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April 21 Coronavirus Update: Poetry During The Pandemic

Alaskan author and poet Don Rearden.
Joe Yelverton

April is National Poetry Month, and this April, as in previous years, Alaska author Don Rearden is writing a poem a day to celebrate. But it’s different this time, because of the coronavirus pandemic.  

Rearden says that the coronavirus has made it tougher to turn out that daily poem.

“I just can’t write a completely silly poem for no reason now. There’s a little weight to what I’m trying to do, I think. So that makes it a little tougher too.”

This is not the first time Rearden’s dealt with the idea of a pandemic. His novel “The Raven’s Gift” took place in a rural Alaska filled with devastation and death caused by a mysterious disease. The motivation for the book, he says, was anger over the third world conditions in contemporary rural Alaska. But now, with a real pandemic in the region, Rearden, who grew up in Southwest Alaska and taught school here, has second thoughts about that bleak story.

“When this started to become a reality, I really regretted even writing the book because I have so many friends out there and people I know who have read it, and I didn’t want that vision to be in their mind of what bad can transpire,” Rearden said.

At the same time, though, Rearden is inspired by the way his former neighbors and friends are responding to the real pandemic. He sits back and applauds villagers and those he grew up with because he sees a community strength that informs life and is shaping the response to the threat posed by COVID-19. These are a people that have been devastated by pandemics in the past and survived. 

“I’m just super proud to see friends of mine,” Rearden says, “who are now years out in the villages, saying 'we’re shutting down where no one comes in and establishing those rules.' I think the mentality of community and safety over the individual is paramount. The rules coming out of the CDC and everywhere: wash your hands, wash your hands. Well, that’s hard when you don’t have running water. I know that there are people out there just working to go get water and bring it to people. They’re relatives or descendants of people who survived this stuff, and they have that. It’s in the blood, too, to survive it; the intelligence to get through it.” 

Rearden talked with KYUK’s Katie Basile, who was one of his students when he taught high school English in Bethel years ago. He shared one poem that he wrote during this year's Poetry Month called "For the Essentials." It features those he names as the real heroes: the ones in our communities who continue to go to work everyday to keep grocery stores open.

“There will be no medals for you, no dinners in your honor, no book offers, movie deals, or dramas capturing your sacrifices, your sweat and toil for a nation hungry for chocolate ice cream and extra toilet paper; essentials we purchase delivered, unboxed, stocked, bagged. No pension for you to lose, no sick leave, no funeral fund or insurance against anything. Know this, you heroes, your selflessness does not go unnoticed. And after the cleanup on aisle America is over, we will find a way to give you the thanks you have earned.”

“The cleanup on aisle America. Wow," said Basile.

“Every once in a while, I’ll have a line that’s okay. And the rest of the poem could probably get thrown out, but 'the cleanup on aisle America works just good,'” said Rearden, laughing.

Katie Basile is an independent photographer and multimedia storyteller from Bethel, Alaska.
Johanna Eurich's vivid broadcast productions have been widely heard on National Public Radio since 1978. She spent her childhood speaking Thai, then learned English as a teenager and was educated at a dance academy, boarding schools and with leading intellectuals at her grandparents' dinner table in Philadelphia.
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  • COVID-19 in the Y-K Delta. Updated when case counts are made available, all information is from the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation's COVID-19 dashboard.