Fallowed and Becalmed

(with acknowledgements to Billie Holiday & Abel Meeropol, Jim Morrison, and Devo)

excerpted in Behind the Mask: 40 Quarantine Poems from Humboldt County, 2020

Behind the Mask


This fallowed field frames our time:

            the structure of our soil redefined

            untilled until the flood we know will come.


Well-worked before the blight

            we test its tilth in silent streets

            quiescent public spaces, empty slips.


But the abandonment is shallow

            only surface-bare, the harbored ships and buildings

            bleed, so thick they are with life and longing.


Still we shelter in our cabins, becalmed:

            the flesh retreats to salty sallow bones

            of sickness and regret. In desperation


we borrow the youth of our children’s lives,

            secretly reverse our parents’ mortgage,

            and pawn grandparents’ legacy for booze.

                        All to justify the past.

                        The bill is due.


Ironic electronic comics co-mix on the air

            virus protection severed at the head—

            logic circuits shorted-out with hairspray,

            spur a million minions on to armed denial:

                        Open up! Damn the data! Full speed ahead!

                        Yo! Gallows crooners! Sing to the rafters!

                        Appeal for more applause!

                                    as trap doors drop

and bodies twitch and sway.


We sail away to reap unfallowed shores,

            to use the heated tide to raise all boats,

            but though flood waters rise, there is no wind.

Lulled, we pull from dinghies, coxswain hoarse

            reshouting orders never understood

            masks cover both his ears but not his mouth

            weak wet breath fogs face shields as we row

            we squint to read the signing hands behind

            propaganda-podium performers

                        reality stars spew unreality

                        The Situation stalks the Situation Room

                        he’s been elected Captain of the World

                        the Ship of State is in his grip of doom

                                    as lemming-rats escape into their tombs

                                    shallows-sailors schoon full sail into reefs,

                                    pursuing loyalty not buoyancy

                                    they kiss the ring of commander-in-thief

                                    and set more canvas as the virus rips our hull

                        while body-bags of new Strange Fruit are hanged

                        from the pure white yardarms of Good Ship Hope,

                                    its red double-crosses spawning tent-morgues.

                                            Embalmed.    Becalmed.    Fallowed.


Horse Latitudes breed coarse platitudes

            still-birthed currents tiny monsters.

Flail or fallow further, dance or drown:

            legs furiously pump the volume

            cranking up confinement music

            break on through to cardio panic:

                        Keep it going! Keep it up!

                        Pant! Fetch! Roll over! Play dead!

                        Get spiritual-minded!

                        Don’t let yourself and others down!

                        Don’t fallow idle! Teach the children!

                        Spur your hobbies! Make more art!

                        Up and download! Stream and binge!

                        Zoom around your partner’s screen

                        forget to clear your history

                        schedule make-up sex, forget your makeup

                        sext your landlord by mistake

                        pandemic virtue-news is fake relief

                        relive, retrieve your life in full

                        pass-time all the time

         pass time         times past        time’s up.


Now the fever fills the lungs and shallow

            intubated breathing clings to life.

We cultivate, we culturate

            evacuate occult blood from our bowels

            as all around us human tallow drips

            and draws the sea-salt sorrow from our eyes.


Ground-fog rises to lowering sea-clouds

            the vampire-mist spreads brighter than the slate sky

            as dawn-light splits the air from blackened hills

            grey rainbows wet the backs of starving cows:

            the morning comes, yet no one wakes.

       We sleep.           Becalmed.           Fallowed.


These naked fields will in time be fecund;

            weeds that we call crops will intercede.

Though oceans we pretend to sail are beckoned

            to hollows in the earth to salt the seed

the earth below, slow burning, will explode.


Our culture is at work at home

            the culture of the loam

            the tunnels of the worms

            the nematodes of joy

            the nodes of nitro-fixing germs

            we till to live we live until

   untilled        becalmed        we fallow.


How will the callow children of this night

begin to find their hallows of delight?