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By Peggy Shumaker

The people were used to dying
one at a time

Then came a sickness
upon the land,
came a sickness
to every nation

Came a sickness that killed

killed the already ill, killed
those who had not known
sickness, killed the generous of heart
who cared for the dying, killed
the brilliant and the dull,
young and old, killed
those who took great care,
killed the careless,
killed those who embraced
worship, killed those
who touched
no God, killed
those confined, killed
those who for 10,000 years
survived, killed those newly arrived,
killed those imprisoned
for being poor, killed
teachers, killed hungry students,
killed those who hoarded
medicines, killed
those who needed medicine

The people were used to grieving
by gathering

the goodness each person
brought to the world

Then upon the land
came this sickness

Left bereft
we masked ourselves

So many at once, gone
without touching
without goodbye
without a kiss
without rites
over centuries

Came a sickness
that has our finest minds scrambling
to invent vaccines, to
mass-produce PPE,
to test and test and test
to prepare

Came more sickness
of mind,
price gouging, scams, lies,
the constant deliberate
train crash of lies

Came the kindness of strangers,
kindness of neighbors

Came a healing

came groceries
left on the porch, came
cloth quilted into masks
came brown blue hazel green
eyes above them
seeking other eyes

Came second chances
for the lucky,
recoveries, mild
dreams, wild dreams
of what next

Came a second wave
of sickness

Came deep grief
opening rituals
we’d never touched

Came a call
call for cease fire
in every war

Breathe in, breathe out
this air we share

Each breath a blessing

that those left on earth
might cherish
buds unfurling,
cherish ripe mango

Care the best we can

Every person worthy
Every person us

No them



There came a sickness upon the land
that joined every other sickness
that said, “You are not us, not you.”

Peggy Shumaker is the daughter of two deserts—the Sonoran desert where she grew up and the subarctic desert of interior Alaska where she lives now.  Shumaker was honored by the Rasmuson Foundation as its Distinguished Artist.  She served as Alaska State Writer Laureate. She received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.  Shumaker is the author of eight books of poetry, including Cairn, her new and selected volume. Her lyrical memoir is Just Breathe Normally. Professor emerita from University of Alaska Fairbanks, Shumaker teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA at PLU. She serves on the Advisory Board for Storyknife, and on the board of the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation. Shumaker is editor of the Boreal Books series (an imprint of Red Hen Press), editor of the Alaska Literary Series at University of Alaska Press, poetry editor of Persimmon Tree, and contributing editor for Alaska Quarterly Review.