CONELRAD 1960 / COVID 2020

Edited by Hal Y. Zhang

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

June 2022

Content Note:

This poem contains references to mass death events, and depictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I. Invitation

What should I say I remember
about our isolation? Shudder-
signal, silence? Your script
cycling the invitations you wrote?

You sent us loping, nearly summer-
feral, dog following, casting our neighbors
flag-emblazoned cards: Drinks, fire-
works, the metal hull of a grill—

What should I say I remembered?
You held my list, snapped in a clipboard,
pen tethered through the hole in the clip.

You asked if we were shopping for a spring tea,
toilet paper balanced against your knees.
I lifted you from the cart so more would fit—

You lifted fruit from the mold so more would fit:
olives cross-sectioned, anatomies of shrimp.
Lime-based and mayonnaise-strange capsule
gelling into place. How it all cooled,

hummed into being by refrigeration. Space,
you thought, was a little like that, the way
rocketmen train for enclosure. They don’t want
us, below, to see how little room they can inhabit—

I shifted the paper towels, the antiseptic
bottles in our cart half-bashed and suspect
but all we could find. The brilliant burnt-red

marigolds, impatiens, cosmos frilled and pink:
from what was left of the low seed stock,
we’d shape our waiting from what we could get—

You shaped your waiting into a halter-
dress, a Liberty print that summer
I’d craved the way I wanted the boys’
slack-grounded wandering through July.

You’d warned me away from their cache,
whispered the ways explosions damage
bodies, buildings. You warned us
disaster happens all at once—

You shaped your waiting into canals
dug through the backyard, worlds
Martianed and cut by the child-sized steel

tools we’d bought you: the garden
rake’s bent teeth, the hoe’s corrosion,
the shovel’s splintered wooden handle—

The ladle’s tarnished silver handle
bathed in vinegar. Hibiscus petals
adrift on the punch surface: superheated
entries or reentries? Rocketed

captains might know, or a dog (Soviet).
I pick up your small radio, tune it,
holding my breath as I pass those two
small triangles, Phobos, Deimos.

What I began to realize I couldn’t handle
arced around us but refused to settle.
April-thrilled, I asked you if you thought

binary stars each believed the other
orbited it. You flung another shovel-
load of wet red clay agglomerate—

The load of wet red ground
meat you shaped and seasoned —
(“Let’s pretend your father did this,”
you whispered over the radio’s hiss)—

He explained it to me once: CONtrol
of ELectronic RADiation. If bombs fell,
we’d hear the pattern of silence, voice, silence.
(My mother shouted, “Go greet our guests.”)

The load of wet red ground proved
unsuitable for the cosmos. What grew
contained the distances between children

and neighboring children. “Can we play?”
the boy next door asked. (“Can we,” not “can they”) —
I broke you from them, returned you to the garden.

I broke from the guests, returned through the garden,
clutching the dog. I thought I’d broken
the radio. After I’d turned the wheel,
short silence broken by falsetto wail,

broken by silence. Instructions, Phobos,
Deimos, those twins of airless war, demigods
shouting fire over fireworks. “Seek
shelter,” the voice instructed. “Under attack—”

We broke from the world. You trenched
shelter in our backyard, turned over our bomb-drenched
concept of waiting out disaster—

Did I hear tornado sirens? EAS tones shrieking?
Instead, you huddled together over a bud, calling,
“Mom, come here, come over, look closer—”

II. Alert

What should I say I heard,
isolated with a thousand-Hertz
tone? The announcer apologized —
interruptions are necessary. Phased

voice from transmitters miles apart
reading the text of the local alert:
suburban north Houston or the entire Gulf Coast,
my room or the mesh of Independence Day guests—

What should I say you heard?
Jump-screened, the online class you hid
yourself from? Kindergarten flickered,

aura-obscured, buffered, delayed
the way my voice skips during migraine,
skips as if the illusion of a trapped bird—

(Skip, Father explained, like a child
bouncing off the ionosphere, made
signals reach us that weren’t ours —
like doubt, we make ours what we hear.)

“Nuclear bombs,” the man said. You
wound the camera after the group
photographs: fire, fireworks. Film
exposed to radiation becomes its signal—

We skipped class together. I withdrew
you from the experiment of online school.
In shielding you from more exposure

to screens (or mere exposure’s effect?),
am I teaching you what you should neglect?
When we hide, even families become more nuclear—

When I emerged, bearing the nuclear
threat on my radio, I couldn’t hear
you calling over the guests for me —
“Not the Soviets, not the Chinese,”

(as if naming each threat lifted it
from possibility) — his voice, static,
mine shouting for you, reverting
(“Mommy!”), his again, “No earthling—”

Patterns emerge. I change the wording,
teach you not to love the flag. “Pledging
allegiance to the [fill in the blank]

shows how we love our country, one
nation, [indivisible as a cell’s wall].”
I want to teach you to question the book—

You questioned the alert. A dance orchestra
interrupted by a Martian invasion, a drama
you’d heard before. How you loved his voice, news
bulletin read on Halloween years

before I was born. The announcer’s false
calm not the despair of the dramatist’s.
Once upon a time, there was a planet (Mars),
whose creatures succumbed to a virus—

You questioned the book’s perforations, crude
diagrams of plants, answer keys, the concept of school
(home or otherwise). You hid beneath

paintings of storm-dead trees (each season
a lesson in what can die) drought-blighted, diseased,
yard-bound and frozen, a sketch of a “vaccine”—

Yard-bound, I held the radio’s hiss.
No shelter. From the Communists,
silence, or the fear of the signal. Flags
pinned the neighborhood together, grass

selvages edging the unsewable fall-
out shelter. As if you’d told the soil,
(belted against what flows, breaks, surfaces,
red (clay) shifts), “This is what you cannot cross—”

