Corona Radiata: A New Poem

Hear Fady Joudah reading this poem »

The rats are invisible.
The bats are beautiful.
Here’s the livestock and fish market,
and there’s the institute for the biologic.
We’re ravenous. Our hunger travels
in fueled suitcases packed with desires.
The virus is real,
gave up its passport,
stops for no officer
save immunology’s guards
in epidemiology’s tribe.

For decades, millions die every year:
from TB, poverty and malnutrition, attrition,
pneumonia, diarrhea, millions the count
of Spain’s, England’s, or Italy’s population
annually wiped off the earth,
untouchables outside history,
and though their geography be
diverse, it’s short of total.

The pandemic is real.
If hospitals are overwhelmed,
the virus will add to the otherwise
preventable deaths and lawsuits.
Diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure,
our bread and butter,
colonoscopies, too,
and organ transplants
may be placed on hold:
people, there is no human system
for this sort of pandemonium
and there won’t be
unless echo is one.

But if so many die
in a single season,
what will happen to life insurance
firms? If one percent
of Americans die in one swoop,
what will become of grief?
What if rent and mortgages,
utility bills, phone and car payments,
student and small business loans
are waived for a month,
pardoned? What if CEOs
give up their salaries
for 8 weeks so that the faucet
drips the tub full
with buoyancy for all?

The virus is indebted to no one.
Distances close in on us.
The curve and the herd and this
much death on our soil.
Antibiotics, globulins, gloves, masks,
and numerator to denominator
as yin to yang, if we’re lucky,
when the virus returns
it will be wearing less imperial clothes.

Every 2 minutes a child dies of malaria.
Infomercial, how many minutes in a year?
Malaria lyses more than the blood of children
and their mothers. Extreme measures
against the virus should be taken.

This pandemic, one sorrow,
one love, this pandemic hangs
on a strand of the helical tongue.
This pandemic brings me back to eros.
And to hysteria’s translation
in the mind. Pleasure evolved
out of life inside life
wanting no more than life itself.

Then things got sweet,
complicated. Evolution
has some capitalist features
yet isn’t capitalist, and we know
what else evolution isn’t,
we’ve been unimaginative of late,
since we’ve run out of land
but not out of real estate:

the virus teases us
with the bliss to come
after detention is served.
To hold the estranged.
To touch strangers.
An ecstasy worth waiting for.

And our detention is the earth’s respite
from our jets and flues
and wireless energy.
A little rest, not for long.
So, extreme measures, why not?

Have you been displaced by war,
scattered by wind, tattered by abundance?
In the last fourteen days,
have you experienced the endemic flare up
like a bad knee, immobilizer bad,
a migraine in the dark?
Extreme measures,
healthcare a human right,
and infrastructure, infrastructure, people,
culling of militaries, monopolies,
but who’ll go first?

20 million Iraqis ravaged for generations.
20 million Syrians and 20 million Yemenis.
And the curable after excision
with clear margins. The virus doesn’t speak,
doesn’t want to be written,
doesn’t give voice to the voiceless
or pay low wages
to the lowly. And the looting,
always the looting. This kind of talk
is part of the problem not the solution.
Still as a friend said: amidst all this
uncertainty and concern
the camellia in my garden
is glorious and serene
in the knowledge of Spring.

Far and near
the virus becomes our alibi
to obey more in sickness and in wealth.
Far and near the virus awakens
in us a responsibility
to others who will not die
our deaths, nor we theirs,
though we might, but must direct
our urgency to the elderly, our ancestors
who are and aren’t our ancestors.
And to the compromised.
The virus won’t spare the poor
or the young or anyone
with architecture primed for ruin.

This August the quarantine on small joys
should lift. Fifteen years ago this August,
I came back from Darfur
to Hurricane Katrina: it was mostly
Anderson Cooper on TV.
In Gaza the virus breaches
the siege as document of science
and will not exit. Israel offers
to track the virus on cellphones
of the infected, a treasure trove.

Does economy lament? Is it an individual
or a corporation? Can it repent?
Can capital grow catatonic
or speak Chinese?
What is avarice with God or without?
Let’s not say the virus is blaming the patient.
Lacking objectivity these words
don’t dismiss progress, the sample size,
who’ll analyze the data,
or who’ll get the bailout?

Without people there’s no power over the people.
How much for a mosquito net?
Three a year per person
if the swamp isn’t drained
and heaven’s mouth isn’t shut?
During the carving of the Panama Canal.
During penicillin fungating
in shrapnelled limbs.
During smallpox and sex.
What if a pandemic kills
far fewer than other non-pandemic ailments?

The panic’s in the pan,
and vaccines are real.
An organism lives to reproduce
its servant, master, and host.
We’re all equally small.
And after survival,
which shall not be pyrrhic
if measures are enforced,
surveillance will multiply,
careers will be made,
grants will be granted,
a depression aborted, attenuated,
and a call to papers:
spend a penny, save a dime,
invest a nickel, make a quarter.

The birth rate exceeds the mortal wound.
Our overlords will return us to our dreams of forgetting.
And our lords,
who aren’t in heaven,
give us this day
and lead us not
but deliver us
and the pulverized,
if they’re still warm,
if light enough for the breeze.

Fady Joudah is a practicing physician and poet. In 2002 and 2005 he worked with Doctors Without Borders in Zambia and Sudan. He is the 2007 winner of the Yale series of Younger Poets Competition. His most recent poetry collection is Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance and the forthcoming Tethered to Stars, both from Milkweed Editions.

This poem appeared first in the Los Angeles Review of Books.