The Zika virus has spread to more than 30 countries, with no cure or vaccine available. And once again, the carrier of this new scourge is the mosquito, the same fairy insect that delivers West Nile virus, yellow fever, encephalitis and, of course, one of our oldest, more effective enemies: malaria. As of December, the World Health Organization estimated that there were 214 million cases of malaria in 2015 and more than 400,000 deaths from the disease.
For a year I’ve had a slim volume of poetry called “Malaria” buzzing around my head. It’s a collection by Cameron Conaway, a writer who moves gracefully between liberal arts and martial arts. In various forms and styles, the two-dozen poems in “Malaria” draw us into the world made unlivable for hundreds of millions of people. The collection begins with these lines:
the doctor said and it dispersed
slick through thick air
shuttling sound away
from mouth mutating it to mean.
A compliment in another place
here a death sentence.
Most of Conaway’s poems describe the ravages of the disease on ordinary people who have no access to modern medical care. There are children baffled by their lameness, mothers burying babies and scoundrels hawking fake pills. There’s even a poem from a mosquito’s point of view. But in each piece, there’s this lush immediacy:
Migrant workers in
dried bamboo huts in
still postcard mountains in
know the fruits are best
to pick when the humid air hums with the ripe
husking of mosquito wings cutting sky,
know the rainy season is the sweetest season,
is malaria season, is when the fullest baskets
may weigh heavy with the cruelest emptiness.
Then Cameron comments with a gut punch:
It’s often this way.
The poor going to war for our
masked as needs.
These poems arose from a curious project when Conaway went to Thailand in 2011 to practice kick-boxing. A parallel interest in poetry led to a grant to study malaria and the world’s response in Thailand and Bangladesh.
Conaway quickly realized how fortunate he was not to have much firsthand knowledge of a disease that ruins so many people. But it wasn’t just the illness and death he found difficult to accept; it was the West’s ineffective approach to finding a cure.
“The whole process was very disheartening,” he said from his home in Philadelphia. “The more I learned, the more upset I became about the tropical medicine industry. I feel like the resources are there to have a vaccine within a year, but no, everybody wants to hide. It’s a culture of secrecy because they’re career researchers. They’re not driven by a desire to end the disease; they’re driven by a desire to win more grants.”
For him, the new Zika crisis only highlights the West’s old complacency about malaria.
“I feel very empowered when I see everybody rallying around Zika,” he said, “but then I realize that ‘new’ is always considered the ‘need.’ The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] declares an emergency and suddenly, the money starts flowing in. Nothing drives innovation and resources like a little a bit of fear. That makes me wonder if we could reintroduce some kind of fear about malaria.”
The poems in “Malaria” will, indeed, reintroduce you to some kind of fear, but also to the terrible cost of our own privileged position.
In the final prose poem, “Landscape,” the speaker says, “The drops pelting the puddle look like a million mosquitoes jumping up and down, but this is because they are on my mind and I was born with the luxury to think of them and the malaria they carry as but a metaphor or simile and not as something that could kill me.”
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Cameron Conaway
Michigan State University Press. 61 pp. Paperback, $16.95