The Last Vaccine

How do you ask a man 
to be the last man to die 
for a mistake? John Kerry        April 22, 1971
  
 You ask how to ask
 that terrible thing.
 My country right or wrong, I said
 yes, I volunteer.
  
 Pre-sent      arms 
  
 My country now fails to ask of me
 even the simplest thing.
 Not asking
 is even more terrible.
  
 We shuffle along the moral arc
             forward and back as in battle
                         toward the vanishing point
 its end a mirage in which we must believe.
  
 I volunteer.
 I’ll wait.
 I’ll be the last in the longest shuffling line
 in a year of endless lines.
             A year of lies.
                         A year of mistakes.
  
 Some are essential.
 I am not.
 I volunteer.
 I’ll wait beyond the vanishing point.
  
 You don’t even have to ask.
 
 Present arms. 

         —M. Seelhorst        November 30, 2020
 

P.P.S. (Post-Poem Script)

I sometimes post personal essays, but never before an attempt at poetry–let alone first-person. I’m actually a rather private person–which is why it’s here instead of say, Facebook. I also have no idea how to write poetry. I think I know what good prose is, but good poetry? Punctuate free or die.

I still can’t figure out how to write “present” so it’s understood as a command, not a gift. The military drill command is familiar to our ears. If I were a cartoonist I’d just draw it: soldiers in war / civilians in pandemic, presenting arms. Then there’s figuring out the mix of fact and feelings, metaphor and analogy, present and past tense. Writing poetry is harder than writing history. I can’t tell when it’s right.

I thought about submitting this to the judgement of poetry nerds on a poetry society website so someone else would decide whether it was worthy of publication, and if so it would be less directly associated with me. Then I found out they don’t allow profanity, politics, or more than 20 lines per poem including spaces. Fuck that shit.

(Another first: profanity in my blog. I finally decided if someone doesn’t want to hire me because I curse, that’s fine. Helps to be closer to the end than the beginning of my career.)

Over Thanksgiving, I was talking with a friend about the coming vaccines, the complicated decision tree prioritizing recipients, and how many will still die this winter even with hope on the horizon. I was reminded of Kerry’s question-within-a-question challenging the politicians to think about what they were asking of draftees long after the mistakes became obvious.

We were sort of joking about how long it would take to get to schulbs like us. If I were a cartoonist, I’d draw the “when do I get a vaccine” flow chart, every yes/no answer a “no” until I was literally the last person left.

It was either write a poem or learn to cartoon.

P. P. P. S. (post post-poem script) Initially, I got on a roll and wrote a lot more about my dad’s experience with tuberculosis, his work in public health and what’s going on in nursing homes. But that will be a separate post, along with some of the quarantine signs my dad saved from the old days. Something to look forward to in quarantine, I reckon.