Love in the Time of Coronavirus:
A Pandemic Pilgrimage
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Reviewed by Christiana Martin
No one went through 2020 without being affected by the coronavirus pandemic. We all felt keenly how quickly the world quieted. No more gatherings, no roads jammed with drivers trying to get somewhere, no more handshakes or hugs, no more bustling shops.
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, a resident of New York City, knows this sudden silencing firsthand. In the prologue to her poetry collection, Love in the Time of Coronavirus, she tells us she spent the first year of the pandemic in New York City. This book is the consequent fruit of her time spent in lockdown and her response to the effects of the coronavirus.
Selected for the cover is Room in New York, an Edward Hopper painting. A New Yorker himself, Hopper is known for painting lonely images, depicting people who are in the same physical space but often occupy separate mental spaces. In this painting, the couple do not face each other, but are absorbed in their own worlds; he in his newspaper, she in toying with the piano. This painting was an excellent choice not just for the locale, but for its depiction of isolation between two people in the same room.
The pandemic pushed this isolation upon all of us, whether we lived with family or by ourselves. With the social distancing guidelines, it was hard for families to be affectionate in their own homes, which O’Donnell illustrates in her poem “The Rules: March 22, 2020”:
Don’t shake hands. Don’t kiss. Don’t touch yourself.
Don’t travel anywhere. Just stop and stay
far & deep inside your own walls.
While we stayed inside our homes, the social isolation also led to, for many, mental isolation and loneliness. We were stuck inside the walls of our own homes and our own minds. But we did not remain there, and neither did O’Donnell. She saw staying inside as an act of love.
She describes these poems as a chronicle of a “pilgrimage to hope” (5). Though this pilgrimage was physically stationary, she notes that “any pilgrimage worth making is a pilgrimage of the head and heart as much as it is one of the legs and feet” (7). She, like all of us, has been shaped by the pandemic and its toll. Her locale may not have changed, but her soul has. We have all gone through a similar pilgrimage along with her, some more devastating than others. But we have still learned to see hope amidst the pain.
The first poems collected here feel like a seed buried in the ground. We know it will one day bloom, but it’s still so dark beneath the soil. Even still, the joy of what’s to come is there in the darkness. O’Donnell carries this tension of hope and fear throughout the collection, and “Pandemic Music” demonstrates this fine balance. She starts the poem with some everyday sounds, like birdsong and the garbage truck. Birdsong is often a symbol of hope, a harbinger of forthcoming good. Similarly, the garbage truck reminds us that even amidst the tragedy and the fear, life goes on. However, while O’Donnell counts her life among her blessings, she closes the poem with the grim reality:
The killer plague runs amok.
We listen for the garbage truck. (16)
O’Donnell’s is not a false optimism, glossing over all the tragedy with “Everything’s fine!” and a plastered-on smile. In fact, she demonstrates what it means to have hope in hard times. She acknowledges the terror and the hope simultaneously, thus pointing to their paradoxical coexistence.
O’Donnell has composed a very human work in her collection. Her sonnets capture all the emotions of surviving the pandemic. She doesn’t just hold the fear and the hope, but also the anxiety, frustration, optimism, boredom, desperation, loneliness, and the newfound joy in the simple things. One poem, “Cabin Fever,” focuses on an insatiable wanderlust, a hunger for new places cultivated in lockdown.
She encapsulates the experience of the pandemic right down to how it has shifted our view of time. In “The Race,” she compares our progression through time to a racehorse, “whipped and driven by the clock, / more so than ever…” Though in the early days of lockdown especially, the days peeled off the calendar slowly, many felt the need to be productive with all their extra time. Grinding on work and other domestic projects–like the bread-baking craze–while going through the stresses of a pandemic was and is exhausting.
Despite the grim subject matter, O’Donnell’s love for language shines through these poems. Along with the ending rhymes you expect from sonnets, she also uses internal rhymes that add a pleasant cadence to her lines, especially when read aloud. Consider these lines from “Super Moon,” a sonnet describing the brief reprieve found in walking beneath the moon with her spouse:
…It did not feel like night
but, rather, evening or morning or something
in between, blue and smoky, like the last
set of a Jazz Man’s song. What could go wrong
on a night like that?…
Additionally, some poems focus entirely on the little drops of triumph and joy. For instance, “Time” compares living to a card game against the titular “opponent” which you can win by “enjoy[ing] the game, / hold[ing] lightly what you’ve got.” A few pages later, O’Donnell offers us a delicious poem “In Praise of Food,” finding strength and relief from her troubles in the small, sweet pleasures of cooking a meal.
O’Donnell uses enjambment in many of her poems, recalling the days that blended into each other as we waited for the world to settle into some sort of normal. It even brings to mind the seemingly eternal nature of the pandemic itself. But “Transience” and “The Virus Begins to Abate” both use end-stops. In both, these end-stops communicate two different ideas. In “Transience,” the periods ending each line remind us of our own mortality, that our lives will one day end. But in “The Virus Begins to Abate,” those same periods hint at the fact that this pandemic will not last forever, though it has left its mark on us, as described by the unvisited door “at which no one knocks.”
As the title suggests, O’Donnell uses this book to explore love in all its iterations: of children, of parents, of strangers, of spouses. In so doing, she records how we all showed our love to each other by staying inside and limiting contact. But in chronicling these acts in her journey toward hope, she also reminds us that our hope is rooted in Love Himself–God, the One whose name is Love. She writes two series of poems reimagining Holy Week and Advent within a COVID context, respectively. These sonnets remind us that God stepped into our world and took on skin for us. He’s always with us, from the darkness and uncertainty of the pandemic to the joy of spending time in community once more.
The pandemic taught us not to take anything for granted–not quick meet-ups for coffee with friends, the joy of worshipping together, the blessings of our health, our lives. Love in the Time of Coronavirus reminds us not just of this crisis we’re all going through together, but also of these lessons: that nothing lasts forever, whether good or bad; that hope is always around the corner, in spite of the darkness; that we can still love one another, even if we can’t be in one another’s presence; and that God is still with us.