Poem of the Week | October 14, 2013

This week we offer a new poem by James Davis May from our hot-off-the-press fall issue, 36.3. May’s poems have appeared in Five Points, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, New Ohio Review, The New Republic, Pleiades, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from Inprint and the Krakow Poetry Seminar. In 2013, he won the Collins Award from Birmingham Poetry Review. The former editor of New South, he lives in Young Harris, Georgia.
Author’s Note:

I wrote “A Lasting Sickness” last April after recovering from a vicious fever and an equally vicious series of setbacks: losing my job and having to move with my family away from a house, neighborhood, and city where we were quite happy. While half-sleeping, half hallucinating in bed, I thought a lot about the childhood memory I describe in the poem. The fever in the poem was brought on by pneumonia – I was no older than seven, I think – and my parents’ hushed concern and care has taken on a mythic importance for me because I’m almost certain it prompted my first conscious thoughts about love. Not that I hadn’t felt loved before that – it was just that I hadn’t thought about thinking about it until then (or until I first remembered the memory). Anyway, the poem treats what I’ll call my Romantic tendencies (Wordsworth was my first literary love) as a sort of chronic illness. The poem’s not a cure, of course, more of a diagnosis without instructions.



Five nights into fever, you lie in bed
as your parents, urgent, move about you
in the soft, almost birthday-candle-dim light.
If you’re in pain, you won’t remember,
though the fever’s so high
it’s likely you’ve reached that euphoric state
in which the dying or near-dying
see the oblong silhouettes of angels,
hear the shapeless voices of the dead.
Instead, you see your mother
watching you, along with a vigil
of good soldiers: the stuffed bears,
the purple rabbit, the papier-mâché parrot
perched on a painted hanger.
Your father plunges a washcloth
again into a mixing bowl of ice water,
brings it to your head, and you fall
back asleep to the sounds of your own
being cared for. If you were the boy
who remembers this well after
forgetting the cause, if it haunts you
like, say, unrepeatable pleasure
or a good dream you’ve never learned
to disbelieve, so that each sickness –
pneumonia at eighteen, shingles
at twenty-three – reminds you
of what others have done for you
and what others will do, their hands
working your clammy wrists and brow,
kneading the minty balm again and again
into your chest, if you began to believe,
as the boy did, that the world
not only acknowledges your suffering,
but turns to soothe it – what choice
would you have but to love that world
you so appallingly don’t understand?