Pandemic Poem #22

Pandemic Poem #22 is about the strong relationship between smells and memory, how a fragrance can forge a memory, and then that fragrance, or the memory of it, can trigger that memory and from there, open you up to a series of memories tied to other scents, in a sort of olfactory stream-of-consciousness as comforting as it is nostalgic. I think in many ways this very human response to smells is what drives us to seek comfort foods–apple pie, homemade bread, tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches–whatever we loved as children, whatever we bind in our memories to our comfort and security. Just the smell of that same food calls forth powerful responses from our subconscious. I’m not a scientist, and I don’t know the particular scientific explanation for this phenomenon; I consider it more magic than anything, this ability we have to recall people and things in their absence simply through the waft of a scent on a breeze, the thought of a scent in our minds.

(Reading tip: if you are reading this on your phone screen, turning the screen sideways will result in a correct placement of each line; otherwise, they are broken up in unusual and not especially poetic fashion.)


The Things We Miss

There’s a beautiful tree just outside
one of the dorms on Old Campus,
slight and lovely, and every April
it produces the most blithely fragrant
tiny white blossoms, their heady scent
wafting on the breeze, in through the
windows, announcing even more clearly
than the bright sun that calls them forth:
It’s spring, students! It’s spring, professors!
Everyone on campus, harken to me–
It’s spring!

I’ve never thought to ask what kind of tree it is.
But now, the campus closed, from a distance,
I think of it at unexpected times, wonder what
its name is, how it’s doing, recall its fragrance
with as much nostalgia as I do the smells
of friends and lovers and loved ones in the past–
this particular suntan lotion, that summer;
that particular cologne, one evening out;
the smell of chocolate cake baking, my father.
Tears spring to my eyes: silly woman,
crying over a tree.

And yet, these tears are both welcome
and desired, cathartic: a release of fear,
a rush of love, and of gratitude, a reminder that
the world beyond sequester is still springtime-lovely.
When this is all over, in years to come,
I will point it out to every student walking past:
See that tree? Keep it in mind,
take its scent in, let it imprint upon you
heart and soul; it will sustain you through 
dark and lonely times, accompany you for a lifetime
if you let it.


(Originally written 4/11/2020)


I invite those who are also writing creatively in response to the pandemic to share their words in the comments below. I am sharing the “poem-a-day” on Instagram and Twitter, as well; follow me @mridleyelmes !


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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