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

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

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.

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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.

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"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.

<b>SILENCE, ANOPHELES</b>You should have just asked the mosquito.-- 14th Dalai Lama It's risky business needing(blood)from othersnot for science or even more lifefor hellos and goodbyesand most substances betweenbut so your kids can exitwhile entering and spreadtheir wings longafter yours dry and carry onby wind not will. It's risky business feeding on others,but we all doone way or another. It's risky business needingwhen you have nothing,but life has you and liveswrithe inside you. Risky to solo into the wildaisles of forearm hair thicketfor a mad sip,not quick enoughto snuff the wick of awarenessbut too fast for savoring. A mad sip that makesyou gotcha or goneand may paint you and yoursand them — <i>Plasmodium falciparum </i>--on the canvas you neededto taste behind. It's risky business needingand then getting and being too <i>too</i> to know what to do --too full and carrying too many to fly. It's risky business being the silent messengerof 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. <i>An(ophel)es</i>, you are only 57% different, no, you are 43% the same as me, no,I am, no, we are 43% you, no, we all arenearly, mostly. It's risky business leavinglarge clues --a welt and then a dying child slobbering silverunder its mother's croon. It's risky business beingwhen 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 small 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 beingcontent and forever brinking in the bulbous ends of raindrops that cling but fatten? Like raindrops and us, <i>Anopheles</i>, 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 mutationsthat make some of ussometimessort ofimmune to each other's jabsthough 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 doingbeing,but it is more risky beingdoing.Did you hear all that, <i>Anopheles</i>?How about now?We're asking. We're good at that.Does all life listenat the speed of its growing?Are we listening too loudlyor too slowly to your silence? "Human malaria is transmitted only by females of the genus <i>Anopheles</i>. Of the approximately 430 <i>Anopheles</i> 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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