The Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 hit hard and it hit fast, infecting an estimated “500 million, and killing approximately 50 million people worldwide, claiming 675,000 lives in the United States alone.” (www.cdc.gov )
At the peak of the illness’s third and final wave over 1,800 cases and 101 deaths were reported in San Francisco, in the first five days of January 1919. The virus targeted the most vulnerable segments of the population, as usual; those under 5 and over 65. Alarmingly however this virus took just was many individuals between the ages of 20-40. This lent the disease a particularly insidious and sinister air. People of the time waged a mostly impotent war against an illness that struck vehemently and successfully against, both the weak and vulnerable and the strong and healthy.
This inescapable helplessness created an aura of macabre celebrity around the disease and those areas stuck hardest by it. The palpable presence of indiscriminate death is an impossible situation for the human psyche to contend with, we search for reasons, ways to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and construct coping mechanisms designed to dilute our fear. People began to anthropomorphize the Spanish Flu, much as they did the Black Plague centuries before, immortalizing the phenomenon with the macabre nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosy”.
In the case of the Spanish Flu this sort of mechanism took the form of the following poem.
“I knew little bird,
His name was Enza,
I opened the window
This image has always intrigued me. A waif-like presence, seemingly harmless, wandering the cold world, seeking someone who will let it in. Only instead of a bird I always pictured Enza as a disembodied spirit, on a quest to find his lady love. Visiting home after home, person after person, unable to rest until he finds her. The following poem is inspired by that image.
For more information about the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 please visit; https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/pandemic-timeline-1918.htm
With rosy cheeks and eyes so bright,
She opened the window,
On a balmy night.
Turning to take her husband’s hand,
One last stanza,
She did not see,
When through the casement,
In flew Enza
From bridal gown to widow’s weeds,
From merry meet to anguish;
It took just shy of a week,
For the bridegroom to be vanquished.
A slight malaise, a soreness of the throat,
Put down to an excess of hilarity,
Progressed so quickly,
To shortness of breath,
To his mortality.
Though I knew her heart to me,
Could never cleave,
I could not bring myself to leave,
Rather I watched from the shadows as she grieved.
In the parlor, where his body was laid,
On the carriage ride to his grave,
At the funeral reception,
My hand upon her shoulder stayed,
When the mourners left,
Telling her to rest,
“You are too young to look so sallow,”
She suppressed a cough,
Graciously waved them off,
And surrendered to sentimentality.
Alone at last,
She indulged in a repast,
Of bitter tears and deep regret,
Not fit for company.
Having sated her sorrow,
She resoled to do better tomorrow,
And putting her weakness down to exhaustion,
She ascended the stair,
First one set,
Then its pair,
Leaning heavily upon me.
With burning cheeks and eyes too bright,
She opened the window,
On a cool starry night,
And through the casement,
Her soul took flight,
In the arms,