From heartbreaking personal experience, Julia Guez finds poetry in the pandemic


NEW YORK — As a poet with a complex sense and understanding of how language works, Julia Guez was aware something was wrong, but she couldn’t quite put it into words at the time.

She left a literary event in San Antonio in early March 2020 feeling bad. She returned to New York, where she now lives, and contacted her doctor on the brink of panic, knowing her situation was potentially serious.

“It was early, but it felt like ER’s all over the world were closing, that’s when we knew it wasn’t a nasty cold,” she says. “I had a bad cold. And now, as someone who’s had COVID without a recall, I’m here to tell you it’s not the same.

“My heart rate was dropping. They checked that I was not in cardiac arrest. They said to me, ‘If you can’t finish a sentence, come back.’ In my mind, it was a challenge. I will finish each sentence (expletive). Consider that from someone who took 10 years to finish a book.

Guez has spent more than a month utterly devastated by the virus, while dealing with anxiety over the spread of a new virus to her partner and two children.

“The first week was tough,” she says. “We just managed hour by hour.”

Looking back

More than two years later, Guez sits on the elevated terrace of the Whitney Museum of American Art looking down on a city that has just returned to normal. From this space, she considers a winding journey that produced suffering and anxiety offset by resilience and hope.

His new book, “The Certain Body,” is a product of this difficult time.

Although there is no silver lining – despite a beautiful gray cover created around an artwork by Julie Mehretu – “The Certain Body” offers context and interpretation of this era and the many ways in which we are connected, electronically, biologically, socially, culturally. As we struggle to determine when the end point of a pandemic might be, “The Certain Body” offers a starting point for determining where we were. Guez’s process this time did not take a decade. Which does not mean that the verse is hot and impulsive. Illness, recovery and quarantine provide ample time for reflection. Guez’s reflections are layered like ink on Mehretu’s artwork: overlapping and matrix-like, but also clear if you choose to follow a line or poem closely.

“The Certain Body” is perhaps the first great piece of literature for the strange “now” we find ourselves in. It translates and contextualizes the sweet joys and tremendous frustrations of an extraordinary time.

‘Now what’

Guez published in 2019 “In an invisible glass case which is also a frame”, a striking first collection of poems. The book is the culmination of a decade of work. She also spent nearly 10 years translating “La mana suicida,” a collection of poetry by María Montero, a beloved Costa Rican poet Guez discovered while studying in Central America on a Fulbright scholarship there. more than ten years.

Guez’s first collection introduced a series of snapshot-like poems under the title “Still Life With. . .” title. Although her new collection spans over 40 pages, “Still Life With SARS-CoV-2” is a testament to the conciseness she felt while writing her new collection. The poem, in its entirety:

“and now what

so what

what what


If the piece looks like a mantra or a prayer, well, it still looks like a message in a bottle now.

“I think as human beings we want to put a question in there,” she says. “’What new hell is next?’ frankly. What’s around the corner? I feel like we were so hurt and humiliated by what happened, and how unprepared we were for it.

Poems about connection

True to its title, Guez’s new collection touches the body in the most appalling sense, inspired by its vulnerability. But he also uses these fragile moments to consider our interconnectedness as a culture, as a world, as those who write and consume words.

Before Guez enters into a word, she offers a fragment of an epigraph by TS Eliot: “Assured of certain certainties”,

Indeed, it ends with a comma: the suggestion that certain certainties are anything but certain.


“There are instinctive responses to that,” she admits. “But what is certain from where we started? What survives and what is forgotten?

Eliot is both an inspiration and an antagonist, as Guez pursues certain structural forms he inked centuries ago, while finding fault with his belief that “we need a priestly class Harvard-trained poets who drink with fascists and steal Greek and Latin to the point where people feel like they can’t find the doorknob.

Guez’s “The Certain Body,” released Sept. 15, boasts greater clarity than its previous volume; she says that even the longest poem in the collection is “heady but really meant to be understood”. She conjures up influences that reveal her Houston roots – from University of Houston professor Cristina Rivera Garza to DJ Screw. For only 43 pages, “The Certain Body” offers nods to Thomas Merton, Emily Dickinson, Susan Sontag and George Floyd. His references aren’t showy guests; they are voices in a choir.

The night and the birds

When Guez began to recover from her illness, she found her senses heightened. From her home in Brooklyn, she noticed that traffic sounds were muted and bird sounds were pronounced.

“It’s the only time I’ve seen New York like this,” she says. “No cars, no people making noise, nothing. It was haunting. And it was wonderful. It became the soundscape of this book.

Guez’s work also stopped. A former student of Lamar High School and Rice University, she left for New York, where she teaches at Fordham University and also works with Teach for America, two professional paths interrupted early by the pandemic.

Her routine would have been disrupted even if she had not been infected with the virus.

Unsurprisingly, birds flutter throughout “The Certain Body.” “This idea of ​​soaring and going up and out, it’s something we do when we fantasize when we’re desperate,” she says.

Guez connects the traumas of his, of ours, throughout the book. “I don’t think we talk enough about trauma,” she says. “Whether it is poverty, illness, people struggling with fertility or work. . . There are many injuries that can be attributed to something natural, but there are also many that are man-made. That’s why this virus was so interesting. It doesn’t matter where you went to school or who you’re married to or what organization you donate your hours to.

As she walks through the Whitney Biennial exhibition, Guez seems most drawn to dualistic works: larger-scale pieces that possess complexity. She admits that a work she had hoped to see weeks earlier, Jonathan Berger’s ‘An Introduction to Nameless Love’, capped the number of people who could access it at any given time. There was a line and her children were not interested in queuing.

The piece seems natural to catch Guez’s attention: it’s full of words and phrases cut from tin expressing unromantic love. The room is beautiful and dimly lit, perpetually nocturnal even during the day.

Night falls throughout “The Certain Body,” which is unsurprising, considering how profound illness can turn days and nights into a jumbled mess of hours.

“I was intrigued by the night because it’s dark everywhere all the time,” says Guez. “And if we’re lucky, another morning comes.” We should feel that urgency to make it good and meaningful.

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