blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
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1918 SUITE

Everywhere in the Kingdom

  Ellen Bryant Voigt
    Eight poems from Kyrie
    A Reading from Kyrie  
    Setting Truth to Music

Perhaps the supreme irony was that men who had survived the rigour of combat and overcome severe wounds finally met their doom from influenza. One out of every sixty-seven American soldiers died of influenza or pneumonia in 1918. The surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire survived a head wound from a shell-burst and the ruination of his lungs by gas only to die of influenza on 9 November 1918, two days before the Armistice, crying out “Save me doctor! I want to live! I have so much to say!” His words may speak for a generation for whom there was to be no business as usual after all they had endured and for whom their promise was to be cut short when medicine failed to save their lives.
      —Kevin Brown, Fighting Fit: Health, Medicine
        and War in the Twentieth Century

Walking through the fields, through Old Caney, I thought how is it possible on this beautiful night men are dying? Here, or in Europe, or anywhere. And I thought, Death, if I don’t think of you, you’ll vanish.
     —Horton Foote, 1918

Soon it was a farmer in the field—
someone’s brother, someone’s father—
left the mule in its traces and went home.
Then the mason, the miller at his wheel,
from deep in the forest the hunter, the logger,
and the sun still up everywhere in the kingdom.
     ―Ellen Bryant Voigt
, Kyrie

The 1918 influenza pandemic left far less cultural and literary evidence in its wake than one might expect given the Center for Disease Control’s contemporary (and perhaps conservative) estimate of fifty million dead worldwide. Despite overwhelming loss of life and the subsequent impact to global communities (with one-third of the world’s population said to have been infected), well-known literary treatments in English are scarce. We are aware of Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) as mentioned in Brian Bouldrey's essay in this suite, and Horton Foote's 1979 play, 1918, from his Orphans’ Home Cycle, which we quote here in an opening epigraph.

Ellen Bryant Voigt’s book-length sonnet sequence Kyrie remains the dominant contemporary treatment of the 1918 influenza pandemic. She published the book in 1995, mindful, as well, of the epidemic of her historical moment. (The book appeared the same year that the CDC reported 500,000 cases of AIDS in the United States.) We lead with Voigt’s work and voice in this suite: in Poetry we offer a selection of eight poems from Kyrie and in Gallery a portion of a 1996 video of Voigt reading from the book. A conversation in which she discusses the making of Kyrie was first published by Blackbird in 2007; republished here in Nonfiction is the relevant transcribed portion of that discussion under a title lifted from Voigt’s response to a question she echoes back before answering, “What do poems do? They set truth to music.”

A serendipitous conversation on social media brought us Brian Bouldrey’s essay, “One Singer to Mourn,” in which he examines the WWI-era letters of his family. Bouldrey examines an uncle’s service in WWI, the influenza pandemic, and family history in light of Bouldrey’s life as a person living with HIV.

The Spanish flu targeted specifically, if not exclusively, young adults between the ages of twenty and forty. Your basic workforce, adults with parents still living. While, as the cultural critic Fran Lebowitz pointed out in “On Race and Racism” that “genocides are like snowflakes, each one unique, no two alike,” the young men from twenty to forty who fell to AIDS left a similar hole in the population. The world became a desolate landscape of bereft parents, orphans, and widowed spouses. 

Though we searched the digital archives with low expectations for uncovering undiscovered literary texts published closer to the time of the 1918 pandemic, we hoped at least to find, perhaps, cultural or artistic responses.

Blackbird intern Megan Hannifin (spring 2018) brought to our attention the sculptor Chana Orloff, who lost her husband, the Polish poet Ary Justman, to influenza in 1919. We present here a published album of woodcuts depicting nine women who surrounded her during this time, and of her infant son; the final image in the album is the artist’s self-portrait. We also include a text selection by Ary Justman from the collaborative Réflexions Poétiques (SIC Editions, 1916), a book containing poems by Justman and images by Orloff.

Late in our research we discovered two texts composed within two years of the pandemic—both published serially in The Medical Pickwick—by W.E. Anthony, MD of Ottuma, Iowa. Chapter eighteen of “His First Case,” which reads as a ficton, centers on a country doctor responding to his community (and in the middle of a romance) during the influenza pandemic. In a story written by a medical doctor for a journal of humor and writing for other medical doctors, we take note that when the character of the physican himself collapses with the flu, his beloved, herself recently recovered, knows how to nurse and dutifully attend him.

She tip-toed to the bed and listened to his fast breathing, and, laying her small white finger on the pulse in front of his ear, counted the rapid heart beats while keeping her eyes fixed on her wrist watch. She shook the thermometer down and again placed it in his mouth and he went to sleep before the time elapsed to remove it, which she did gently, again stepping to the table and holding it under the reading lamp. It read the same as before—105.

Though the chapter from “First Case” is the lesser of the two texts by Anthony, we include it here for the brief portrait it gives of a solitary village doctor working house calls in a 1920s vehicle on damaged dirt roads during the height of the pandemic.

Although The Medical Pickwick does not distinguish “Gerzat” from “First Case” in terms of genre, chapter twelve of “Gerzat”—“The Spanish Influenza”—is a detailed and compelling first-person narrative:

I had difficulty with some of the officers. They were inexperienced with medical matters and had the interest of the men at heart and kept insisting that I do the impossible. . . . It never occurred to them, however, that I had an interest in the thing, too; that I had no desire to see the men sick: that I was troubled with the seriousness of affairs and every death grieved me . . . that I wished for—oh, how I wished for—something that would cure or prevent the disease, but being, as they were not, informed as to the nature of the infection, the pathology of the tissues and the course of the disease, I knew only too well that such hope was beyond human power.

Anthony served in WWI as a captain in the medical detachment of the 337th Field Artillery Unit, 88th Divison. Given his military service, we are certainly tempted to read the account of caring for men afflicted with “the Spanish flu” in a field hospital in Gerzat, France as nonfiction—or thinly veiled nonfiction—which also frequently uses the device of remembered or recreated dialogue.

Finally we offer, in our “time capsule,” three minutes of film footage from the Prelinger Archives that show soldiers on parade in 1918. Both the parade marchers, and the public watching along the streets, are weaing influenza masks, which were, in some localities, required under penalty of law.  

Influenza masks, 1918. Video still from footage by Gould, courtesty the Prelinger Archives.

Influenza masks, 1918. Video still from footage by Gould, courtesty the Prelinger Archives.


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