Renga Spring 2020

By Marilyn Hacker, Karthika NaïrAugust 29, 2020

Renga Spring 2020






Crocus, primroses,
in locked-down Square Léopold- 
Achille. The plague spring.

Rana sent me a photo
of police on Hamra Street

enforcing curfew.
The boy I watched on the roof 
of the refugee

squat was locked down already,
daily, among washing lines.

— MH, 29 March 2020


Daily lines burgeon
on Louis Blanc pavements, each sprout 
five feet from the next:

Human un-blossoms outside
baker-butcher-grocers’ doors.

One out for one in;
gloved, masked, sanitized before
and after each yield.

The pigeons strutting the same
sidewalks heed no distancing.  

— KN, 30 March 2020


Distance between us…”
she wrote long ago, and then
made it permanent.

Charpentier Vêpres à la Vierge
(while I’m doing the dishes)

on the comforting
old squat black CD player:
for a moment, there’s

connection, if only with 
that perplexed self, desiring. 

— MH, 30 March 2020


The desire for self
to be more, more than terra
firma for virus

settlements begets fresh creeds.
Parisians grunt and wheeze praise

to Lord Jogging, while
roaming forlorn as our streets.
Romans hymn and drum

Volare from balconies.
Jack Bernhardt downs ten thousand,

yes, minutes of Bones —
libation of eyes and wits
to fair Agent Booth.

The right mantra for lúc lắc
spurs my quest across the ’Net.

— KN, 31 March 2020


Across the street, a
girl stands lengthily at the
window, smoking and

looking at empty sidewalks,
sun-soaked on April first.

I wished the tourists
would disappear. Now they’re gone.
Watch what you wish for!

In purdah, in quarantine,
I dice one more aubergine.

— MH, 1 April 2020


Aubergine, once more —
braised, bhartha-ed, basil-and-beef-
fried … in any form:

The thought invades aurous noons,
leaves sharp pugmarks on my dreams 

these still-wintry nights.
Preschoolers play COVID-age
tag in our courtyard:

Not more than two at a time,
and “catch” with an out-flung glove. 

— KN,  3 April 2020


We drove out to the
place they called Karantina
where crews of ships from

Europe once waited forty
days to be declared plague-free.

Desolate still, but
in a lonely high-rise, in
a vast gallery,

the ninety-year-old painter’s
new gouaches, texts, tapestries.

Afterward, a huge
Armenian lunch in Bourj
Hammoud with my two

young friends: nobody knew the
quarantine was just starting. 

— MH, 3 April 2020


Bedlam just started
here, N writes from New Delhi’s
migrant-worker camps.

How will they lockdown millions
who have neither doors nor roof?

Millions who must walk
many moons to reach a home
to self-isolate.

Prime Minister Modi bids
his nation to light candles.

President Macron, 
meanwhile, warned us off facemasks
unless really ill.

Spring: the dearth, in my two lands,
of roses for all the graves. 

— KN, 4 April 2020


Rose garden hidden
in the Square du Grand Veneur —
it’s starting to bud,

but the gates are locked, only
kids from the logements sociaux

in the enclosure
peer through the grates, in strange
bright April sunlight.

Here’s a petition against 
euthanizing the sick old.

— MH, 5 April 2020


Sick and old: for Laure
and Serge, teens from Block D, I
now tick both boxes.

L — four-inch heels keen across 
cobblestones — rushes to hold

open all our doors.
Their mom, though, no longer hails
me with nod and smile:

Chemo-shorn, browless beings
in masks could spell one more germ. 

— KN, 6 April 2020


One more spell, one more
incantation — it’s only
“The Art of the Fugue”

or Hildegard of Bingen
or Alice Coltrane: music

mutes anxiety.
Abida Parveen sings
a Hafez ghazal

cross-legged, eloquent hands. …
I pick out a word or two. 

— MH, 6 April 2020 


Two words, now, for me:
Hum dekhenge — We shall see
Iqbal Bano soars

skyward on Faiz’s refrain, and
something steelier than hope

lights the heart once more.
Heart that fluttered last evening,
stalled a few instants:

a frog in the throat these days
hearkens to beasts less winsome.

— KN, 9 April 2020


Ego, clawing beast:
with or without our selfhood, 
beasts try to survive,

as does each isolate “I,”
newly dispensable, or

in the equation.
Lock up these, those, forever,
then open the doors.

I open late windows on
unnatural bright April. 

— MH, 10 April 2020


Bright as this April
Isa, flushed after cycling
from Pantin — risking

dour fines we none can afford—
brings me dorayaki, home-

made with sweet red beans
crushed and flour ground by Nico,
who’d foraged for weeks.

