On the penultimate page in my copy of During the Pandemic, Rick Barot’s poignant new chapbook, I am told: “You are holding No. 77.” The numbers are penciled onto the page in a small, neat script, with horizontal slashes cutting through each 7. The penciled numbers were written by the poet Brian Teare, whose micropress, Albion Books, published 165 copies of the chapbook in August.
I focus on this detail because as I write this I am alone in my office on an afternoon in early October, and the only person I have touched since March is my partner. These pencilled numbers are the most intimate contact I’ve had with a stranger since spring, and the numbers exemplify everything that is vital and necessary about Albion Books, and about the poetry community I am only just becoming a part of.
It may be obvious to note, but “selling” poetry in America is much different than selling a novel, or an essay collection, or even a cookbook. Poets know one another. The community is close and supportive, and even its most prominent stars are generally unknown to the greater reading public. We are each other’s biggest fans and most careful readers. I should clarify that these are strengths of poetry, not criticisms. After all, poetry began as an oral tradition, as the sole transmitter of story and myth; all culture was passed down by voice, generation to generation, until the creation of the written word. That being so, it seems clear that intimacy is integral to this vocation.
Albion Books engenders and fortifies this connection between poets by adhering to principles of material conservation and limited-scale production. Intimacy is built into its very practice. Production costs are kept below $150 per project; at least 50% of the paper for each project must come from materials leftover from previous projects or from off-cuts donated by or bought from other printers; all letterpress printing is done either on a Kelsey platen press or on a shared Chandler & Price at the Virginia Center for the Book; all wood and metal type is hand set; and at least 35% of each edition must be given away or bartered. The emphasis on hand-cut, hand-set, hand-sewn, bartered products feels more essential than ever in this era of physical distancing and financial uncertainty. Each time I open my copy, I marvel at the tightly bound grey-blue string that rises from the book’s gutter between pages fourteen and fifteen, and I run my finger along the thin impressions it leaves in the paper when the book is closed. Traces of another’s presence, of another’s craft, haunts every edition of Barot’s book.
The poems themselves, it should be said, are remarkable. A single line at the start, “[March 2020],” is the only context we are given for the work. This is followed by thirty single-paragraph prose blocks, one per page, each beginning with the unassumingly direct phrase, “During the pandemic, I….” Using this formal constraint, Barot captures the absurdities and anxieties of the pandemic’s first wave in America: “When we went outside we wore latex gloves the colors of Easter. We stood apart in the mandated distance, like the remaining pieces at the end of a game of chess.” Again and again, he articulates the uneasy ennui of that month, how home became at once more familiar to us, but also strangely unfamiliar: “I would lie on the floor and read heavy books, surprised by the legs of furniture.” Even memory is colored by current events, as the speaker recalls gazing at a “lit hotel pool” where people were “caught in gestures that made me think of Pompeii.” No observation is innocent of, or separable from, this new reality. Walking outside is a reminder that “every body [is] a vector, every public space a possible inflection point, the very air a moral injury.”
Barot is not a poet of despair, though. He is a believer in the sustaining power of verse. By the month’s end, when over 1,000 Americans were dying each day of the virus and the full force of the pandemic was beginning to show itself, Barot says, “And there were days when I remembered the teacher who made us memorize a poem each week, and when we asked why, she said we might one day find ourselves in a wreck at the side of the road and we would recite these poems to stay alive.”
Yes, that sounds about right.
Rick Barot is an American poet and the director of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-res MFA at Pacific Lutheran University. He is also the poetry editor of New England Review. Although no more physical copies of During the Pandemic are available for purchase or for barter, you can read the book in its entirety on Instagram.
has poetry forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, The Raintown Review, and elsewhere. He is the Production Coordinator for Poetry Daily and an MFA candidate at George Mason University.