What Rigoberto González is reading, hearing and watching in quarantine

Rigoberto González, quarantined in his home in Newark, N.J.
(Rigoberto González)

The Times asked authors to track what they do in isolation. Today, Rigoberto González, award-winning poet and professor, escapes into tidy mysteries like “The Poisoned Chocolates Case,” binges on dark poetry, and prepares a syllabus on — what else? — the apocalypse.

Sunday, March 22

The irony of sheltering in place is that I moved into my apartment in Newark, N.J., last May and bemoaned the fact that I was rarely home, constantly jetting to this city for a reading or that city for a conference. I would come here to sleep, do laundry and cook a meal once in a while in the kitchen I always dreamed of having. Be careful what you wish for.

Every day we receive new instructions from the federal government, the state governor, the city mayor — even from the manager of the building I live in. By the weekend I’m so overwhelmed that I have to escape, but without leaving the apartment. The option I’ve always taken for granted — flying out of the country — is no longer available. Thank goodness for murder mysteries.


I reach into my To-Be-Read pile and dig out a copy of “The Poisoned Chocolates Case,” a 1929 novel by Anthony Berkeley. The premise: Six mystery buffs gather to present their individual solutions to a case that baffled even Scotland Yard. Each theory is convincing, but which is true? This genre always appealed to me because I know from page one that there will be a resolution. There’s no arrival at ambiguity or frustration, only the certainty of closure. The beginning, middle and end follow a predictable but satisfying sequence.

Gore Vidal, aka Edgar Box, in 1974.
(Los Angeles Times)

As the world reels from a pandemic with an undefined and elusive middle and no discernible end, I suppose this is my best temporary reprieve from the gravity of our current situation. When I was an anxious closeted teenager, my doorway to an alternative world where order was attainable was the work of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers. I’m itching to travel again to these places so far from the chaos I’m inhabiting.

On the shelf I have Gore Vidal’s three murder mysteries, written under the pseudonym Edgar Box. Their titles, “Death in the Fifth Position,” “Death Before Bedtime” and “Death Likes It Hot,” give me permission to approach that word without implication. I can hold Death in my hands, yet I have nothing to fear.

Today’s meal: Pan-roasted vegetables with tilapia, reheated rice, a box of animal crackers for dessert, plenty of water.

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An exhausting day of troubleshooting at work from noon to 6 p.m. Online teaching hit a few snags, and as the director of the MFA graduate program at Rutgers-Newark I have to come up with answers on the spot. In between distress calls from teaching assistants and faculty, I pick up the book sitting on my desk, “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” by my colleague Cathy Park Hong.

She had given me a signed copy with the trepidation that the book’s future was now compromised by the derailment of book tours and university appearances. At our institution, all events had to be canceled through the end of the semester, including commencement. I assured her that her book had a better chance than those by debut authors. Uttering that statement filled me with dread: Under these circumstances nothing is knowable. In the back of my mind I suspect that, for a book silenced by the shrieking of COVID-19, recovery is not going to be possible.

Hong also informed me that she was afraid for her friends and family. That Asian folks were being targeted, blamed for the pandemic. That her parents were Korean didn’t matter. The helplessness in her voice overshadowed any concerns about the book.

When I come across certain passages, I’m startled by how its declarations have become amplified now that the derision of Asians in America has become more palpable. “Pity the Asian accent,” she writes. “It is such a degrading accent, one of the last accents acceptable to mock.” In another essay, she writes, “To grow up Asian in America is to witness the humiliation of authority figures like your parents and to learn not to depend on them: They cannot protect you.” And in a final note, she adds, “If the Asian American consciousness must be emancipated, we must free ourselves of our conditional existence.”

If any book needs to be heard during and after the pandemic, it’s this one.

Today’s meal: Spaghetti and ground lamb with homemade tomato sauce (I added plenty of oregano and chili pepper), a cup of raspberry Jell-O for dessert, a snifter of brandy.