Balm for my bile-deluged gut,
swaddling for sleep-deprived dreams.

Wajdi Mouawad writes
to his infant, unknowing
son “Quoi dire de plus

urgent que l’amour ?” Sometimes,
pancakes will do just as well.

— KN, 13 April 2020


Pancakes, not huîtres,
phone calls, texts, instead of wine-
flavored exchanges

in the public privacy
of a café. Sautéed snow

peas, shallots, chicken,
wine anyway, but for one,
yesterday’s bread, a 

departing moon above roof-
dormers, now my horizon.

— MH, 14 April 2020


My horizon, each
week: the poppy-printed, teal
hair cap of Nurse Rose

(handstitched, the florets for cheer)
as she disinfects — “secures,”

in the martial cant
so dear to our president – 
my port-a-cath site.

She, of calm hands and raptor
gaze, snags any truant vein. 

— KN, 15 April 2020


I play truant when
I go to the bakery,
or Russian roulette

for a baguette tradition,
une réglette de macarons. 

I should be indoors.
Back inside I’m dizzy with
fear, but I eat one,

two, caramel macaroons.
“Look, we have come through?” Who knows? 

— MH, 15 April 2020


Who knows anything today?
Prefects, priests, pressmen,
physicians … no one. 

Yet, wait, everyone we know,
or don’t, dons shades of prophet. 

Sun-drenched flowed the Quais 
de Valmy and de Jemmapes
these last afternoons

while I brooded indoors with
Coke as cure and company.

— KN, 18 April 2020


Wolves accompany
me, a dream I’d like to have,
lope across a steppe

howl an ode to the half-moon,
break bread with al-Farazdaq,

hunt mice if we must.
Overarching, the night sky
blankets the city

we’re immured in, or opens
it up to ghazals of rain. 

— MH, 19 April 2020


A rain of ghazals,
petrichor from verse by long-
lost poets, crumble

many saber-toothed daymares,
if just for a rainbow while.

Ghālib, Faiz, Firaq,
Sahir (always Sahir), then
the doyen, Khushru:

sufi, secular or plain
kafir, their ghazal, nazm and 

sher the first to strike
my early, unlearned ears;
demand rebellion

yet earn adoration from 
a resolute nastik heart. 

— KN, 20 April 2020


My atheist heart’s
an impatient physician,
has no words to calm

vertigoes, palpitations
provoked by a sentence in

a news brief, or just
the sameness of spring days that
lengthen, out of reach.

No words then, music, numbers
and feeling, metal, thoughts, reeds:

oud, violin or
saxophone, behind them
a mind, hands, a mouth

unseen as a friend’s face now.
Today, the doctor’s Mozart. 

— MH, 21 April 2020


My doctors Bourrat
and Blazy — Amazons with
spines of carbon steel,

shafts marked truth and solace,
fingers the envy of neat

goldsmiths — take the time
to write and ring, enquire
and devise relief,

with bad puns, in pandemics,
covering for painkillers.

— KN, 23 April 2020


Covering her face
with the mask she’ll wear all night,
my daughter goes to

meet the patient first in the
queue: midnight in the ER.

Through nights in Aceh
after the tsunami, in
a hospital tent

she saw herself back in school,
saw herself the physician.

I imagined her
then, now, at a different
distance, think of her

unmasking in the morning,
driving home to walk the dogs.

— MH, 23 April 2020


Home with the dogs — four —
and spouse of five-odd decades,
my dad (veteran

of three wars; child, too, of World
War II, famines, a blood-steeped

Partition) thunders
at the virus, the lockdown,
the distance from kin …

the years of command futile
before this covert agent. 

— KN, 24 April 2020


Before, I covered 
my head to enter a mosque.
I cover my face

now, to go down to the street.
Niqab’s forbidden in France,

but masks like the one
the kiné gave me will be

I sent a photo of my
solo atheist Iftar

to Samira in 
Algiers, to Maryam in
London. Next year will

we sit down together to
break bread for anyone’s feast? 

— MH, 26 April 2020


Stale bread, feast for one
gleaning breath from rotting peel
and near-empty cans

of red beans from garbage bins
around the local Monop’.

Streets abandoned by
traffic and pedestrians
find homes with vagrants.

Vagrants left unfed, unsafe,
even as the cops slap fines 

on their unhoused hands,
and leaders applaud our state-
wide lockdown success.

Some deaths never figure, not
even as nameless figures. 

— KN, 28 April 2020


Known, nameless faces,
figures, throw open windows
up and down the street

each night at eight to applaud
doctors, nurses, éboueurs,

and to show ourselves
to each other at the end
of a locked-in day

I wave to the girl in the
fifth-floor dormer; she waves back.