Unbound, you split the day, forced its nucleus
outside. Cataloged the jays, the dark-eyed juncos
we’d fed maize and the sunflower seeds you’d found,

head-bound and browning. Everything becomes screen-
like, if not actually a screen. Glass, a hard freeze,
the idea of an electron, what we are able to ground—

Doubt: an electron run to ground. The guests
mingled, a few laughed at the nuclear bomb “test
alert” I held. Static (another explosion) background
figures arranged themselves against — sound

exploding from the street — fireworks, hands,
hands grabbing me from the uniform grass —
children’s (some my blood) hands, a game
(static, crash) played to learn what will come—

You played a structure into place. What will come
bound to crisis is either parasite or symbiote,
(possibly both). You want to talk photosynthesis,

solar energy, solar eclipses. Windmills and stillness.
How the Moon pulls away from Earth, inches
each year like a child repelled (or repulsed?) to independence—

III. Shelter

What should I say we meant by “shelter”? Children
shelled and camouflaged, trenched, hidden-
insect tense, unmothered nestling-drab, grub-deep —
we pushed into the woods, past suburban creep,

jay-calling our way toward silence the space
hissing between radio signals couldn’t place.
Our numbers young and vague, first-hatched
larvae of spring, fretting the creek’s dun edge—

What should I say you meant by “shelter”? Our home
stinking of us, as if we’d collected dung and bones
(our own?) over a year? We pushed out cracked shells,

tendons, entrails of time we’d consumed. Time,
we’d thought, clung to us, parasite-sure, fulsome —
time strung with a lack of what should be possible—

Time struck us with a lack of what should be possible:
Space breached, but not this red clay soil.
How you once told me the way wind levers
trunks of exposed trees, how storms sever

roots from tap roots. We’d make fallout
shelters from what had fallen. Hollow
trunks (toolless and toothless as we were),
hollow our bodies for what we thought was nuclear—

Time-struck, I fell into what had once been possible,
(“There’s nothing like the taste of Blue Bell—”)
white-ridged watermelon rinds, hammocked magnolias,

not the ghost-edge of ice cream you summered through
bending spoons (your father said to buy a scoop):
detail will always prove something meaningless—

Details proved meaningless to us. Tetrahedron:
faces pine-branched (family Pinaceae). Sun
quivering against the evening’s carapace —
sky rocket, bottle rocket — you found us,

huddled in our dry-needle nest. Tetrahedron:
your halter dress against your collar-bone.
(After, we never pinned our patterns, aligned
ship lights, Roman candles obscured by pines—

Details slipped from us. (“Things are changing
at—”) Hanging the curtains I’d made, I sang
your names into the past (“There’s more

for your life at—”), imagined us (as I pulled
shades) packed tight against the unmasked crowd,
firecracker tight (“ —is your savings store”)—

Firecracker tight, we made shelter: you hid
within us. How difficult it is to judge
distance, to judge how massive the craft
listing over the city (what must have

been the city) must have been. How fast
we’d made our shelter, then, trespassed,
(a fuse lit) we became shelter. We did not
need to judge the velocity of what has stopped—

Firecrackers, tight against the evening. Fourth
day of a month you mark in bites. Welts soar
dry treetop high: flitted sparks against sodium lights

wake us. I try to remember summer-thrilled
caps, sparklers, Roman candles others held —
how I clutched my ears, how I clamped my eyes—

How I clutched my ears, how I clamped my eyes —
(What good judging the crowd’s speed and size?
One ship, one spark thrown from a neighbor’s
match — what good judging the pine shelter’s

switch from walls to bonfire frame?) You fled
(what good judging) what the bodice of yard
held flat: a small fire in the grill you doused,
a dud firecracker your sandaled sole squelched out—

How you clutched your sense of the world, snagged
evidence of now, of a possibility of now from my past —
how the ice cream truck passed, playing “The Music

Box Dancer,” how the nowness of you heard
children (not you) baffling against the curb —
how you asked me to explain, again, red shift—

How, you asked me to explain, red shifting
guests from burning to the possibility of burning —
the space our shelter made pushed outward, bodies
accelerating apart from crises or safety from crises:

Smoke-gauze over the crinoline edge of the ship.
Later, you told me how you thought the taffeta-crisp
fracture of what had been in the woods behind the house
was you, unable to move soundlessly in a vast white dress—

How you asked me to explain what we’d read. Shift
countries around your mental map like seeds left
unpacketed until too late. You explain the lines

I write, not letters but hungry animals, unplaneted.
Dirt means nothing more than dirt. Red clay, packed
root-binding tight becomes an absence between rake tines—

IV. Aftermath

What should I say happened? It could have
had implications, the way fire or lack of fire can save
neighborhoods. Houses were built where pines
burned. Or trees fervor rooted to reclaim

land. No more houses were needed
than we already had. The attack seeded
military investment. Or we surrendered. The world
seam-ripped from itself. Or what you gathered—

What should I say happened? It could.
“After,” we’ve yet to check off on the curriculum.
We talk about what we’ll do after the virus

has gone, as if the virus could read the prim-handed
workbook clocks stopped each on the hour. What happened
closes us, a chapter, a cell wall. That must, for now, for us,
be enough —

© 2022 T. D. Walker

About the author

T. D. Walker

T. D. Walker is the author of the poetry collections Small Waiting Objects (CW Books, 2019) and Maps of a Hollowed World (Another New Calligraphy, 2020). Her poems and stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Web Conjunctions, The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Luna Station Quarterly, and elsewhere. Walker curates and hosts Short Waves / Short Poems, a program created for broadcast on shortwave radio that features poets reading their work. Find out more at