A Pandemic Lecture Through the Underworld: Revised Edition

Mass upheavals of long-maintained societal structures and paradigms marked those dark days. A strange virus swept through the globe like none before it in a hundred years. The effects of defunded public education in America had never been so evident as millions followed misdirection and listened to whichever voice pleased them most. It was the youth, however, that suffered more than anyone else. K-12 teachers and college educators were forced to rethink, reimagine, and repackage entire course curriculums — most turning to a program etched into the annals of history, Zoom.

As American society reckons with its apocalypse, Dr. Ellen Sterling teaches poetry to an online class of dedicated English students attending the illustrious Fresno University. Several faces bathed in the electronic glow of computer screens smile and greet their professor warmly. A young Lauren Dial listens intently to the Job of the Week! to learn that Makenzie DeFrame, class of 2011, has just completed law school and passed the bar exam. Lauren has no intention of becoming a lawyer, but the story of DeFrame fills her with the wonder of all the places her degree would take her. She is not unique in her wonder, for her young baby-faced classmates, too, shine with hopes of a bright and glorious future.

The optimistic conversation starkly contrasts the conversations just outside their doors, but the cheerfulness was not meant remain as Dr. Sterling soon introduced the confessional poem.

“The confessional poem” she tells them, “demands of those standing before its altar to place upon it the deepest, darkest, and most sinister secrets hanging like skeletons in their locked closets. The secrets must be true. The confessional poem will know instantly if your offering is blemished and unacceptable.”

Dr. Sterling seeing the color drain from such young and pure lambs, offers them a glimmer of hope. “Though this form is known to reside in the realm of Shadow, humor might be applied to lighten its burden. Humor has seen many souls safely down the River Styx and through that terrible Valley of Death.”

The glimmer is momentary, and she returns them to the architecture of the Underworld. She says, “Any structure may safely bear your secret through Hel and Hades’ realm. Sonnet, villanelle, sestina, or even free verse. Even stanza and rhyme are left in your hands. Rise to the task.”

The screen shifts and the professor introduces her students to the deeply tormented exemplar of confessional poetry, Sylvia Plath. The very name of this complex patroness summons her spirit into the virtual space. A brief summary of her life burns onto the screen.

“Demons waged war on me.” The specter says, “I kept them at bay for thirty-one years, speaking their names through spellbinding poetry. Once, the infernal spirits came close to seizing my soul. My body slept in a tomb for three days until I emerged triumphant over Death itself. But the war continued, and in one final campaign, I wrote of my descent into madness. None of it had been enough, and ‘during one of the worst English winters on record,’ the malevolent devils prevailed against my spirit.”

The screen shifts once again, and the patron recites a poem. Her voice carries the agony of a father taken too soon but his oppressive presence erodes all sympathy. He is a Nazi and a devil. His ghost inhabits her husband, and their marriage becomes a candle burned to its last. Dr. Sterling, tour guide of the confessional form, rejoices in the father’s demise–it satisfies holy justice. Enraptured, she sings the song of the confessional, “Ooh, ooh, ooh . . . you bastard, I’m through.”

The spirit fades, and the guide prods her baby birds to see if they have picked up on the tools they will need for their inevitable earthly plummet. Their feathers ruffle and they shake out their wings. Dr. Sterling holds hope for their safe landing. Failure would be as rain on a wedding day or a free ride down the river Styx when they’ve already paid the ferryman. A brief scuffle between Luke and Mary ensues as the class is brought to the ledge–that gate into the lands of the Unknown.

Dr. Sterling watches her students, one by one, begin their journey into the Shadow. A smile graces her face as they depart. She knows they will make it through to the Other Side, and there she will be to receive them.