I had two important things before me: the one was the carrying on my business and shop… in which was embarked all my effects in the world; and the other was the preservation of my life in so dismal a calamity as I saw apparently was coming upon the whole city, and which, however great it was, my fears perhaps, as well as other people’s, represented to be much greater than it could be.
—Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, first published in 1722 regarding the great plague of 1665 that struck the city of London
- The Next World
In my diary of a plague year,
even the pages are dangerous to touch.
Who knows where words have been,
their filthy little hands all over everything.
Medieval plague masks suddenly
became haute couture, long, leggy models
strutting the catwalk like blanched crows,
waving sensual beaks from side to side,
designer gowns clung to an infrastructure
of naked ribs. Slick prophets in silk suits
appeared on TV screens,
God’s angry megaphone squealing
off-key rants about how our sins
led us to this pestilence, how our lust
for touch made us all Typhoid Marys.
Coming out of the grocery store,
a woman leaned so far away from me
I thought she’d fall and shatter.
A man paying for his prescription
spat venom to claim his six-foot space.
My grandpa died in the arms of his faith,
sure of his place in the next world:
I’m the one who’s getting off easy.
I pity those who still have to live.
I know what he means. The streets,
airports, concert halls, cafés are now
empty, but the residue of our touch
makes them ache for our presence.
Nothing disappears without a trace,
but will we ever return? Or is this
our epitaph, that as a species we are
oil and water, genetically divided
between leavers and takers, the sane
and the psychopaths, the controlled
and the controllers. Fear is the virus.
Don’t let yourself become infected.
The next world is a long way down.
- Passover, April 2020
In the Biblical tradition, when Pharaoh refuses Moses permission to lead his people out of Egypt, God promises to send plagues on the Egyptians. To protect his own people, the Hebrews, he instructs them to paint their doorposts with the blood of a sacrificial lamb so that the angel of destruction will pass over them. This became the basis of the modern Jewish Passover celebration, which has accrued its own traditions over the centuries. According to History.com, the Seder ceremony includes children, who ask four questions designed to explain what distinguishes this special night from all other nights.
Let my people go, the spirit cries
as the Passover angel flies on stealth wings
that cost the Pentagon 10 billion dollars
and emptied hospitals of ventilators
and surgical supplies. No lamb’s blood
can save us from the plague of masks,
filtering our words, our thoughts,
our very breath. It has become a sin
to look one another in the eye.
Italians flouted this ban and sang
from their balconies, parting the Sea of Fear
with music. No modern-day pharaoh,
no Presidente or Il Duce can stop
the exodus to the promised land
of the heart, the reign of reason that lives
only imperfectly outside the mind.
A little boy outside the grocery store
shrieks in fear as flies divebomb
his cookie, the last, stumbling remnant
of a routed insect armada.
His mother ensures that he never
leaves her sight, ever. His father is absent,
sent into exile. The boy will learn
to grow up afraid of any creature
that does not resemble him.
The secret symphony of bees
will remain a foreign tongue to him
long before they vanish forever.
Will mystery be too much for him?
Will he ask the Four Questions? Better yet,
will he learn to make up his own?
He is too young yet to know—knowledge
is the antidote, and questions the key.
- Deaths of Despair
“…Deaths of despair from crashing the economy via lockdowns will significantly add to the final death toll and may end up surpassing fatalities from the virus itself.” —Toby Rogers, Ph.D
“Love is not illegal!” he boomed
as two long-lost friends whooped,
meeting in a grocery store
for the first time in years,
yet still too afraid to embrace.
The simple act of shopping now
a hazard zone of simmering fears
and micro resentments writ large—
a car with Alberta license plates
is screamed at outside the Safeway:
You don’t belong here! Go back
where you came from! You’ll make us all
sick! The heart behind its mask
starved of oxygen, the latent germ
of xenophobia blossoming
an even greater plague.
As emergency rooms empty out,
doctors and medical experts shudder
at “deaths of despair” ghosts, gone
straight from quarantine to morgue.
No tree is separate from the forest,
biologists have discovered,
roots and fungi a single web of life.
Isolate one and it begins to die.
Breathe, breathe in the mossy droplets.
©2020 Sean Arthur Joyce