Sen. Cory Booker wrote a coronavirus poem

Heard on the Hill breaks down the New Jersey Democrat’s latest literary effort

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has written poems before, and this time he addressed the coronavirus.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has written poems before, and this time he addressed the coronavirus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 30, 2020 at 7:25pm

Cory Booker has written a poem about the coronavirus. “Some late night writing,” the senator from New Jersey tweeted Sunday, attaching the result.

The time was 10:36 p.m., and Booker kept it relatively brief. The poem is 14 lines, arranged in seven unrhymed couplets. Part Maya Angelou, part Albert Camus, it explores themes of isolation, solidarity and resilience. 

That it also acts as a throwback to his recent Democratic presidential bid shouldn’t come as a surprise: Booker has been quoting (and writing) poetry for years now, including on the campaign trail, where he cited girlfriend and actress Rosario Dawson as one of his biggest inspirations.

Dawson returned the favor this week, sharing his coronavirus poem in an Instagram story, after offering a separate plug for artists in general. She reupped a meme that has been making the rounds: “If you think artists are useless try to spend your quarantine without music, books, poems, movies, paintings and porn.”

Here’s a look at Booker’s poem, couplet by couplet:

We can’t touch / But we still reach out

In eight words, Booker captures a semantic debate that has been unfolding on the sidelines of the coronavirus pandemic. While the phrase of choice at first was “social distancing,” the Word Health Organization has since urged people to practice “physical distancing” instead.

“We’re changing to say ‘physical distance,’ and that’s on purpose,” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said in a March 20 news briefing. “It doesn’t mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones.” 

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We hunker down / But we still rise up

Many governors across the country have issued “stay at home” orders, including in Booker’s home state of New Jersey, which means millions of Americans are hunkering down. Meanwhile, Congress is adjusting too, with the Capitol closed to most visitors and many staffers teleworking. At least six of Booker’s fellow lawmakers have announced coronavirus diagnoses so far, while dozens of others have self-quarantined as a precaution.

As for the “rise up” part, that’s a nod to “Still I Rise,” the title poem of Angelou’s 1978 collection and a favorite of Booker’s.

“You may shoot me with your words / You may cut me with your eyes / You may kill me with your hatefulness / But still, like air, I’ll rise,” goes one frequently quoted stanza.

Booker has a long history with the Angelou poem. He cited it often during his presidential campaign, using the slogan “We will rise.” And he made it the refrain of a high-energy speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, saying repeatedly: “America, we will rise.”

The Democrat is hardly alone. Alicia Keys recited the poem at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017, and Rep. Ilhan Omar tweeted a stanza last year after reports that attendees at a Trump rally directed chants of “Send her back” at the Minnesota Democrat.

Our bodies are attacked / but our spirits fight back

Unlike most of Booker’s other couplets, this one employs rhyme. It’s not a go-to technique for him, unless you count a 2017 poem he wrote as a Secret Santa gift for fellow Sen. Ben Cardin.

“Sen. Cardin is thoughtful, kind, and under pressure he appears quite zen / but don’t mess with his constituents because then he transforms like a ferocious grizzly bear just disturbed in his den,” Booker recited at the time, prompting a thank-you tweet from the Maryland Democrat: “I always knew Sen. Booker was a poet at heart.”

More often Booker eschews rhyme, or experiments with slant or near rhyme. “Sometimes I take creative license from my hip-hop love. I will write a poem that sort of rhymes in the way that hip-hop folks can get away with,” he told MSNBC’s Ari Melber last year. 

In that same interview, he had a confession to make: “I’m going to say something I’m about to regret. I may or may not occasionally write things to my girlfriend.” It was something he revealed more than once on the talk show circuit during his bid for the Democratic nomination. 

“I’ve been told that you write love poems,” said host RuPaul during one appearance, prompting the candidate to elaborate. 

“She inspires me,” Booker replied, gesturing to activist and “Rent” actress Dawson, who was in the audience.

The enemy is invisible, but so many of our heroes are now seen

When Booker posted his poem, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States had exceeded 2,000, and the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, had just predicted that 100,000 Americans or more could die. 

Trump has framed the current crisis as a war, with the coronavirus as “an invisible enemy.” Booker uses that rhetoric too, while pointing to the heroes — “from folks who clean floors and keep rooms sanitary to the doctors and nurses and administrative personnel,” as he put it in a video message to health care workers earlier this month.

Meanwhile, some city-dwellers are trying to join a trend that took off in Italy and elsewhere: a daily round of applause for people on the front lines of the pandemic. 

Weeks and weeks of isolation / But still Infinite and invincible determination

Booker did us the favor of explaining this one himself, citing absurdist philosopher Camus, author of “The Stranger” and a book that has suddenly climbed to the top of many reading lists: “The Plague.”

The passage Booker had in mind, he wrote on Instagram, was this one: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer, And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.” 

It’s a sentiment that has been subject to quotations and misquotations. (The “invincible summer” part, at least, comes from Camus’ lyrical essay “Return to Tipasa.”)

We are distant / but we stand together

“Together apart” is a particularly relevant phenomenon now, but it’s one Booker has explored before. Back in 2012, he wrote about community and individualism, two American impulses that seem to clash.

“Sometimes smiling is the greatest act of defiance / And sometimes asking for help is the most meaningful example of self-reliance,” he posted on Facebook. At the time, Booker was the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and the poem was one he “wrote while inspired at a recent Bruce Springsteen concert.”

After the 2016 election, he wrote about something he called “civic alchemy,” posting a poem on Facebook that doubled as a call for bipartisanship. “Let us work to turn: / The Lie of Separation / Into / The Truth of / Interconnection.”

And together / we shall overcome

Booker ends with a reference to the gospel hymn and civil rights anthem that has echoed through history. His colleague across the Capitol Rotunda, Georgia Rep. John Lewis, once described it this way: “It gave you a sense of faith, a sense of strength, to continue to struggle, to continue to push on. And you would lose your sense of fear. You were prepared to march into hell’s fire.”

As he closes the poem, Booker remains committed to one of its through lines. He keeps it punctuation-free, ending without a period.