At the Beginning of a Pandemic* … your next Wednesday Writing Prompt, hosted this week by Michael Dickel

Lymphoma Meditation-1 ©2019 Michael Dickel

…the ailing body points to culture, pain points to philosophy, language points to consciousness, and all point to what is still to be learned about our fragility, our mortality, and how to live a meaningful life.” Ann Jurecic, Illness as Narrative (Composition, Literacy, and Culture), p. 131


Large B-cell lymphoma with T cell-rich…
Damn, how do I slip that mouthful in.
To my life. My thought. This poem?

The tumor breached my spine, pressed
its attack onto nerves. A tactic to cut
communication channels. Painful alarum.

Yet here we arrive. The first day of Spring—
Shushan Purim. We walk in Jerusalem’s
Botanical Garden. The first chemical attack

on the tumor, the lymphoma, my body—
this day—dispensation given to fight back
against this pogrom in my very bones.

The red anemones, pink cyclamen,
something purple I cannot name,
shine with indifference to the wars

within my body and surrounding us.

Here we met a friend, just declared
cancer-free. Here we quietly held hands.

Here I felt something I cannot name.

—Michael Dickel

Winston Churchill in Uniform

“The boy, who as a man would later go on to lead the nation in WWII, was obviously affected by the pandemic known then as the Russian Flu in 1890.” B. H. Fraser, Poetry and the Flu, City Poems

COVID-19, the novel coronavirus (another mouthful) occupying our media and minds, spreads toward pandemic. Our responses, as societies and cultures across the globe, likely reveal much about us, as humans. If “the ailing body points to culture,” as Jurecic writes, what do thousands—or millions—of ailing bodies point toward?

Winston Churchill, as a teenager, wrote about the late 19th Century Russian Flu:

The Influenza, 1890

Oh how shall I its deeds recount
Or measure the untold amount
Of ills that it has done?
From China’s bright celestial land
E’en to Arabia’s thirsty sand
It journeyed with the sun.…

And now Europa groans aloud,
And ‘neath the heavy thunder-cloud
Hushed is both song and dance;
The germs of illness wend their way
To westward each succeeding day…

—Winston Churchill (age 15) Excerpts: Stanzas 1 and 7 of 12, emphasis added. Full poem

The poem ends with with very imperialistic overtones extolling Britain, especially in the last stanza:

God shield our Empire from the might
Of war or famine, plague or blight
And all the power of Hell,
And keep it ever in the hands
Of those who fought ‘gainst other lands,
Who fought and conquered well.

This could indeed voice the culture of late 19th C. Great Britain, couldn’t it?

Patients from the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919 killed more than three times as many people as the World War that preceded it (US National Archives). Yet not much was written about it. Here are extracts from two poems reprinted in a medical journal special issue on influenza, one from 1918, in the midst of the pandemic, and one from a century later:

The Influenza

Influenza, labeled Spanish,
came and beat me to my knees;
even doctors couldn’t banish
from my form that punk disease;
for it’s not among the quitters;
vainly doctors pour their bitters
into ailing human critters;
they just sneeze and swear and sneeze.

Said my doctor, “I have tackled
every sort of ill there is
(I have cured up people shackled
by the gout and rheumatiz);
with the itch and mumps I’ve battled,
in my triumphs have been tattled,
but this ‘flu’ stuff has me rattled,
so I pause to say G. Whiz.”

I am burning, I am freezing,
in my little truckle bed;
I am cussing, I am sneezing,
with a poultice on my head;
and the doctors and the nurses
say the patient growing worse is,
and they hint’ around of hearses,
and of folks who should be dead.…

—Walt May (1918)

The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

…It affected the lungs and caused their skin to turn blue
Comfort was given it was all they could do
In effect it caused people to suffocate
And it continued to spread at an alarming rate.

People kept away from large crowds and were told to wear masks
And they struggled to perform their daily tasks
Remote areas in the world were affected too
By this airborne killer virus, the great Spanish flu.

Efforts were made to slow down this disease
But slowly and surely was bringing the world to its knees
Shops opening times were staggered all over the lands
And people were encouraged not to shake hands.…

They closed many schools, services were hit too
With workers struck down by this merciless flu…

—Tom Cunningham (2018)

Both poems from: “Tres Poemas Sobre la Pandemia de Gripe de 1918.” Virología: Publicación Oficial de la Sociedad Española de Virología, 21:1 pp.68–72 (PDF of the journal, with full versions of these poems and another) Note: Walt May, a humorist / poet, wrote for newspapers, with his poems formatted as prose in newspaper columns. I have taken the liberty to adjust the line breaks from the source article.

