If You Think You'll Never See A Poem About Malaria, You're Wrong

Poet Cameron Conaway (left, in gray cap) visits malaria-hit areas in the Chittagong Tract Hills, Bangladesh, in June 2012. Courtesy of Cameron Conaway hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Cameron Conaway

Poet Cameron Conaway (left, in gray cap) visits malaria-hit areas in the Chittagong Tract Hills, Bangladesh, in June 2012.

Courtesy of Cameron Conaway

Before traveling to Thailand in 2011, American poet Cameron Conaway viewed malaria as many Westerners do: a remote disease summed up by factoids:

It's borne by mosquitoes.

Half the world's population -- 3.4 billion people -- is at risk of catching it.

The disease claims 627,000 lives a year - that's one death every minute.

Conaway, 29, gives a human face to those figures in his new collection, Malaria, Poems. Each poem is paired with a related fact: "roughly one in ten children will suffer from neurological impairment after cerebral malaria" connects to a poem with this line:

"Here / a girl of ten / confused / why her arms won't raise / when she's asked to raise them"

Conaway started writing poetry in 2004, inspired by Lee Peterson, his poetry instructor at Penn State Altoona, who wrote about the Bosnian war. "She taught me that these literary tools weren't just for playing in the sandbox," says Conaway. "They could serve a social purpose."

He came to malaria in a roundabout way. Conaway's trip to Thailand was motivated by a desire to practice Mauy Thai kickboxing (he is a former mixed martial arts fighter and people sometimes call him "the warrior poet"). After he arrived in Bangkok, he met another poet hanging out there, Colin Cheney, who told him about the Wellcome Trust, a global charity that funds health research as well as projects on how culture affects health issues, such as with their features publication Mosaic. The Trust was soliciting applicants for its arts award, so Conaway attended one of the its conferences. There, he met Nick Day, the director of Bangkok's Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU), one of the Trust's affiliates.

"I was impressed by Day's ability to talk about malaria and his research in ways that a normal human could understand. He did so with charisma and I really connected with him," says Conaway.

And Conaway learned that malaria has a poetic history. Sir Ronald Ross, who won a Nobel Prize in 1902 for identifying malaria parasites, often wrote poetry about the disease and his discovery:

"With tears and toiling breath / I find thy cunning seeds / O million-murdering death."

With Day's suggestion, Conaway applied for the Trust's arts award and became MORU's first poet-in-residence. He spent seven months traveling to villages and vaccine research centers near Bangkok and in Bangladesh, gathering impressions for his work.

Malaria, Poems was published this month by Michigan State University Press. The poems touch on everything from counterfeit malaria medicines to stillbirths caused by the parasite to traveling bards who perform plays about malaria awareness. He also wrote poems that address social issues such as violence against women in Bangladesh and the lack of medical care in the region.

An excerpt from Malaria, Poems follows and describes Anopheles mosquitoes, which transmit the parasite between people.


You should have just asked the mosquito.

-- 14th Dalai Lama

It's risky business needing


from others

not for science or even more life

for hellos and goodbyes

and most substances between

but so your kids can exit

while entering and spread

their wings long

after yours dry and carry on

by wind not will.

It's risky business feeding on others,

but we all do

one way or another.

It's risky business needing

when you have nothing,

but life has you and lives

writhe inside you.

Risky to solo into the wild

aisles of forearm hair thicket

for a mad sip,

not quick enough

to snuff the wick of awareness

but too fast for savoring.

A mad sip that makes

you gotcha or gone

and may paint you and yours

and them -- Plasmodium falciparum --

on the canvas you needed

to taste behind.

It's risky business needing

and then getting

and being too too

to know what to do --

too full and carrying

too many to fly.

It's risky business being

the silent messenger

of bad news when you don't know the bad news

is consuming you, too.

It's not risky business

being the blind black barrel

of pistol or proboscis,

but it is damn risky business being

the pointer or the pointed at.

It's risky business being

born without asking

for a beating heart.

Having and then needing to need

to want until next

or else

and sometimes still or else.

Risky when you're expected to deliver

babies and have no gods to guide

their walk on water

because you did it

long before they or him or her or it

never did.

Risky when you're born

on water and capricious cloudscapes

shape whether sun lets leaves

bleed their liquid shadow blankets

into marshes or mangrove swamps

or hoof prints or rice fields or kingdoms

of ditches.

It's risky business naming and being named

while skewered and viewed

under the skewed microscopic lens

of anthropocentrism

an (not) opheles (profit)

a goddess name, Anopheles,

that translates to mean useless

and sounds beautiful at first

then awful when its insides linger.

An(ophel)es, you are only 57% different, no,

you are 43% the same as me, no,

I am, no, we are 43% you, no, we all are

nearly, mostly.

It's risky business leaving

large clues --

a welt and then a dying child slobbering silver

under its mother's croon.

It's risky business being

when you don't

because you have two weeks

or less to do doing.

Risky business killing,

but it depends on who, where, when --

self-sufficient Malawi village in 2014

vs. the legend of Dante & Lord Byron.

Mae Sot or Maine, Rourkela or Leeds.

It's risky business killing

killers that always only want

their kind

of tropical retreat.

It's risky business being


profoundly --

the speck of black

sesame or apostrophe

blending in the expanse

of rye or papyrus

and taken

onto allergic tongues.

It's risky business sharing

your body with strangers --

uninvited multiplicities hijacking

what you have

because to them you are what you have.

Risky when all know

your 1 mile per hour,

your under 25 feet high for miles,

your 450 wingbeats per second.

Risky business being you

when some want not to fly

weeks with your wings

but walk days atop them.

Is it riskier business being content

and peacefully going extinct

or not being

content and forever brinking

in the bulbous ends of raindrops

that cling but fatten?

Like raindrops and us, Anopheles,

when you fatten, you fall.

History favors the fallen.

To drip

a long life

of falling

before the fall

or to live

a short life

oblivious to it all?

Risky that we exchange

counters -- DNA mutations

that make some of us


sort of

immune to each other's jabs

though hooks always slip through,

and we send each other stumbling,

always stumbling, always only stumbling.

Changing ourselves changes each other.

Each other is ourselves.

They tell us it's risky business doing


but it is more risky being


Did you hear all that, Anopheles?

How about now?

We're asking. We're good at that.

Does all life listen

at the speed of its growing?

Are we listening too loudly

or too slowly to your silence?

"Human malaria is transmitted only by females of the genus Anopheles. Of the approximately 430 Anopheles species, only 30-40 transmit malaria" (Malaria, Mosquitoes, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 February 2010).

Excerpted from Malaria, Poems by Cameron Conaway. Copyright 2014 by Cameron Conaway. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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