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A Pandemic Response Poem for Gloria Heffernan

A few months ago, the poet Gloria Heffernan sent a poem of gratitude to Phyllis and her co-editor Ruby R. Wilson for Poetry of Presence.  Phyllis and Ruby had never met Gloria, or even communicated.

Gloria’s poem, “In Case You Ever Wonder,” floored Phyllis. By way of reply, she decided to write a “response poem,” building on Gloria’s own words. She shared the two poems, side by side, with her monthly newsletter list in May. (If you’d like, subscribe to her newsletter here.) She has since tweaked her poem and shared it through the Gatherings project, a powerful “art-and-poetry based experiment in giving and receiving” that has emerged from the pandemic.

The two poems by Gloria and Phyllis are presented below. Phyllis remains grateful to Gloria for her lovely words as well as her permission to share.

Gloria teaches at Le Moyne College in New York and the Syracuse YMCA’s Downtown Writers Center. Check out her poetry collection, What the Gratitude List Said to the Bucket List, as well as her two chapbooks: Hail to the Symptom and Some of Our Parts. 

Gloria Heffernan

In Case You Ever Wonder

For Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson, editors of  Poetry of Presence

It started as a letter,
A simple thank you note for a book I love.
It started as a few thoughts
I would put down on paper someday
when I had the time.

And now I have the time,
like a castaway on a desert island
where I can finally say, yes,
this is the book I would want to have with me
when I washed up on that desolate shore.

So if you ever wonder,
I want to tell you both that you
are essential workers.
I want you to know that
in these dark days when everything has
Changed, changed utterly,
one thing that remains is the peace
I find when I open your book to a random page
and find exactly the words I need to hear.

I want you to know that when I walk
the aisles of the supermarket
and see the masked employees stocking
I think of the nourishment I derive from
conversations with Pablo Neruda and
          Mary Oliver.

When I think of bus drivers
ferrying nurses and janitors to work,
I think of the roads I have travelled
with Wendell Berry and Alice Walker at the

When I hear the pots and pans clanging from
and the crowds cheering at the change of shift,
I think of you both as health care workers
toiling in the soul’s emergency room,
where the healing words you have assembled
give us the courage to take off our masks
and pray for our ailing world. 

Phyllis Cole-Dai

If You Ever Wonder

A response poem for Gloria Heffernan

I want you to know
in these dark days
when all the world
is utterly changed,
one thing that remains
is how we feel
when anyone opens
the book of Us
to a random page
and finds a truth
they had forgotten.

Nurses and doctors,
meat packers and crop pickers,
journalists and janitors,
clerics and counselors,
bus drivers and truckers,
mail carriers and shelf stockers,
first responders and trash collectors,
scientists and governors and cooks,
every essential worker
eats and drinks
from the book of Us.

Pots and pans clang
from balconies and windows
flung wide from street to sky.
We are the cheering crowd, the book of Us
assembled without masks and bound
together between soft covers
by a strong, supple spine.

Every page is sacred text.
Nobody is not essential.
We are the prayer for our ailing world
and this is the beginning of our shift.

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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