Featured Art by Lidia Altagracia
Warning: this article contains long citations of a poem that probably few people in history have seen. You can read them by clicking the + sign next to their title below. I ask you to resist the urge to scroll past these poems. Read them well, instead. What else is there to do? You’re grounded! We’re all grounded!
I wish I was fucking while I’m still healthy. The Virus is closing in. Despite two fires and a shoot-out in the parking lot of Lowe’s earlier this week, the city seems calm. I imagine everyone is somewhat subdued by Netflix, home-cooked meals, engrossing hunts for old tax returns, and waiting. But to me it feels like a storm calm. All is silent, but the clouds are cruising at a disorienting pace. My fearing mind jumps around like a hot potato, or a coyote in a brier patch, because I now know that death is coming for me.
The hospitals will be overwhelmed. A number of our friends will die. The outside spring envelops the neighbors into melting out of their worries, but nature has turned on us. It’s a dirty trick, and I should really be fucking right now. I should be eating foodstamps fruit in bed, licking the salt off my lover’s skin, clinging to life like a rocking saddle as we jaunt into the apocalypse. Instead, I’m one of a million items sliding off a platter into the bin, listening to angsty techno and wondering about my role in the future. Instead of spending my days and nights eye-gazing and experimental pegging, I’m working. I can’t stay away. I’m drumming my fingers and opening tabs, because I’m party of fucking none that actually got hired because of COVID-19, to write whatever my little infected heart desires.
Four years ago, on a sweltering afternoon in August, a cherished book came into my life. It came to me with titles like “rare” and “vintage,” over a dart game in a shed, behind that weird kava bar on the levee. After a few iced coffees and some premium banter, I trekked off into the heat. The book’s be-tied and button-downed owner chased me down the block, with a sincere and breathless, “I feel you should have this.” I gently took from him a very old, thick, cloth-bound square book, titled in gold embroidery, “Mary T. Reiley’s Poems.”
According to its preface, Mary T. Reiley was the third of her whole six-person family to die of Yellow Fever in Clinton, LA, in the 1878 outbreak that spread upriver and killed nearly 20,000 people. She was 20 years old; her book is around 300 pages long, printed in 1879. In it, she discusses Art and Love as two pillars looming over her life, each demanding her strict allegiance:
Supposedly, she went to the city — to New Orleans — to volunteer for those suffering and ill. Despite her focus and resistance (which we can presume to be admirable, based on both the quality and quantity of her surviving work), she fell in love. He died before she did, and then she got sick. The first and longest poem, and the only one cited here, deals chiefly with these themes. Then it dwindles into her fantasy happy ending, written as the real-life Reiley was dying. In her imagined version, Reiley and Herman are reunited by fate, grieving each other’s presumed deaths in the same dark chapel. They squeal and cry, kiss each other’s tears, run away, get married, all that.
In reality, they struggled vainly to aid the sick and dying, became ill themselves and died alone in 1870s quarantine. The poem is called, “Unnamed.”
She goes on to describe the feeling of a New Orleans wracked by Yellow Fever, a disease famous for its jaundiced victims bleeding from the eyes, ears and nose, and eventually vomiting black, partially coagulated blood. When death finally came for these people, it was excruciating and loud.
I’m fucking freaking out. COVID-19 cases doubling every two days, deaths increasing exponentially — the whole world knows that the U.S. has handled this worse than anywhere else, and that a slaughter is coming. And while my girl Reiley is a very good emo indeed, I’m hard-pressed to imagine a New Orleans a month from today that doesn’t look like what she described in 1878. But instead of black vomit, people will be drowning standing up, in the sunshine, with their dogs. New Orleans is going to serve as an example of the worst case scenario in America [4-9-20 I’m actually so proud of how my city’s handling this]; everyone is watching the slow train crashing. And if states really manage to reopen businesses, we may see a return of the Yellow Fever Society.
New Orleans in the 19th century was a bizarre economy/contagion zone, wherein immunity served as credit. Citizens who had survived the fever were deemed “acclimated”; those who had not, or couldn’t prove otherwise, were “unacclimated.” Only acclimated citizens could rent rooms, acquire loans, jobs, spouses, etc. This led to unacclimated people trying to contract the fever, just to move up in social and economic standing. They were willing to bleed from their face holes, raving in tropical delirium, to make it in the city to which they’d recently moved.
