Plague Years

“As of 2018, about 700,000 people have died of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, and nearly 13,000 people with AIDS in the United States die each year.”

“US reaches grim milestone. 500,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 on February 22, 2021, barely a year from the pandemic’s start.”

I watched years ago how others in great numbers came
to die, afraid, unspoken of, dismissed,

notices in small town
newspapers, short and abbreviated obits;

or clerical lists, drawer files for unmarked graves,
Hart Island, poverty’s posthumous

erasure; though I was left to
survive. This milestone that we’ve

reached today for this newer plague does not address the loss
of yesterday:

friends I watched waste away, Presidents
again with nothing to say, and the blind

piety of those in charge, the dictates
of hateful opinion. It’s late now,

late to undo the callousness,
the indifference, late

to amend injustice. The world’s moved on,
the old records are sealed

the years swiftly gone. And yes, the burden of grief then
descends now in much the same way, every age encountering

its cycle of catastrophe.
These months I have endured

since last spring,
the isolation, the donning of masks; the strange

course of disease like a tornado cutting its erratic
path, some lives shattered,

others spared, one
structure remaining while others

crumble, demolished and no longer
standing. Yes, I was unprepared,

as my safe shelter was torn away. One moment bright,
the next deathly darkness.

My common assumptions, beliefs, propelled
away at lethal velocities. And there were needs

then as now and again
so little rescue. I was lucky

you’d say, grew old, lived to see the day
of drugs to aid

the body to recover. But
still I feel

the burden of forgotten
history. The vestiges I’ve saved:

sewn quilts, rainbow flags, pink triangles,
red ribbon pins, old symbols,

armaments for a war not won. No one understands
my obligation to relics inert

as incinerated bones, cremains closed in plastic bags.
I too watched numbers

grow, read staggering statistics. No vaccine
came at warp speed,

just misery and religiosity.
Persecution in league with intolerance.

This is how a mystery illness spreads,
misinformation, paranoia and

suspicion. I’m older now but hardly the wiser. What
salvation I thought I offered is long since dead.

I had no special immunity
and certainly no invincibility, or unique

knack for sympathy; no all I had in the end was grief,
incessant yet aided by denial;

and what have I made of
my gift of time?

To hold my words accountable,
to make them live

as others did not?
This paradox is what I now contend with,

art achieves no clarity, it cannot
explain why the heart stops suddenly,

stalled and unable to go on, nor can it look
at a body riddled with plague and not forget.

—Walter Holland

Walter Holland is the author of three books of poetry, A Journal of the Plague Years: Poems 1979-1992, Transatlantic, and Circuit, as well as one novel, The March. A forthcoming book of poems, Reconstruction, will be published by Finishing Line Press in August of 2021. His most recent work has appeared in Exquisite Pandemic, HIV Here and Now, Cutbank Literary Journal, and About Place Journal. Follow him at:

Photo credit: Justin1569 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons