Laura Mullen

Virus

1.

Nobody has it then everybody has it
It’s nothing not nothing but distant
It looks like a little hat with tassels
It looks like a flower out of which
Other flowers emerge out of
Which yet further blooms spiky
It’s theirs not ours then it’s ours
It looks like an exploding planet
Nobody has it then everybody says
I’m wearing gloves I’m using bleach
Don’t touch anything wipe off
Anything you’ve touched wipe
Off everything before you touch it
Don’t get too close don’t breathe
Nobody has it then everybody has it
Or is going to have it or already has
Sharing the air infected caught

2.

These are the symptoms “wash your hands”
This is how you wash your hands
There are no tests anyone could have it all of us
The bars are full of laughing people symptomless
We are learning how to wash our hands
There are going to be tests there are no tests
There are tests but no one can get tested
There are no tests the tests don’t work there are
Tests that work but they’re German they’re
From a rogue lab in Washington which was
Shut down by the government they’re expensive
We’re making our own we don’t want the ones
That work these are the symptoms dry cough fever
Empty shelves shortness of breath disbelief

These are the new phrases “social distancing”
“Self-isolation” suddenly no one is lonely or
Everyone is lonely there’s no fear of missing out
These are the symptoms emails saying these
Are the symptoms emails from everyone
Saying this is how you know you have it this
Is how you know you don’t have something else
This is what you should do this is what you should not
Do then everyone in the bars and cafes is talking
About how you shouldn’t go out this is the curve
This is the curve we’re trying to flatten stay
Home now stay home are you staying home
These are the symptoms emails whose subject
Titles are postponed or cancelled some of the symptoms
Include refunds and slight social adjustments
Toward mercy moving in the direction
Of justice belated and transient democracy
A drift toward the recognition that people
Around us might be people might be human
As we might be human connected despite

3.

First it was in China and then it was in Italy
A lot and after that it was in country after
Country Germany for instance but wasn’t
That in part because they were testing there
Once we started testing it was here or it was here
The whole time in fact but invisible everyone
Once you started only started testing everyone
Seemed to have it and those who could get
To stay home could maybe flatten as we
Said the curve controlling the spread of the virus
And those who could stay home stayed home
Washing down their Amazon orders with bleach

4.

The number of people who will die is a number
That keeps going up another symptom the stock
Market crashing so hard so fast
They have to keep stopping the trading
So the sick economy doesn’t completely
Collapse Oh S&P 500 we love you get up

5.

These are the symptoms
It’s 1918 it’s 2008 can you flatten
The curve these are the symptoms
Joke videos and the word hoax the word
Politics a former disco queen reprising
Her famous anthem to a single basic
Expectation paean to the individual
Deep fluff of soap bubbles singing
“At first I was afraid…” goes viral
Everyone’s taking their temperature
And flights are really cheap to Paris
Another symptom “Paris is closed”
Writes a friend on their way home
“San Francisco is a ghost town” so
It begins
as a cough as a sore throat

“It’s just like the flu people die from the flu”
The president insists it’s nothing
First the schools are closed and then
It’s keep the library open no close
The libraries down
traffic court will cease
Operations for now this is a symptom
All water shut offs are being reversed
And if we could do that now why not

The symptoms included “wet markets” and
“Wildlife farming” the disease looked like
A flower or a exploding star there was
No way to tell who was really ill no one
Who didn’t have all of the symptoms
Should try to get tested there aren’t
Enough tests scarcity one of the symptoms
Among the many symptoms everyone
Was eager to share information
Healthcare would be helpful sure
Actually no one seemed sure there
Was a lot of worry about how this
Would impact us mentally as well as
Financially and “some countries just
Do better under authoritarian
Regimes” worrying about school
Lunches or mental health was one
Of the symptoms some people
Panicking hoarding angry and
Frightened watching cartoons
With the children sent home
“I Will Survive” was a hit again
“Shit’s Getting Real” was a hit
Someone started a reading group
To read Dante another friend
Worried that she should be
Using this time to read Proust

6.

The symptoms included poor people
Asking for debt relief and healthcare
And rich people congratulating them-
Selves on their “abundance of caution”
Using the ability to have everything
They wanted delivered as if they had
Been for decades practicing for this
Siege food hand-sanitizer and toilet
Paper (evidently we were shitting
Ourselves in fright) delivered to
Their houses tossed over the locked
Gate the symptoms were de-
Forestation rising temperatures also
Briefly the suspicion that this was
An escaped bio weapon or else
A political hoax we were surviving
In the tip jar careening from postpone-
Ment to cancellation the words “Business
As usual” sounded magic we were giving
Up our hopes and suddenly we saw
The people who were serving us as
People now they were a threat now
We understood our good health
Depended on their good health

The symptoms included the infinite
List of lists of dos and don’ts the situation
Was “fluid” was “unstable” was
“Evolving” “in flux” if you must speak
Speak into the crook of your bent
Arm pulling your sleeve down over
Your hand before you reach out
For a long already long and lengthening
“Moment” we were reminded that we
Were human frail mortal vulnerable
All of us alike and we were all pretty
Spooked you should’ve seen
The faces we kept touching we were
Trying so hard not to touch

The symptoms included ageism racism
Class bias sexism and xenophobia or else
The pandemic was just another excuse

7.