Meanwhile, the local white folks were using the fever to justify their continued enslavement of black people, by deciding that black people were naturally immune. No breaks for winners. They publicly decreed that the fever was proof of God’s plan to build out the Mississippi River valley and expand the cotton industry on the backs of enslaved Africans — but everyone knew they weren’t actually immune. Most slaveholders would only shell out for acclimated slaves. In fact, it upped their monetary value to their white owners by 25 to 50 percent. Historian Kathryn Olivarius has given some helpful interviews on this subject. “Antebellum New Orleans sat at the heart of America’s slave and cotton kingdoms. But it was also the nation’s necropolis, the city of the dead.”
I don’t know anyone who’s been trying to contract coronavirus (yet), but I know plenty of them who believe in immunity, and believe that it grants them social access. Many people here are convinced that New Orleans has hosted coronavirus since before Mardi Gras, and now experts are beginning to agree. We’d been passing around a nasty flu-like illness for at least a month before the COVID-19 wave hit. I, myself, was down for the count with pneumonia for around six weeks. But I was prescribed antibiotics, and got better, so I figured I didn’t have a virus. However, most of my peers who were less sick didn’t see doctors, so their theories can’t be disproved.
So they believe they beat COVID-19. They’re acclimated. And now they’re using this twisted faith in their own abilities to remain in denial about the coming storm, and to shrug off proper precautions. They don’t need to quarantine. They’ve already been there, man. Just waving their immunity around the Bywater and 9th ward, not even contextualizing it as privilege anymore, because it’s outside of youth, and within the bounds of I-know-something-you-don’t-know. They literally had corona before it was cool. I don’t know which of my proposed assumptions is more morbid: that these kids could be compared to the racist fucks of 140 years ago, or that they’re scared children who need to believe they have superpowers to make it through the night. Either way (or more likely, neither), the hip coffee shop is all boarded up now so they started leaving in droves. The annual New Orleans punk exodus came two months early this year, still trying to drag everyone out of the swamp with it.
For me, leaving my home indefinitely is a death knell for my brain. One-way trip to delusion town. It’s taken me years to get my head right, and I need the four walls I’ve worked at acquiring and nesting inside. I’m okay with that sounding materialistic and weak; it’s not like it’s zombies out there. I think if I’m going to die in a pandemic, I’d rather it be sane at my desk, than raving in North Carolina or wherever — you know, assuming the hospitals are out. Plus, I really should be fucking.
And working. Art loves a crisis.
Earlier in the poem, Reiley reflects on her work, and manages to reach through time, straight into my chest panic, yet again.
And here she seems to have unwittingly reconciled her lifelong stand-off between the pillars of Love and Art. She’s using each for the other, because they have become forces of Life, in the face of Death. I wonder if she knew that she had already solved her greatest conflict. I wonder what problems we think we have, and what the answers under our noses are. Maybe the structural changes coronavirus has caused aren’t insurmountable destructions, or the path to a freer world with universal amenities. Not A + B = C (world at present + catastrophe = eventual solution). More like, C comes before A, and so we wind up staring at B, the problem, until our heads explode. I’m not saying this is real algebra. I’m reaching. But if I’ve learned anything from this endeavor into the past, it’s that time can follow itself, study itself, and point, and teach.
So what has been overlooked?
Discovering these parallels between my heart and hers, my fear and hers, has made me want to get on with it: do my best to shed COVID mania armor, make art, and fuck like the world is in economic and biological collapse. Try to reach people through the onslaught of screen time headaches, all systems burnout, chronic suffocation, pestilent dread. We are officially in a time of undeniable global suffering. It’s president-level mainstream. The climax is approaching; meditate on death, and appeal to each other’s sanity. Be good. Try not to force conclusions.
I’ve casually googled Mary Reiley many times, and only come up with newer versions of this book, and her gravesite. Not even a Wikipedia page. But her “one wee book” has reached me somehow, so I’m singing her one little song, looking for love in quarantine. These are the last words of her poem, her happy ending.
You can read Mary T. Reiley’s Poems in full, for free, here. (Beware the “Dialect Poems.”)