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I survived Monday, but today, more bad news: The White House Coronavirus Task Force just advised that anyone who has passed through or left New York City should place themselves in 14-day quarantine. The number of infections keeps rising exponentially. Three of my friends in the city are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Queens, my old home, is in dire shape.

I was in Manhattan last Friday, taking a video of an empty Times Square and an abandoned Lincoln Center. I had traveled from Newark to the Upper East Side to file my taxes, only to find out later that day that the deadline was extended.

Thus begins my transition from sheltering in place to self-quarantine.

The writer Manuel Muñoz chats with me over the phone. He reminds me that the human body needs to experience all emotions, not just those dictated by the present circumstance. I know exactly how to evoke them: reading poetry.

I feel elated tapping into the ways Natalie Diaz writes arrestingly about love and the body in “Postcolonial Love Poem”: “Like any desert, I learn myself by what’s desired of me — / and I am demoned by those desires./ For this, I move like a wound — always, and fruiting,/ sweetened by the thorn.”

Cover of Rick Barot's poetry collection "The Galleons."
(Milkweed Editions)

Rick Barot’s “The Galleons takes me on breathtaking historical and lyrical expeditions aboard the trading ships that connected the Philippines with the Americas for more than two and a half centuries. The ghosts and consequences of that route still haunt the speaker’s present: “I come from people who honed / their teeth to sharp points, who buried their dead in coffins / shaped like boats for a journey. / I come from horizon. I come from water.”

The scars of natural calamity and political travesty merge in Michael Prior’s exquisite “Burning Province.” Inspired by the recent wildfires in British Columbia and by the internment camps of Canada, which his Japanese grandparents endured during WWII, Prior writes thought-provoking poems rich with insights about memory and identity: “New worlds / forever measured by the Old. For every measure, / an equal and opposite erasure. How, over the fire, / the family friend said Jap, not Japanese.”

At 8 p.m., the curfew goes into effect. A crew of squad cars roars down one of Newark’s main drags each evening to affirm a police presence. Their nightly ritual is not comforting, it’s unsettling. I look to my anchor: the book of poems in my hand.

Today’s meal: boiled chayote with hot sauce, leftover rotisserie chicken, reheated beans and rice, and a small bottle of Prosecco. For dessert: salami, guava paste and drunken goat cheese.

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To keep busy today, I decide to read up for a course I planned to teach on the literature of the apocalypse. It seems grotesque now to pursue this subject. I have taught the class before, and its doom and gloom were received by my young students as prophecy so far removed from their present lives that it might as well be entertainment. I begin with the Book of Revelations, tiptoe into Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road and Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” And I close with my favorite apocalyptic narrative, Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Almanac of the Dead,” and my favorite postapocalyptic one, Walter M. Miller’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz.” I was thrilled to have more recent publications to choose from: Ling Ma’s “Severance,Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” and Fernando A. Flores’ “Tears of the Truffle Pig.” I hadn’t decided which of these to add to the syllabus.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the movie based on Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."
Viggo Mortensen, left, and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the movie based on Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” the perfect thing to take your mind off the pandemic.
(Dimension Films )

These books had informed my previous poetry collection, “The Book of Ruin.” During two recent podcasts I was asked about “Apocalipsixtlán,” the epic poem in the collection in which a cataclysmic event splits the Americas in half. A toxic gas escapes from the crack in the Earth and a madness possesses all the young people, who in turn do away with the older people.

When I read from the collection last year, the audience was either amused or horrified. I’d say jokingly, “Maybe we don’t deserve this planet. Maybe we should leave it to the animals.”

Today, I’m rethinking the syllabus. Maybe the students will need — maybe I will need — a reading list of books about hope. Do we have any?

In the meantime, I’ll pluck another book out of my To-Be-Read pile: “Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land,” by Noé Álvarez.

Today’s meal: grilled zucchini seasoned with chili flakes and garlic. Lox on a bagel and cream cheese. A cup of licorice tea and biscuits for dessert.