Isolated dog and girl staring across lake

Letter to America by Sandra Steingraber

One Poem in Twelve Parts

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Plague Inventory


My former husband.

He could kill me.

I am not the first woman to write those words.




My former husband—brain-injured from a series of strokes, who lives in disabled housing, who sometimes forgets if he has gone to the grocery store (or maybe he does remember but it’s the aphasia), for whom I order groceries to be delivered to his address, whom I call multiple times to remind him they are coming, they are coming please don’t go shopping—he could kill me. 

Because he could kill me and because I could kill him and every other virus-vulnerable resident of Juniper Manor, I can’t let him in when he shows up at the house.

He probably forgot.

Therefore, he stands on the back deck peering through the glass of the sliding door at our quarantined daughter. He peers like a new father, circa 1950, peers through a nursery window at the infants in their identical hospital basinets trying to figure out which one, which one is his.

We love you! He understands. I love you too! says the father and former husband.

And walks away without seeing our son who is self-isolating with a sore throat in the upstairs bedroom.

Pretty sure no other woman has written those words. 




My dog cannot kill me. 




My neighbors could kill me.

And I could kill them. We are each other’s potential assassins.

Therefore, we hail each other from our respective property lines and from our porches when we take turns walking by in single file, getting some sunlight, our daily quota of steps.

To our potential assassins we call out Nancy, I miss you! How is everyone in your house? We’re fine! Is Ben still in isolation? Did Logan get tested? No but his fever and cough are resolving.  

Oh thank God.

I love all my neighbors as myself even Allison the jogger who hates my dog who cannot kill her. Or me.




My dog cannot kill me. 




My groceries could kill me.

Okay just knock off the paranoia.

No I won’t and therefore I leave the delivered groceries on the porch for two days because it is 40 fucking degrees out here, same as my refrigerator and thereafter I disinfect the tubs of yogurt and jars of almond butter requested by my quarantined children because a pandemic means we now anoint our food with bleach and eat what we want.

The only thing required of us is gratitude. Let us thank Him for this food. 




Not the darkness. But the light switch.

Not the oven’s heat. But the oven’s dial.

Not the bathtub’s water. But its porcelain handles.

Not the steam screaming from the teakettle. But the trigger on the handle that stops the screaming.

The back of the chair at the table.

The brown rail of the brown stair that walks me to my bedroom.

The bathroom door with its knob always threatening to fall off.

They could all kill me. Three tablespoons of bleach per quart water.




Coat and shoes: banished to the mudroom.

Gloves: removed using sterile lab technique and discarded.

The mask: hung on a nail previously used for Christmas stockings.

By the chimney with care.




My children could kill me.

One, who returned from Santiago on a jammed plane and a one-way ticket on the very day Chile sealed its borders because no one from the study abroad program answered their phones to help, who navigated the panicked cesspool of the JFK airport and a five-hour bus ride to arrive at her childhood bedroom, is now on day 11 of a 14-day isolation. 

The other, the boy with the episodic sore throat and possible headache and now conjunctivitis in one eye, is on day 9. He telemeds with the doctor. No, he doesn’t have a fever.

I’m it for them. The last one standing. All they got.

They could kill me. I could be taken in the night to the ER and they would never see me again. That could happen.

Therefore, I deliver paper plates with almond butter sandwiches to their respective bedroom doors and look I was able to score some apples! How are you doing in there?

We have one bathroom here. We share it. 




My dog whimpers by her water bowl. It’s empty. What’s wrong with me. My hand turns the faucet. Which could kill me.




My hands could kill me.

I wake from a dream in which my fingers are stroking my eyebrows. 

I look at my hands in the dark. Well, did you? Did you touch my face while I was sleeping?

They don’t reply.

Fine, I will interrogate them separately in the morning. The left. The right. Pontius Pilate and Lady Macbeth.

Are they following the rules? Do they each know what the other is doing? 




The dog sighs in her sleep and repositions her chin on the crook of my legs that are folded and stacked neatly together.

They can’t kill me.

Not the dog. Not my legs.

Try to sleep now.




Sandra Steingraber with portrait of Rachel CarsonSandra Steingraber, PhD, is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College, co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, and editor of Library of America’s 2018 collection, Rachel Carson: Silent Spring and Other Environmental Writings. She is the subject of the award-winning documentary film, Unfractured, by filmmaker Chanda Chevannes, which tells the story of the successful fight to ban fracking in the state of New York.

Please follow Sandra on Twitter @ssteingraber1 where she is posting daily poetry under the hashtag #PoemADayForThePandemic.
Read Sandra Steingraber’s essay “Always Know I Was Adopted; Just Found Out I’m Gay” and “Speaking Truth to Power: An Interview with Sandra Steingraber” appearing in

Header image photo by Seaq68, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Sandra Steingraber with portrait of biologist Rachel Carson (by Rob Shetterly) at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, Maine, by Colleen Boland. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.