Locked down like the rest of Italy, a poet draws his country close - by phone
ROME - The poet was stuck in his house like everybody else in Italy, sleeping too little, buzzed with a sense of emergency and listlessness, and wondering how to fill the time. So over the weekend, he published his cellphone number on social media. He was an "old hypochondriac," he said, and was willing to talk. Anybody could call him up.
"I am available every morning from nine until noon," Franco Arminio wrote.
In the days since, in one phone call after the next, Arminio has received an intimate portrait of Italy under coronavirus lockdown - of a nation that is bored, afraid, antsy, thinking about everything from quiet daily beauty to death. People have talked to him about books, and loneliness, and trees. A beekeeper said birds are "quietly singing in the countryside." A factory worker said his plant had closed down. An engineer said he had rediscovered the pleasure of being with his two children.
Armino's phone rang.
"Hello," he said.
The caller introduced herself as Luisa.
"I am living right in front of the hospital of Varese," she said. "I wake up to the sound of helicopters every morning."
More than 100 calls have come in, from all across Italy. But they could be from any part of the world where people are seeing the virus disassemble their lives, forcing them indoors, forcing them apart from those they care about. One person told Arminio, "It is weird to see the mistrust in people's eyes." Another said, "In these days, I am learning how to live with myself." A student in Rome said, "We don't know when we will be able to hug our parents again."
"Some people feel alone, scared, and they know I am scared too," Arminio, 60, told The Washington Post. "It's as if they want to shiver a bit together."
In Italy alone, the coronavirus has killed more than 3,400 and sickened tens of thousands more. For the remaining millions, there's a feeling of being forced to wait, maybe for worse to come. People care for kids, cook, watch the news and wonder: Is the virus only at the beginning of disrupting lives?
"There are no preprogrammed solutions," Arminio said. "I have tried phone calls."
As a poet, he was well-known enough to have a regular speaking tour, but it stopped with the outbreak. Twenty-five days on the road every month became zero, and he found himself back home in the southern village of Bisaccia, staring at the nut trees in his backyard, reading Kafka, feeling stir-crazy. He found himself thinking more and more about the topic that had long defined his poetry: the fear of death.
Three decades earlier, he had seen an 8-year-old die of a cerebral aneurysm - an event that led to a panic attack and a sensation, on a day when he was sitting in a barber chair, that he, too, was dying. He was physically healthy, of course, but in the years that followed, he came to think of the rest of the world as too carefree, too quick to brush off the dangers.
This time, though, it was Italy and the whole world that seemed to be burning, and though Arminio felt terrified, he also felt an odd, communal energy - as if more people might be starting to see things his way.
"Being distant is no punishment," he wrote one day on his Instagram page, "but a chance to feel intensely closer, as we're sharing the same threat."