“The plague full swift goes by”

Like most other people in the world today, I’ve been thinking a lot about the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been taking me back to the time in the 1980s when I worked as speechwriter for the commissioner of the Department of Health in New York City. At that time, the prevention of AIDS/HIV was the main public health concern in the city, followed closely by tuberculosis.

There were, of course, many other problems, some particular to NYC (window falls by children, for example) and some more common everywhere (dog bites, drug abuse, the diseases associated with poverty, and so on).

The commissioner at the time, Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, was very active across the five boroughs, speaking on public health problems. He strongly believed that public health was a political process, and he spent a good deal of time out of the office, explaining and garnering support for the department’s policies across the city and in Washington.

(One policy was the necessity for widespread testing for infection by HIV, which exactly parallels the discussions over testingor lack of testing, I should saythat we are hearing today.)

It was a wonderful job for me . . . I felt I was contributing to the most important health issues of the day in the best way that I could, though my words.

Sometimes I wrote up to eight speeches a week, along with op-ed pieces and articles for medical journals signed by the commissioner and other physicians in the department. And whenever the Mayor’s Office needed something for Koch to say or write about public health, I was often tapped to write that, too.

Afterwards I calculated that I wrote roughly four hundred speeches about AIDS/HIV in my five years there.

And yet, the job had its consequences.

When I started, they found desk space for me in a cubicle in the Office of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). Every day when I came in to work, I passed full-color posters of chancres, rashes, warts, and all the other lesions that STIs can cause.

I certainly don’t mean to make light of any of thisbut in the beginning, writing speeches every day about the effects of AIDS/HIV and tuberculosis, and spending my days among public health workers who spent their days tracing contacts of people who might have been infected with STIs without knowing it . . . all had an impact on me.

Riding on the subway to and from work each morning, I began to imagine the city as a vast sea of infection and all the people I passed as unknowing vectors of disease.

Not a healthy outlook.

I got over it, of course, but I’ve been reminded of that time a lot lately. The same issues that the city faced thenthe critical need for testing to stem the spread of HIV despite (at that time) there being no treatment for itare issues now.

When I began to write poetry seriously, infection as a metaphor was one I came back to time and again, due in large part to my time at the Department of Health.

Today’s blog entry includes two poems about infection. The first one, “Serial Killer,” is based on a story an office mate of mine years ago once told me about a job he had infecting mice in a vaccine development lab. It seemed a particularly gruesome occupation when he told me about it, and it stuck with me until I tried to exorcize it in the poem.

As you think about labs trying madly to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, give some thought to the little creatures who give their lives to the effort.

The second poem, “Influenza,” uses the idea of infection as a metaphor for how we respond to other things in our lives.

As always, please enjoy. And stay healthy!

Serial Killer

So the god swooped down, descending like the night.
                                    ─Homer

They weighed next to nothing, their bones
more fragile even than a bird’s
when I reached into the cage and
cupped one in my palm, tenderly.

Tenderly, too, the needle, filled
with what poison, what rare
killing toxin tested on these
small creatures, deftly slipped between

their brittle shoulder blades, the fur
bunched in my thumb and forefinger,
a move I learned the first week, saving
time and wasted motions.

They all died. Before injecting
my day’s subjects, I harvested
stiff tiny corpses from the
night before. Or else collected

those I had to sacrifice with
another kind of shot. How like
a god I was, reaching in and
randomly selecting this for

Vaccine Beta, that for Toxin
Alpha, this for a quiet end
in its sleep, that to be rudely
snatched away from the life it knew.

How they feared me, feared the shadow
of my hand as it moved into
position, nudged the cage door open,
and plunged down with unconcerned

speed to snap up the unlucky
and slip in my fatal point,
forcing them to yield up, squealing,
all of their terrible knowledge.

© Donald Levin, 2002. A version of this poem first appeared in Delirium, November 2002.

Influenza

All language is vehicular and transitive.
                           ─Emerson

The vehicle of
a moving tenor

catches us unaware.
When it first appears

we try our best to
ignore its urging

but when it makes its
presence felt, we take

some certain pleasure
in surrendering

to it. At the end
it makes us feel so

awful we wish we
had never been born

though after, we are
better protected

against its striking
again. People the

vehicle with the
rider of your choice:

love, death, sadness, joy,
or even the flu.

© Donald Levin, 2005

Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet

This is one of my older poems. I wrote the draft of it on a plane on the way to Boston in 2002 to visit cousins and an elderly uncle whom I hadn’t seen in years. It was the first time I had flown since 9/11.

I wasn’t scared, exactly, but I was plenty uneasy.

Flying is not my favorite activity under the best of circumstances. But I was flying in the near-aftermath of the terror attacks, when everybody was on edge, and lots of other things down on the planet Earth below me made it seem as though order was collapsing.

This was the time when a sniper in a blue Caprice was shooting people randomly on Washington DC highways. Chechen rebels held 700 people hostage in a Moscow theatre, and the attempt to rescue them went horribly wrong. Bombs were routinely going off on Israeli busses.

The world seemed a tad nuts.

As it happened, I had assigned Jane Austen’s Emma to my Intro to Graduate Studies students that semester. I brought the book along to reread—and as we always say literature does, it took me out of myself and my worries and transported me into Austen’s world.

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If you’ve read Austen, you know it’s very different from our own. Though her world was also in transition, her characters negotiated the changes with civility and grace

I tried to capture the differences—along with my yearning for a more orderly world—in the poem.

At the time, it seemed as if things couldn’t get any crazier.

Except today, 2020 says, “Hold my beer.”

There’s a new movie of Emma out, and I saw it last night. It was a decent translation of the book to film, with the exception of some casting choices I took issue with. (Note to producers: next time switch the actors who play Knightley and Robert Martin; if you’re going to use the great Bill Nighy, give him more to do).

It reminded me again why great novels like Emma hardly ever make great movies: novels are all about language, and no film can do justice to the sparkling wit of Austen.

But shifting into Austen’s world is still a serene experience as disease, financial catastrophe, corruption, and stupidity rage outside the darkened theatre.

It helps us realize that once there were people who were civil and agreeable to each other. And maybe there will be again.

Hope you enjoy “Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet.”

 

Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet

A voice from the flight deck mumbles—something

about the weather in Boston—as the plane lumbers

into the dawning day above it all,

the sniper’s nest in the blue Caprice, endless

wars, dead hostages, suicide bombers

blowing nailed starbursts through sunblind busses.

 

Jane, how I welcome your astringent lines, sly

as a measured throw of cards on green felt tables,

the ordered games of Hartfield after dinner

while poor cold Woodhouse worries over the dangers

of rich cakes, and pretty Emma schemes.

Sealed in steel dread six miles up, I enter

your safe art gladly, shaking the dust

of crumbling civilizations off my boot-soles.

[© 2005 Donald Levin. A version of this poem appeared in my poetry book, In Praise of Old Photographs (Little Poem Press, 2005; reprinted in Detroit Metro Times, November 23, 2005).]