A Different Distance
In March 2020, France declared a full lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Shortly thereafter, poets and friends Marilyn Hacker and Karthika Naïr—living mere miles from each other but separated by circumstance, and inspired by this extraordinary time—began a correspondence in verse.
Renga, an ancient Japanese form of collaborative poetry, is comprised of alternating tanka beginning with the themes of tōki and tōza: this season, this session. Here, from the “plague spring,” through a year in which seasons are marked by the waxing and waning of the virus, Hacker and Naïr’s renga charts the “differents and sames” of a now-shared experience. Their poems witness a time of suspension in which some things, somehow, press on relentlessly. Between “ten thousand, yes, minutes of Bones,” there’s cancer and chemotherapy and the aches of an aging body. There is grief for the loss of friends nearby and concern for loved ones in the United States, Lebanon, and India. And there is a deep sense of shared humanity, where we all are “mere atoms of water, / each captained by protons of hydrogen, hurtling earthward.”
At turns poignant and playful, the seasons and sessions of A Different Distance display the compassionate, collective wisdom of two women witnessing a singular moment in history.
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Praise and Prizes
“As a poetic genre, the renga seems to always ask us: How could a poet write a poem alone? In times of global upheaval, the question becomes even more persistent and urgent. In response, Marilyn Hacker and Karthika Naïr offer us another example of the glory and necessity of poetic collaboration. Writing back and forth to each other, responding to the echoes of their unique music, they stitch together our tattered world with compassion, friendship, and exquisite artistry. A Different Distance is a wonder of a book.”
““The dearth, in my two lands/of roses for all the graves” so begins this deeply moving account of two major poets’ determination to overcome the deafening silence and distance of Paris's Covid lockdown. This masterful sequence takes up the ancient renga form, with its covenant of sharing. Written over the course of a year, it explores not only the interiority of quarantine and Karthika’s struggle with cancer, but resolutely opens out towards the world. In this record of a year when “with or without our selfhood” each tried to survive, A Different Distance affirms that the miraculously healing art of poetry can even arise from such conditions—essential and new.”