Two Poems

By Charles Rammelkamp


“They called it the ‘Black Death,’
because of the color of the gangrenous flesh,”
Mister Philby lectured, my mom’s colleague
at the school, here to drop off some papers,
though they were all working from home now.

“Bruised-looking, purplish, like an aubergine.
The bacteria came from fleas,
entered the bloodstream,
clotted on the extremities – nose, hands, feet;
the skin like something
you’d see on trick-or-treaters at Halloween.”

Although he wore a mask, Philby was loud,
speaking in what Mom called his “classroom voice.”
“It also caused swollen lymph glands,” he went on,
“in the groin and armpits.
That’s how it got its most popular name,
‘the bubonic plague.’ The abscessed lymph glands
were called buboes; the Greek word means ‘groin.’

“But it all comes from the bacteria, Yersinia pestis by name.
Deadly. Pisa lost seventy percent of its population
when it hit Europe in the fourteenth century.”

This was all kind of interesting,
in a Trivial Pursuit sort of way,
like questions on Jeopardy!
(“I’ll take ‘Tragedy’ for $1,000, Alex.”)
But my grandma had coronavirus,
strapped to a hospital bed in Des Moines,
and we weren’t allowed to see her.
She’d be dead by the weekend.

My Big Sister Gets Vaccinated

Juanita refused to get the polio shot.
At sixteen, she claimed she was careful, safe.
I’d gotten mine, but I was eight years younger;
my parents made the decision,
but that didn’t stop Juanita
looking at me as if I were some kind of traitor.

“I don’t like getting needles stuck in my arm!”
she wailed, operatic. She always made
a big production, her life an epic drama.

“But Juanita!” Mom and Dad cried back,
wringing their hands, playing their parts
in our family melodrama.

So what changed her mind?
Just before his historic 1956 performance
on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Elvis Presley
agreed to get jabbed in his arm
in front of the cameras, the photos
influencing teens nationwide.
Suddenly it seemed sexy to her, hip.
Four years later, polio incidence
only a tenth what it had been in 1950.

Now I’ve just received my second Moderna shot.
A mild fever and aching bones but worth it.
Juanita? Not so lucky. Died in her nursing home
before the vaccines had been developed.

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore. Recent publications include Catastroika, from Apprentice House, and Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and a poetry chapbook, Mortal Coil, by Clare Songbirds Publishing.

Writing during the pandemic has been very monk-like. No live literary events, poetry readings, visiting writer friends. But the introspection has been rewarding in its own ways, contemplating ideas and things in greater depth, with more focused concentration. As far as “productivity” goes- the measurable in terms of output – really, not a lot of difference.

I enjoyed reading my friends’ g. emil reutter’s and Diane Sahms’ work but also the works of poets with whom I was not already familiar, including  Robina Afzal’s heartrending “14/1/21” about uncertainty and loss, and Alison Oughton’s similar “Faces,” but also some of the more humorous, like Liane McKay’s “I’m a City Girl, I Don’t Like Nature” and Ann Lipsitt’s “Closer and Closer” – that one really rang a bell! In the USA, the CDC urges us to hang on a bit longer, not let our defenses down, and though the Trump administration tarnished the agency’s image and credibility, we do try. We really do.

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Diana Howard
8 months ago

I’m sorry for your loss of family. Your poems are wonderfully written.

Moira Garland
9 months ago

Those last 4 lines a damning turn in the poem. I like the poem, says so much.

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