It’s Important I Remember That I Can Never Wash My Hands Enough—

Cortney Lamar Charleston


our most tender overtures toward each other
have turned against us, targeted us
for shortness of breath and breadth of lifespan.

When I tell you it’s dead outside, I mean
people are dying outside—zipped in plastic bags
and set aside for collection like household waste
which fills land’s cavities rotten.

The sun is almost enough to sucker me into
believing that it’s a lovely day, but
Bill Withers himself just withered away.

There is no music in a moment like this:
the governor restricts our movements while
conducting the state’s response to the pathogen.

We shutter inside like secrets a house keeps.
Our sense of connection cuts in and out.

I work from home with spotty Wi-Fi
since capitalism will get very ill from the virus
but, given its youthful vitality, will probably not die.

Instead, it will probably be the Postmates man
pedaling down my windswept block.

It will be the poor and the black and the brown,
the delicate old ladies and their husbands
who beat the Nazis before their grandsons
became sympathizers in their twilights.

We’re in the Twilight Zone with zealots.

The panic sets in and people pack the gun
stores to pick up higher firepower and ammo.

The proper term for this isn’t pandemonium,
it’s predictable, the highest spike in sales
since the black guy got elected to term number two.

I smell blood in the water even if I can’t see it.

I’m running the water so much, rinsing
my palms red with soap and scalding spit
from the swan neck faucet.

There’s no grace in surviving
so comfortably as this.

There’s no god that wouldn’t have considered
sending the plague up to our doors and,
in some cases, beneath them, as if to say
we are what Egypt was in the scriptures.

The back of our dollar argues affirmatively:
that one thing we hold dear that the greatest number
of hands have touched, either contaminating them
or being contaminated by them, if there’s a difference.

A man can make money and money
can make a man—make a man sick in the head
and make a man safe from a sickness
all at the same time. Yes,
I’m absolutely ashamed to admit it:

when I thought about sacrifice the other day,
I thought of myself first and foremost.

Cortney Lamar Charleston is a Pushcart Prize winner and the author of Telepathologies (Saturnalia Books, 2017) and Doppelgangbanger (Haymarket Books, 2021). He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Charleston serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus and on the editorial board at Alice James Books.