— MH, 29 April 2020


Her sixth-floor dormer,
a cigarette, the much-loved
view of our skyline:

Claire — critical-care intern —
sighs for one, after twenty

hours on breathless feet.
Evening applause is sweet, but
she’d choose PPE

over the President’s praise —
and eggs on grocery shelves.

— KN, 1 May 2020


Shelves in the G-20
are still filled with coffee, cheese,
brown eggs, gariguettes,

Greek yoghurt, milk, wine — but I
hurry, forget tomatoes,

get out of harm’s way
(masked, gloved) as fast as I can.
Food shopping once was

community, communion.
Poison in the chalice now. 

— MH, 2 May 2020


In my chalice, now,
on good days: mouthful of fresh
cirrus and sapphire,

sometimes nimbus, with falling
sheets of vitreous heaven.

That daily ramble,
required to expel Taxol
and its unkind ilk,

impossible alone, yet
forbidden in company.

Once more, Doctor B
rides to the rescue, handing
armor to my knights:

Isa, Nico, Claire, Philippe
bear her letterhead as shield.  

— KN, 4 May 2020


A facemask as shield,
or he hopes so, bearing wine
and some news, Hisham walks

along the Corniche, open
now, toward Raouché,

his mother’s flat, where
he hasn’t been in three months.
Scholarship, maybe,

fall term in London, maybe.
Freekeh bidajaj tonight.

— MH, 4 May 2020


Tonight, an empire
of pain reigns over attempts
to write, think; to be.

Fall, even summer, graze past
ears as would submerged boulders.

RDEB — four 
horseless, shapeless, ageless words —
must play first fiddle;

second, third, and last as well
while all others earn exile.

— KN, 5 May 2020


Home becomes exile
in the punished city. Leaves
green beyond grillwork,

Nâzım Hikmet’s postcard from
prison poems on the sill.

Locked-in lovers make
love until it bores them. Once
through a hurricane

in Crete … but that was three days,
decades ago, two of us.

— MH, 7 May 2020


This, decades ago,
was how I gaped at the sea.
Reaching Rue Manin,

the years sublime, suddenly-
much-younger selves drink from this

downpour of gloaming,
we gasp at the carnival
corralled within Parc

des Buttes-Chaumont. Cedar, elm
and linden, pine, plane, and beech,

arch toward the sky;
hazelnut and cherry trees
flaunt wanton blossoms;

and the cascades underground
serenade us from afar.

— KN, 8 May 2020


From afar, but it
wasn’t, thunder, rush of dark
clouds, then crash of rain,

just after I noticed, no
gates blocked the berges of the Île

Saint-Louis. No way
but, run under the rain,
no café shelter.

Strip off once indoors, shower.
Flu, or worse, I’m on my own.

Later, on my own,
I slice shallots and mushrooms
into olive oil

and begin to imagine
I might not cough tomorrow. 

— MH, 9 May 2020


Tomorrow might bring
the unknown — new foes, allies
of Taxol; blitzkrieg

within the chest; skull afire
(the mind sentinels one front

alone, these days) — but 
also Philippe, bonne fée; by
the hospital doors,

strafed by showers or barraged — 
joyfully — by vernal sun. 

— KN, 12 May 2020


Marilyn Hacker is the author of fourteen poetry collections, including Blazons (Carcanet 2019) and A Stranger’s Mirror (Norton, 2015).

Karthika Naïr is the author of several books, including the award-winning Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (American edition: Archipelago Books, 2019).

LARB Contributors

Marilyn Hacker is the author of fourteen poetry collections, including Blazons (Carcanet 2019) and A Stranger’s Mirror (Norton, 2015)  a book of essays, Unauthorized Voices,  a collaborative book, Diaspo/Renga, written with Deema K. Shehabi (Holland Park Press, 2014) and  seventeen books of translations of French and Francophone poets, most recently Samira Negrouche’s The Olive Trees’ Jazz (2020). She received the 2009 American PEN Award for poetry in translation, and the international Argana Prize for Poetry from the Beit as-Sh’ir/ House of Poetry in Morocco in 2011. She lives in Paris. Photo by Alison Harris 
Karthika Naïr is the author of several books, including the award-winning Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (American edition: Archipelago Books, 2019), and principal scriptwriter for Akram Khan’s DESH (2011), Chotto Desh (2015) and Until the Lions (2016), a partial adaptation of her own book. Also a dance enabler, Naïr’s closest association has been with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet as executive producer of works like Three SpellsBabel (Words), Puz/zle and Les Médusés, and as co-founder of Cherkaoui’s company, Eastman.  Photo by Koen Broos


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