Poem-A-Day: Fady Joudah

My friend Fady is one of my favorite poets. He recently had a longish poem out in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and if you click on that link you can read it as well as listen to him reading it. I don’t think he expected how much traction this poem would find, but my guess is that’s just his humility. If you are interested in reading some of Fady’s very short poems, you should check out his book Textu (Copper Canyon Press), which were poems all initially composed on his phone as text messages, in a time when text messages were limited in length like tweets are.


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.


Go to this month’s first Poem-A-Day to learn how to participate in a game as part of this year’s series. You can have just a little involvement or go all the way and write a cento. I hope you’ll join in!


photo credit Cybele Knowles

Fady Joudah is a practicing physician. His most recent poetry collection is Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, and his forthcoming one is Tethered to Stars, both from Milkweed Editions.

Monday Earworm: Michael Bruening

So this week I will begin teaching online. I’m looking forward to some aspects of it, although I suspect that the longer it goes on, the more I will sincerely miss being with my students and colleagues all together in one place. Here’s hoping the new dynamic is worthwhile.

In the meantime, I’m hoping to keep other routines in place as much as possible for the sake of easing stress. Still, I suspect my first day online with my students is going to be show-and-tell of our pets…

A Few Thoughts on This Whole Pandemic Thing (And Why I’m Actually Not, Surprisingly, Freaking Out Right Now)

I know everyone is a little on edge right now, and that’s understandable. As a person who openly struggles with anxiety, I really do get it. And I want to start this post by acknowledging that I am definitely taking the coronavirus seriously. It needs to be taken seriously, and we have a moral responsibility to do everything we can to slow down the spread of this disease. I truly believe that and am enacting appropriate measures to that end, not just because I don’t want any more people to catch it but also because our health care system needs to have a chance to catch up and not be overwhelmed. Flatten the curve.

However, I am not panicking. And — again — as someone who openly struggles with anxiety —  and in particular with anxiety when it comes to my health — this probably seems just plain weird. But I want to explain why I’m not freaking out right now, and why I think the rest of us shouldn’t freak out, either.

First, I have some thoughts about why there are long lines at grocery stores, why some of their shelves are empty, why several of the people I’ve encountered lately have been running around half-rabid with panic-furrowed faces. You can read umpteen million articles online about the psychology of scarcity (real or perceived) and the fear-contagion effect, and it’s probably a good idea to do so if you tend toward worrying. You can also read plenty of pieces about the real science and facts behind COVID-19 that will probably calm you down; I recommend this too. And if you want a nerdy and fascinating look at why soap and water are super effective against this and other viruses, check out this tweet-thread.

But the main thing I want to remember during this frenetic moment is that we have been here before. Over the last couple of days, a lot of the worst anxiety I’ve encountered has centered around the idea that “nothing like this has ever happened before,” or the also-popular “we’ve just never seen anything like this before.” And while it’s true that we have not in recent memory encountered a global pandemic while also being “led” by anyone quite like this, if we break the current situation down to some fundamental parts, you’ll see we have been through this before — and we came out of it.

Remember other difficult times? For some of you, that might be 9/11. For some, hurricanes or other natural disasters. The older you are, the more frames of reference you have. We came through those, but they freaked us out while they were ongoing. Sometimes transition times are like watching something scary happening in slow-motion. You think you have an idea of how it’s going to end up, but the moment just keeps going and elongates the apprehension. (And in hindsight, that apprehension gets compressed and some of that feeling goes away.)

So yes, we have indeed been through this before, if you break down what we are currently experiencing into two main parts: transition and information overload.

*  We are in a moment when things are happening quickly around us. Events are being cancelled, places are closing down, our lives are filled with uncertainty. (For some of us, that profound and existential uncertainty has been going on for a good three years at least. This current situation is only compounding it, which makes everything feel exponentially worse.) All of this may feel disappointing at best and unnerving at worst.
*  That uncertainty about the future can be terrifying. So people go to the grocery store and stock up on things related to things that they feel vulnerable about, like toilet paper. (It doesn’t matter that COVID-19 isn’t a diarrheal illness.) Other people see them panic-buying and do it, too. That’s part of the fear-contagion effect. The thing is, panic-buying gives us the illusion of control over our situation, and then when we can’t do it because the shelves are empty, we have the sense of no control, and that causes panic. (See how this cycle feeds itself? Stop panic-buying, please.)
*  Anytime we go into a period of transition, things can feel unsettled, so we can feel unmoored. But the important thing to remember about transitions is that they are, by nature, temporary. We are moving into a series of new habits — working from home and social-distancing, for example — that will probably start to feel normal-ish, or at least not wildly untethered, once we adapt to them. Humans as a species are eminently adaptable, which often bodes well for us.

Information Overload:
*  Let’s talk about our reliance on being plugged in. If humans are adaptable, we must recognize that our newest generation is a little bit cyborg: our technology has become an extension of our selves. As such, we may feel glued to our screens, and those screens may be popping up with push notifications every few minutes with “updates” telling us every time another case of coronavirus has been confirmed in a region near us.
*  While information can be helpful for many people, this hyper-vigilance might actually do more harm than good, because the subconscious urgency of the word “alert” and the phrase “breaking news” causes us, frankly, to go into freak-out mode. This keeps eyeballs on the news, which in turn enriches the people who advertise on the news. It might be worthwhile to just stay away from broadcast news for a little while.
*  Any time we’re in an evolving situation, “news” is going to come in fast and furious and sometimes incorrect. If we checked on it only once a day (or twice a day, spaced out significantly like in the morning and in the evening — but not at bedtime), we would probably be a little more reliably updated and would probably feel less panicked about it.
*  Seriously, unplug. It helps. Find hobbies that aren’t online. If you already have them, enjoy them. We cancelled our Spring Break trip and are staying home. I’m planning to make some visual art and read some books and am really looking forward to it! I find reading fiction and making art to be therapeutic and generally beneficial to my life. What works for you?

Again, I know the coronavirus is something to take seriously. And I am. (See also: We cancelled our vacation and are staying home and practicing social distancing.) We’re washing our hands and disinfecting surfaces. We’re not taking unnecessary risks. And we’re also not panicking.

Bear in mind the actual facts:
*  This virus can be killed with the most ordinary stuff: soap and water. Slay it. It is in your power to do so. Do it.
*  Cases of COVID-19 are going to increase as more people get tested. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more of it out there, because it was probably already out there before we started paying attention to it. More people are getting tested now, so it’s going to look like it’s increasing.
*  For the vast majority of cases, this is a relatively mild illness, and the vast majority of people do recover from it. People who are in especially vulnerable populations are more at risk, but most people are not “especially vulnerable,” and we should do what we can to help protect the ones who are. Use common sense and follow the science on this one.
*  This is all going to get worse before it gets better, in part because the news is going to get worse before it gets better. But it will get better.

Avoid speculation and catastrophic thinking. And if you’re prone to anxiety, as I am, this requires conscious effort. But it will help.

In the meantime, what kinds of things do you like to do to de-stress? Share it in the comments below so we can all find some fun new self-care techniques!