In “Kyrie,” these sonnets published way back in 1995, before I knew poetry or prison, Ellen Bryant Voigt reminds us that there have been pandemics before. There has been that absurd accumulation of suffering before. And I go back to these poems to remember that if we can write about it, we can survive it. This is what I tell my son when he asks how long the masks will last. Selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts

By Ellen Bryant Voigt

Thought at first that grief had brought him down.
His wife dead, his own hand dug the grave
under a willow oak, in family ground —
he got home sick, was dead when morning came.

By week’s end, his cousin who worked in town
was seized at once by fever and by chill,
left his office, walked back home at noon,
death ripening in him like a boil.

Soon it was a farmer in the field —
someone’s brother, someone’s father —
left the mule in its traces and went home.
Then the mason, the miller at his wheel,
from deep in the forest the hunter, the logger,
and the sun still up everywhere in the kingdom.


Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer. He created Freedom Reads, an initiative to curate microlibraries and install them in prisons across the country. His latest collection of poetry, “Felon,” explores the post-incarceration experience. His 2018 article in The New York Times Magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to working lawyer won a National Magazine Award. He is a 2021 MacArthur fellow. Ellen Bryant Voigt is a poet who has published eight collections, including “Kyrie” (W.W. Norton, 1995), from which the above poem is taken. In 2015 she was named a MacArthur fellow.

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