Monday, April 27, 2009

The Spanish Influenza

This time yesterday, the number of casualties supposedly claimed by the Swine Flu was still under a hundred, and the reported cases in the United States were a little over a handful. But a day does make a difference. Whereas the United States government was wary about discouraging travel to Mexico, today came the appeal to halt any unimportant trips to the region. The European Union was much frightened and issued a warning against all nonessential trips even before the United States government made the announcement. The specter of the next great plague and of emerging diseases has fascinated and terrified at the same time. From movies to television there has been no shortage of human creativity in bringing to life the effects of some supposed super bug. So, is this that dreaded super bug or just some wart that will be easily thwarted?

My Mother Remembers Spanish Influenza

I was the first person in our town
to catch the Spanish Influenza.
I heard it came over on the streetcar,
hissing and snapping to itself
as it crossed the river
And when the car stopped at the foot of our hil,
the bell rang twice, the flu got off
and burst inside my head
like sparklers on the Fourth of July
Soon it was smooth and hot as rails in the sun,
running inside my head, metal on metal, ice on ice.
When it began to go away,
the neighborhood children took it, piece by piece,
on the thick, round wheels of their roller skates.
Mother brought me a white paper bag
of coconut macaroons.
I ate three and I was sick
into the gray metal basin
filled with disinfectant and water
that was kept near my bed.
Mother doubted that the flu came on the streetcar.
It seemed more likely to her
that my two young uncles
had brought it back from France with them,
hidden in the silk webbing
that stretched between the carved ivory fingers
of the painted fan they had given me.
But I knew better.
I could still hear it, when Mother left the room at night,
whispering to itself about itself
as it came across the river on the last car.
It stopped at the foot of our hill for a second,
and then rode on down the valley to the carbarn,
where it waited out the night.

-JOHN RATTI

Published in the September 17, 1979 issue of The New Yorker magazine, the poem was written by Ratti about his mother's recollection of the Spanish Influenza of 1918.

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