The phrase “symptomless carrier” was a symptom
As was the way we edged away from each other
Keeping the depth of a dug grave between us

The word “bungled” in the phrase “we bungled
The response” was a symptom as was
The insistence that we were going to look

Like Italy soon enough except for the singing
Meanwhile everyone knew everything
Had to close and no one wanted to close

Anything because we had no idea where
To go or how to be as staying home
Slowly turned from being a sign you

Were a loser to being a sign that you
Were thinking about the community

8. (Florida)

But we didn’t believe it was happening because it was happening
Somewhere else to people we thought of as business rivals and
Other and really we were all fine at that point so why care we were
Safe it was only killing really old people and it was at that moment
I thought “only” must be the worst word in the English language
“Only” and “just” but maybe the worst word was actually anyway
As in anyway we were still all fine at that point and didn’t know
Anyone who knew anyone who was dying not at that point
We’d been tuned to Fux News unwilling to “politicize” the pandemic
Because it was Spring Break and those vacations were booked
Each Chinese restaurant on 98 shuttered in an empty parking lot
And the college students in the tiny crowded hotel elevator said
There’s plenty of room it was all very “Masque of the Red
Death” or what maybe White Noise I said No I’ll wait
Watching the fog of denial begin to
anyway
I ordered a latte with virus in it reading another email
Someone carefully isolated wanted me to know
Asymptomatic carriers are the most dangerous

9.

And the ocean
Someone crying

I imagined thousands
Of latex gloves reaching

Out translucent tangled
Fingers full of salt water

Blindly seeking a lost note or
Instrument

All the hand condoms
And then ocean

I meant to write Not yet
Harmed
but that was

A lie try Also sick
Of us
undulating blue

And white nitrile
Caught in the surf

Because to touch
The world was

To touch our own
Fragility and

Transience

10.

Because the implications remained active on stainless steel for 72 hours
Because after sneezing economic collapse stayed “viable” in the air days
After being released because withholding information remained dangerous
Because the president wanted to tell us in droplets what to call it meaning
Don’t touch your face because we failed to ask the right questions soon
Enough because we didn’t ask anyone in Wuhan how they felt Describe
Your symptoms
translate preferring the dull flat language of the CDC fever
Shortness of breath dry cough because by the time we were willing
To listen to what it felt like (“knives in your joints”) it was too late
Because our failure of empathy was on the surface of every item
Brought into the house we were washing with bleach bleach
Was suddenly a precious substance “don’t” we had to be told
“Drink it” because we had to ask everyone to please step back
Because the target of the cleaning solution is the spike protein
Because but here the automatic cut-off kicked in again and
Trading was halted for 15 minutes after which because

Continued chaos and tumbling loss
Upon loss

11.

Every time I had a thought I thought
“Just don’t tell anyone” a symptom

Bars and cafes full of happy people
Young people on the beach laughing
How do you like your quarantine?

Asking yourself what you would die for
This not that and so forth that not this
Is a symptom

“But ignorance” I thought
“Isn’t bleach”

12. (the graphic)

Am I a red dot meeting a blue dot and making the blue dot red to go meet another blue dot that turns red then or am I a blue dot dodging a red dot to hit another blue dot without any visible difference (which blue dot am I) then hitting a red dot and turning red (which red dot am I) as all the dots turn red if this were more like reality someone says some red dots would be disappearing am I ready to disappear now whatever ricocheting color I in this silence am ready to disappear if it would bring forth sooner the world I imagine might be on the other side of this in which we say “I am a dot and you are a dot and there is no difference between us”
 

13.

No one had it or everyone had it
No one had it and everyone had it

In the time of the non-test the failure
Of testing no one was ill everyone was ill

We were all fine and dying
It was “Business as” Spring
Only the shelves stripped

Meanwhile we tried to go on
With our “normal” lives As
Usual
holding our own hands

Under the running water
Working the soap up
Into a froth like the froth

On the mouth of a rabid dog
Singing happy birthday or
No not I taking the time

Frightened and educated
To disinfect each surface

Now the harsh clear stinging
Perfume of Clorox

Will if we survive always
Bring this moment back

14.

Anyway sunlight I wrote
In this notebook using
The virus it looked like
A funny hat like a crown
Is a funny hat like a flower
Is also an exploding star
Or seed or sea urchin a
Lipid-coated structure
In which each person
Who died was me us I
Wrote in the invisible ink
Of the virus that made us
Begin to see those we hadn’t
My gratitude for each
Person who was careful
A note to say Thank you
For the care you take of me
Let me take care of you

A flower on which other
Flowers are blooming
A flower made of other
Smaller flowers what it
Looked like magnified
What it meant to be
A planet visible at last

Laura Mullen is the author of eight books and is the McElveen Professor of English at LSU. Recognitions for her poetry include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Rona Jaffe Award. Recent poems have appeared in The Bennington Review, Ritual and Capital, and Bettering American Poetry. In 2018 she was the Arons poet at Tulane and affiliate faculty at Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas. Her translation of Veronique Pittolo’s Hero was published by Black Square Editions in 2019. She had a Headlands Center Residency for Spring 2020—now she is sheltering in place.
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About Posit Editor

Susan Lewis (susanlewis.net) is the editor of Posit (positjournal.com) and the author of ten books and chapbooks, including Zoom, winner of the 2017 Washington Prize, Heisenberg's Salon, This Visit, and State of the Union. Her poetry has appeared in such places as The Awl, Berkeley Poetry Review, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Cimarron, Gargoyle, The Journal, New American Writing, The New Orleans Review, Prelude, Raritan, Seneca Review, So to Speak, Verse, Verse Daily, and VOLT.