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‘Social Distance’: A Community-Style Poem To Help You Feel Less Isolated


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NPR asked our audience to find inspiration in — and then write an ekphrastic poem about — two paintings: Heat Wave by Kadir Nelson (left) and Young Woman At A Window by Salvador Dali.

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Now more than ever we are looking for ways to feel less alone — and poetry can be one way to bring people together.

Last month NPR asked listeners to respond to art with a poem — a style of poetry called ekphrastic. For inspiration, Kwame Alexander, NPR’s poet in residence, selected two paintings: Kadir Nelson’s Heatwave and Salvador Dali’s Young Woman At A Window. Both show women inside looking longingly out into the world.

The paintings struck a chord with those experiencing the global coronavirus pandemic quarantined inside. We received more than 1,300 submissions.

Alexander took lines and excerpts from some of the submissions and created a crowdsourced, community poem of hope. Contributors are credited at the bottom.

Social Distance

Summer bears down on the city
like granny’s old quilt

Her potted plant swoons on the ledge out of breath.
Eyes closed,
attuned to a second skin of sweat,
she stretches neck and torso,
searching for a cool note rising
from the street below.

The Fantastical Queen
Her Crown of wrapped locks
The jewels in her melanin Sparkle
her body slick in Brooklyn’s summer
oiled mahogany

From her window she holds court
She reigns where dogs interact with rainbows
For her, plants bow their head down low.
Hottest Thang In Town
Stuck inside all day.

She opens all the windows,
her imagination of freedom
something to hold onto.

Only half there
her mind is far off
Across the world.

kayaking quietly
gazing at glaciers
watching waves dance
a boat out to sea

The sea breeze blowing
against her loneliness
Perched up in the hills
Overlooking a world of fraud
Soul ready to sail away

You see, smart women bend
like stems grabbing at the light
muscles coat limbs
as eyelids stalk the horizon
to calculate what comes next
drought or a wall of water
high cheekbones not afraid to climb out
or crawl up.

It is the same horizon no matter the color.
The same sun.

Guess that’s how Rapunzel felt
Staring freedom in its face
Terrified of the unknown
But wanting to escape
Quarantined by society
Restricted by these walls.

Shouting streets stilled
people’s voices wilted like plants.
no dinner with friends.

The sea is forever capricious
A mercurial creature with fickle temperament
The gentle blue of harbor water hides
its ferocity Like a wolf in sheepskin

But, she will not wilt.

Sometimes as day descends
The dog can have the fabricated ice,
the artificial colors.
She takes the water cool and clear,
and The city’s façade can’t hold her,
from sailing away on the tide of night.

She sees herself
in the sky.
in the muddied turquoise of the curtain
In the warm turquoise of the window frame
in the gentle peace that shall not last.

She is not thinking about the next time
they will see each other
She is not thinking about the last time
they saw each other
She is not thinking about the empty grocery shelves
She is not thinking about the furrowed frowning eyebrows
She is not thinking about the word quarantine
and why it sounds so social
She is not thinking about the way her lungs
hold onto air like making love to molecules
She is not thinking about the grandmother
and grandfather in Apt 2c
She is not thinking about whether clouds are aware
of their silly shapes and feel self-conscious
She is not thinking about whether the butter will last

At the window, she considers that
She is not who she was,
and she is not who she will be.
She is transforming.
She will be strong and resilient.
She will be honest with herself and those she loves.
She will have stories to tell And when she does
They will no longer shake her voice.

From here, she will see the anxiety, the worry,
paint over its bold permanence, like oil and acrylic on canvas.
From here, She HOPES, offering it to neighbors from a safe distance.
From here, she SINGS, transcending the dark somber strain
From here, She BELIEVES, we will get through this
From here, today will be good, and tomorrow will be better.


This community poem was created using submissions by:

Becky Boling, Northfield, Minn.

Thu Nguyen, Washington, D.C.

Tehmina Khan, San Francisco

Daniela Larsson, Litchfield, Ct.

Myer Schmitz, Champlin, Minn.

Katrina Kiss, Oswego, Ill.

Lisa Sarasohn, Asheville, N.C.

Deborah Meltvedt, Sacramento, Calif.

Danielle Evennou, Washington, D.C.

Maggie Chism, Mich.

Katherine Shafer, Ypsilanti, Mich.

Kevin Cheb, Ellicott City, Md.

Sheba Montserrat, London

Lorian Tompkins, Clinton Township, Mich.

Keyan Kaplan, East Setauket, N.Y.

Abel Koury, Columbus, Ohio

Charles Sharpe, Bainbridge Island, Wash.

Josh Lawrence, Portland, Ore.

Rachael Vella-Garrido, Buffalo, N.Y.

Sarah Teague, Carbondale, Colo.

Jeevika Verma and Reena Advani produced and edited this story for broadcast. Casey Noenickx adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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