Bees and humans alike have their criteria for selection: symmetry and sweetness in the case of the bee; heft and nutritional value in the case of the potato-eating human. The fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato taking part in this arrangement. All those plants care about is what every being cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself. Through trial and error these plant species have found that the best way to do that is to induce animals—bees or people, it hardly matters—to spread their genes. How? By playing on the animals’ desires, conscious and otherwise. The flowers and spuds that manage to do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.
— Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire
I can’t confidently stand behind Pollan’s assertion that plants aren’t aware of their desires. But I do feel a tremor of present-tense recognition when I get to “what every being cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself.”
Humanity continues its debate: is a virus, that most prevalent biological entity on this planet, a life form? We can’t seem to fully bring ourselves to say so, and you can hear it in our pronoun choices, in the words we use. There’s a difference, a missing piece, we say. And maybe the source of our discerning a dissimilarity can be found in Pollan’s words above: viruses don’t entice. They don’t seem to possess such autonomy. They don’t seem to play on our desires in order to replicate, but they instead, perhaps, prey on them. They don’t seem to acknowledge relationship the way we (or many of us, anyway) acknowledge relationship. They force. They consume. They appear heedless about it. They harm those they encounter, those they use, for their own benefit.
Humanity has in fact learned a lot from them.
And how do we know whether or not viruses want, and know of their wants? Can a virus know? Can we even ascribe our human verbs to it? What function does this have?
Since the start of our present viral age, I’ve been collecting instances of people attributing desire or intention or a lifelike autonomy to the SARS‑CoV‑2 virus, and jotting down these instances of what sounds like anthropomorphism, a (suspect?) type of metaphor-making that has the ring, to me, of a fundamental human impulse to say what’s happening, as a means of figuring out how to approach these altering and traumatic circumstances, how to respond, how to get through this.
A cento is a very old poetic form that typically scavenges lines from other poems and stitches them together to form a new one. Its name derives from the Latin for “patchwork.” This is what life has been feeling like for the past twenty months: stitching together what’s at hand, laying down the path as we’re walking. The path, in the case of this poem, coming not from other poems, but from the atmosphere, from voices heard or read, not sought, just there in my day-to-day: Inayat Singh for CBC News, Anthony Fauci, the chair of the Kinsmen Club of Peterborough, Dr. Peter Lin, Richard Schiff, some guy from the Lincoln Project, Lucy Ellmann, Dr. Dan Lee, Dougie Ford, Peter Piot, Dr. Ian Gemmill, David Wallace-Wells for New York magazine, Louise Bernice Halfe – Sky Dancer, Hayden Watters, Michael Winter, Dr. Michael Warner, and Charlie Angus. In some cases, I’ve adapted their phrasing but kept the basic tenor. In some cases, the words are taken down exactly as I found them. In some cases, I approach these declarations, these verbs and adjectives and being-like comparisons, with suspicion, the wielding of verbs meant to insist on a knowing that keeps present power structures intact. In some cases, people recount their firsthand experience with covid, with surviving it. In some cases, there’s wisdom being offered.
This poem is ongoing.
It has simple personal goals:
to replicate, to make the timeline.
It’s sneaky. It doesn’t want to plateau.
It wants to stop you breathing.
It doesn’t watch Fox. It loves
to travel. It survives
on apathy. It’s stealthy. It wants
to increase without bound.
It wants to skyrocket.
It’s clever. It evades all we do.
I have felt its compelling presence
and realize it will change my life.
It’s racing us and we’re letting it
win. It discriminates. It challenges.
It provides introspection. I want
to thank it for our friendship.
It has helped me live this life.
For it can’t grow on its own. It doesn’t
know borders. It is fluid.
And it has been a hard teacher.