I wrote this when I was having a really difficult time with myself, and someone else.
— Tash Sultana, introducing her song “Notion” at NPR Tiny Desk
I’m persuaded it’s grief that I’m fighting when I have trouble focusing on writing. I miss personal contact with friends and family. I turn the page of my calendar and see what I planned to be doing this week to celebrate an anniversary (a list of sites to visit in Northern England) and I’m abstracted again. Damn. Hadrian’s Wall. Cancelled. I am having “a really difficult time with myself,” and I have a notion to drink whiskey and play Legend of Zelda on the big screen. I don’t want to kill Bokoblins and die every time I take on a centaur-like Lynel, no, I just want to direct my avatar to take off his armor and stand knee deep in a tropical sea looking at the sunrise over the ocean. It’s beautiful. Hundreds of colors turn in the sky, birds glide by, palms shift in the breeze.
Snap out of it. Going into our third month of isolation, I’ve renewed my efforts to make a weekday writing routine. And on a good week, the weekdays flow down a tunnel of writing and reading. Grief lurks outside the door, sporting a bad haircut and a funky homemade mask, pulling his ears out. Don’t open the door! But I do, and I go out running before I write.
My friend Scott compares running in these times to playing Pac-Man. You have to reach your goal of covering all the sidewalks without being eaten by a ghost (which are our stumbling neighbors, eyes down on their squawking phones). Such runs are full of hurried turns and calculations in order to stay “safe.”
“Death has no loopholes,” Lucretius writes, but writing during a pandemic leads me to look for them anyway. Fortresses. Food stores. Instead of running through the crowded neighborhoods, I seek out empty Palo Alto office parks. Are they our modern fortresses? Are they the evacuated mead halls, killing grounds for the menacing Grendels of Covid? They are surrounded by flat moats of hot asphalt, their walls about the same height as the fortifications of an English castle. After circling the moats and eyeing the walls, there’s something thrilling, erotic, about penetrating the floral alleyways that lead to these little corporate Edens, emptied of their human buzz, their oasis fountains still splashing, their fruits still on the vine. I run through with victory arms held high like a celebrating Beowulf, ready to tell my tale to the king.
In the office parks my mind is free to wander. I loop around the parking lot again when a thought consumes me. I make up names for the little ornamental landscapes that accent my runs. What I call the “Vale of Flowing Tears” has bridges over ponds showered by fountains and an artificial waterfall next to a two-story staircase that I ascend two steps at a time. The “Gates of Immortality” are iron scrollwork flowers and vines ten feet high, which hinge upon square cement columns, perhaps remnants of a ranch or estate. The gate opens onto an entry lane, “The Avenue of Survivors,” lined with London plane trees, those hearty hybrids of American sycamores and Asian planes that do so well in polluted urban deserts. On blacktop I aim for every spot of shade, connecting the dots. I write lines along columns of trees that separate the parks, and make connections between the smoker-trampled landscapes that mark the back corners of these lots.
On these runs, I seek “pre-reflective excitation and orientation,” as Seamus Heaney once put it.
I compose my passage in the eyes of GPS, hawks, and rabbits. I turn ideas around in my mind and run back to my writing desk, my body acting as my very own “verse-craft,” as Heaney imagined, rushing home to “dock safe and sound at the big quay of the language.” The next morning, I set out again on the same quest for the ideas, revisions, connections, and insights that come to me in the flow-state of running.
— Edward Derby, Palo Alto, California
Derby’s poems have appeared in Rattle, Carolina Quarterly, and American Chordata among others. After more than a decade teaching English in a public high school, he now studies creative writing in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.