
saturates the senses
splinters a fracture
to eliminate hysteria.
Walking through a web
I break, unraveling
the first silence
A Reckoning
under the sole edict
of sound.
I see it now
and quench some dark history
in the presence of anxiety.
I will walk in shadow,
hold on to murmers,
listening for you to arrive just in time.
You reduce the havoc of the trees
repair my will
to believe
all things are only in the moment.
The Spiritual Aftermath by Ben Mazer
After the war, we happened across the grounds
of a closed up manor, abandoned for many years,
and there we sat a long time, making vows
to stay together millenniums beyond
the crooked smile of the grocer and his pounds
of fish piled into newspapers at evening,
at evening when the swirling clouds let down
their blues and magentas to the city’s frown.
You in your fine-spun cloak of scarlet wool
throughout the war have felt the pause and pull
of many a district, seen from overhead
while every sleeping person is in their bed,
and scattered thus, throughout the city’s streets,
divined how all of history revisits
these scenes where many a cheerful orphan played,
and through the long hours we have watched and prayed.
Thus we commemorate a burnt out time,
sparseness of flowers, in a springtime clime.
The looms have made a wartime peace again,
and sough the earth with temporary flowers,
that blossom brightly from the earthen men,
and promise fills the silence of our hours,
taking long walks over hills, across the fen,
relieved of our extraordinary powers
by deaths that do not fail to tell us when
the bells engorge the hills with all their sound,
or when strange wraiths of children gather round
to fill with distant laughter tops of trees,
mysterious burdens of the diocese.
Twenty years we had of it in exile
from each other. Luck has come our way.
With patience and with slowness through each day
we learned to talk again, we learned to smile.
The wind was strands of Dracula, children playing,
we sailed all day the river in a punt,
after great loss were in it for the hunt
after the secret of our early maying.
But each was quiet, and spoke none too soon,
of fragmentations of the lunar June
that jarred and turned us in the depths in saying,
and brought us to the hour of our Lord
the strong inaction of our strange accord.
Once before the war, a secret garden
had been the locus of our shy inquiries.
And though by force I never knew your mind,
I saw you weeping in my inmost dreams,
yet I was paralyzed to tell my love,
a young man with insoluble dreams.
But when I left you, then I fell apart,
and went a way that left me no recourse
to action in the first spring of my youth,
who in the secret garden knew I loved you.
Now with a caution that is politic,
and dressed in woolen cloaks to warm the winter,
we sit a long time on a burnt out grounds,
assessing the increments of our separation.
Trains glide and hurtle to the countryside,
letting on passengers, compartments slide
open, the evening light is coming on,
that cuts through the thick gray of English day,
with English armour steeped in manor halls
professing patience and a little knowledge,
to the child’s coloring book the very edge,
ancestral portraits hanging on the walls,
how natural the words they say.
A disappointment at best, the lurching stops
above the balding heads and at the tops
of imagination’s temporal-spatial spread,
of ideas that maintain the mingling thread
of mail, and ledgers, a new rubber bra,
to hold the sportsman in his hunting awe.
These are the thoughts the evening meditates on,
whistling against armaments and bombs,
the poor of England are still in their wombs.
But here in New England different worlds apply,
with rustic beauty set against white spires,
golden and glowering as a fatal day,
in company of your pure white array.
Why is it that I always want to die?
Was it myself had taken you away
from sight, for always, seeking to be blind,
so honourably to revulse my mind,
Sebastian sung out by the chapels’ choirs.
I come back and walk there with you still.
There is no other urge I have to kill.

Ben Mazer is the author of several collections of poems, including White Cities (Barbara Matteau Editions, 1995), Poems (Pen & Anvil Press, 2010), January 2008 (Dark Sky Books, 2010), New Poems (Pen & Anvil Press, 2013), and The Glass Piano (MadHat Modern Poetry Series, 2015). He is the editor of The Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom (Un-Gyve Press, 2015), Selected Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (Harvard University Press, 2010), and Landis Everson’s Everything Preserved: Poems 1955–2005 (Graywolf Press, 2006), which won the first Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Foundation. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is the editor of The Battersea Review.

3-a issue