Fever Season

Melissa Range
foggy image of New Orleans
Photograph by Caleb George on Unsplash

          Yellow Fever Epidemic, New Orleans, 1853

Work doesn't stop for blood
born to immunity—someone has to load
steamboats, boil sugar, stack wood.

So scientists race
their hypotheses, each virus
and microbe, pronounce whiteness

too frail to toil under a vertical sun
at swamp-clearing, cane-
cutting, cotton-picking,

black men and women immune
only when enslaved: freedom weakens
the constitution.

the infection, self-emancipation
the contagion

when whiteness is the quarantine,
where whatever doctors spin,
everybody knows the medicine.

In the city, a spike in fever,
breeds a spike in rumor,
insurrection in the Quarter,

the mosquitoes needling near
a deeper fear.
Late summer, every year,

the bodies pile in streets,
and any man you meet
in the morning could be dead at night;

which man it be determines remedy—
scourge and whip, or honey,
onion, charcoal, red oak tea;

which man, which death it be
epidemic, or economy—

Melissa Range is the author of the poetry collections Scriptorium (2016) and Horse and Rider (2010) and the recipient of awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Antiquarian Society, and others. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ecotone, The Nation, and Ploughshares. Originally from East Tennessee, she currently teaches creative writing and American literature at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.