Posted in Poetry, Prose, Strangers

To the Lost: A bricolage poetry series

On Sunday, May 31st, my favorite newspaper, The New York Times, published a list of nearly 100,000 names of the victims of COVID-19 in the United States. On its front cover were the names of 1,000 victims, along with their ages, locations, and a brief line from their obituaries.

I was struck by the array. Some of the lines read like poetry, some made me laugh aloud, and some made my heart ache in their brevity. I imagined each of the people behind these names, and I winced painfully at the thought of many of them dying alone, without their families surrounding them. This tribute from the Times affords them even the slightest recognition of a life lived and now concluded, with dignity.

I took a few hours to read through the whole list yesterday, via this interactive graphic on the Times’ website. As I read through, I wrote down some of the one-liners that stuck with me. When I had a list of over 5 pages, I went through and bricolaged some of them together. Some are categorized because they make me feel the same way when I read them, some are grouped for their regret, some for what was left unsaid, and a few even jumped out as lines I’d like to have in my own obituary.

The names were a mirror, reflecting back the population of a city, all without a single photograph. I hope that you resonate in some way with this series of poems that I’ve come up with, from these humble headlines from the lives of the lost.  

I. The pain underneath
Sharecropper’s son (Cornelius, 84)
One-man army (Florencio, 65)
Freed from life in prison (Myles, 69)
Fell ill in prison shortly before he was set to be released (Melford, 65)
Died after being released from ICE detention (Oscar, 42)
Saved 56 Jewish families from the Gestapo (Romi, 91)
WW2 vet whose twin died in the Spanish Flu epidemic, a century ago. (Phillip, 100)
Man of few words (Claude, 84)  

II. The things they didn’t do
Widely surmised he could’ve played Major League baseball. (Paul, 86)
Trombonist who once turned down an offer to play in Duke Ellington’s orchestra. (Stanley, 88)
Gifted pitcher who never made the big leagues. (Steve, 80)

 III. Eccentricities, Depth
Stylish archaeologist and champion Dachshund breeder (Iris, 86)
Preferred bolo ties to neckties, suspenders to belts. (Leo, 98)
…Renegade nun,… (Georgiana, 73)
Gardener who won the title of Pickle King (Ted, 89)

IV. Things that give me pause
Quoted Longfellow and Tennyson from memory (Alan, 83)
Youngest of 21 siblings (Sawarellita, 52)
Free spirit and kvetch (Daniel, 80)
Mother outlived by her newborn (Wogene, 43)
Emergency room doctor who died in husband’s arms (Frank, 60)
Coloratura Soprano, loved to sing Ave Maria (Pilar, 89)
Loved seeing the full moon rise over the ocean (Norman, 91) 

V. Seeing yourself
She had that Irish wit (Florence, 96)
Happiest when she was barefoot in her flower garden. (Jean, 91)
Her last words were ‘thank you.’ (Cornelia, 87)

VI. Funny People
He could spit a watermelon seed halfway across a double lot. (Kenneth, 94)
The presence of Paul Bunyon and the demeanor of a kitten. (William, 73)
Liked his bacon and hash browns crispy. (Fred, 75)
Known for serenading his friends with Tony Bennett songs. (Angelo, 87)
Gained notoriety for his free-form dancing at family functions. (Phillip, 91)
Vintage Mississippi macho man. (Bennie, 85)
Member, Coots on Scoots motorcycle club. (John, 79)  

VII. The human condition
Thought it was important to know a person’s life story. (William, 55)
Had a mystic’s direct sense of wonder and oneness. (Margaret, 91)
An eye for beautiful and unusual things. (Steve, 75)
Never seemed to know a stranger. (Clyde, 86)
People were her hobby. (Mari, 82)
Man who seemed to know everything. (Luther, 108!)
Backyard birds were known to eat from her hand. (Ruth, 85)
Endlessly curious, never really finished. (Morris, 90)

The poem (or series of poems) below was born of my 30/30 poetry challenge that began in April for National Poetry Month. I’m proud to say I completed the challenge yesterday (a mere 5 weeks later than my original deadline.)

But hey! It’s the first National Poetry month challenge I’ve actually made it to the end of. I’m chalking it up to a victory and capitalizing on the momentum I’ve gained by starting a few new writing projects, and reviving a few existing ones, like this beloved space.

I’ll be sharing a few selections from my poetry challenge here in the coming weeks.
If you’d like to visit the full archive of my 30/30 challenge, you can do so here:


Stories of travels, of tribulations, and of learning to tell the difference.

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