Pandemic Haiku

Bordowitz, Gregg

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Annotated by:
Zander, Devon
  • Date of entry: Dec-06-2021


Pandemic Haiku is a collection of 52 haiku poems written by Gregg Bordowitz during the COVID-19 pandemic.  In this collection, he attempts to encapsulate some of what his experience was like during the events of 2020 in the traditional 5-7-5 syllable format.  

Bordowitz is best known as an artist and activist devoted to documenting the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic.  His voice in this collection is amplified by his long-term work devoted to understanding contagion, illness, and identity, and he uses the reflections formulated over his three-decade career to inform how to process, survive, and reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic.


I first discovered Bordowitz at the MoMA PS1 retrospective I Wanna Be Well, a media-spanning exhibit of his life’s work. Included in the exhibit, Pandemic Haiku strives to document his day to day life in 2020 in just over two dozen pages and less than 1000 syllables.

Virus variant
Becoming dominant strain
Pasta for dinner

What stands out in this collection is the same idea that interviewee David Barr explained two decades ago in Bordowitz’s film, Habit (2001) - in an ongoing pandemic, there is a continual mixing of the normal everyday with absolute crisis.   In the first poem seen above (p. 3),  normalcy and crisis shift places with one rising to the forefront while the other remains in the background and vice versa.

COVID pandemic
Repeats AIDS crisis problems
Who owns the patents?

Passover seder
Held on Zoom during COVID
For the second year

We’re separated
By vulnerability
Into groups and waves

Focusing on this dichotomy of crisis and normalcy are other dichotomies in the collection referenced in a few examples above:  the comparison of the HIV/AIDS pandemic with that of COVID-19 (p. 16), the mixing of the familiar with the once unfamiliar (p. 20), and an examination of isolation and togetherness (p. 19).

In an interview with MoMA curator Peter Eeley, Bordowitz addresses the ways in which the tradition and form of haiku inspired his work.  Written during a year when one’s attention span was often short, each poem represents a moment where the author’s attention was not torn away and was instead, even if for a moment, focused on the present, on creation.  Additionally, haikus typically reference the season in some way.  Bordowitz attempts to stay true to this by grounding a number of his poems in natural phenomena (autumn cold, flowers, snow) and the human moments of 2020 and 2021 (Black Lives Matter marches, vaccine doses).  Yet, this is complicated by a year that largely seemed seasonless - as he says, experienced through a mask, “the steamy glass panes of my window,” or newsfeed headlines - which was compounded by blurring seasons and the looming of climate change in the present consciousness.  

Eminently approachable, Pandemic Haiku represents a possible assignment, personal or academic, to challenge oneself to explore large scale problems, calamities, and feelings in similar bite-size poems.


The entire collection of haikus is available as a free download on I Wanna Be Well’s exhibition site.  Peter Eeley’s interview with the author can be found here.


Cooley Gallery, Reed College

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