Do these examples point to differences in culture over that century? What would our own poems point to, written now, at the beginning of a potential pandemic?

Jurecic points out that “despite the [1918–1919] flu’s ferocity, for much of the twentieth century this pandemic nearly vanished from popular consciousness.…the pandemic is virtually absent from American and British literature of its era” (p.1). After citing a few literary examples that do exist from the 1918 influenza pandemic in narrative prose literature (so not the 1918 poem above), Jurecic asks this: “How to bring the pandemic and the narrative form together? It is as if the project were unimaginable in the early twentieth century” (p. 1). Is it imaginable in ours?

“In stark contrast”, she points out, much has been written about HIV / AIDS (once we acknowledged it): “Journalists, playwrights, novelists, poets, memoirists, and diarists joined artists from other media in an effort to document the [AIDS] pandemic, create memorial art, and make meaning of suffering and loss on scales ranging from individual to global” (Jurecic 1–2). She gives many reasons for this, but this is a writing prompt, so…


* Editor’s Note: Twelve hours after this post went up, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus crisis a pandemic.  Link HERE. for details. 

This prompt emerges from musing about Jurecic’s questions and the quote at the top of the page: How to bring illness (personal or pandemic) of the ailing body, pain, and language to point to culture, philosophy, and consciousness in poetry that also points “…to what is still to be learned about our fragility, our mortality, and how to live a meaningful life”? Especially at this cultural-historical moment of an emerging pandemic?

Start your writing, from the midst of this emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

Write what is unnameable.

Good health to you.

—Michael Dickel
Lecturer, David Yellin
Contributing Editor of The BeZine

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Deadline:  Monday, March by 16 pm Pacific Time. If you are unsure when that would be in your time zone, check The Time Zone Converter.

Anyone may take part Wednesday Writing Prompt, no matter the status of your career: novice, emerging or pro.  It’s about exercising the poetic muscle, showcasing your work, and getting to know other poets who might be new to you.

You are welcome – encouraged – to share your poems in a language other than English but please accompany it with a translation into English.

Source: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain


“By the flash-light of her fevered vision, Plath leads us into an apocalyptic wasteland. Then, like a hypnotist, she brings us back from it…She [becomes] the master of her feverish animal, all-powerful and entirely autonomous, self-made, and self-regenerating…”

—Kary Wayson, The incinerating vision of this Plath classic. Poem Guide, The Poetry Foundation

An extract from the Sylvia Plath poem Wayson analyzes, to serve as further inspiration:

Fever 103°

Pure? What does it mean?
The tongues of hell
Are dull, dull as the triple

Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus
Who wheezes at the gate. Incapable
Of licking clean

The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.
The tinder cries.
The indelible smell

Of a snuffed candle!
Love, love, the low smokes roll
From me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright

One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel,
Such yellow sullen smokes
Make their own element. They will not rise,

But trundle round the globe
Choking the aged and the meek,
The weak…

—Sylvia Plath ©1993 Ted Hughes used under fair-use provisions
Full poem for fuller inspiration.

Further readings…

  • Dickinson, Emily. “Pain—has an Element of Blank.” The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little Brown, 1960. 323–24.
  • Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
  • Jurecic, Ann. Illness as Narrative (Composition, Literacy, and Culture). Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Pr, 2012.
    Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1980.
  • McKim, A. Elizabeth. “Making Poetry of Pain: The Headache Poems of Jane Cave Winscom.” Literature and Medicine. 24.1 (2005): 93–108.
  • Oates, Joyce Carol. “Confronting Head-On the Face of the Afflicted.” New York Times. 19 Feb. 1995. 3 Nov. 2008
  • Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Anchor/ Doubleday, 1978, 1988.
  • Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
  • U.S. National Archives. “The Deadly Virus: The Influenza of 1918–1919.” Web Page.

MICHAEL DICKEL (Meta /Phor (e) /Play) has won international awards and been translated into several languages. His latest poetry collection, Nothing Remembers (Finishing Line Press, 2019). A poetry chapbook, Breakfast at the End of Capitalism, came out in 2017 (free PDF ). His flash fiction collection, The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden, came out in 2016. Previous books include: War Surrounds Us, Midwest / Mid-East, and The World Behind It, Chaos…(archived free PDF ). He co-edited Voices Israel Volume 36, was managing editor for arc-23 and 24, and is a past-chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English. He publishes and edits Meta/ Phor(e) /Play and is a contributing editor of The BeZine. He grew up in the US Midwest and now lives in Jerusalem, Israel.

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