“Hepatitis C” by Michael D. Riley

Michael D. Riley


It’s a new disease, meaning some
microscope found it out ten years ago
and added it to its sisters, A and B,
long renowned for fear and loathing.
It showed up after a needle-stick
Annie suffered at work, but who can tell.
It might have been simmering forty years
from her childhood anemia transfusions.
Here it is anyway, transforming her blood
just enough to be seen. All else is tame.
It might remain so all her life.
Or it might creep. Or rage.
It wears evil’s mystery well for so young
a disease: we can’t predict it or cure it
but now we know it’s here. It loves
the liver and can’t wait to take that red meat
down new trails of sacrifice. (Unless,
as I said, it doesn’t.) When (if) it starts
though, it will move by the most
infinitesimal steps: tiny crow’s feet
by the eyes, networks of fragile
varicosities on her cheeks, a slowing
step of energy indistinguishable 
for months—or years—from aging itself.
The symptoms, in short, are subtle
in the extreme and will require the most
careful attention, or inattention,
the strain of which is identical.

from Rattle #42, Winter 2013


Michael D. Riley: “‘Hepatitis C’ came out of another of life’s bizarre, ridiculous, yet perfectly ordinary experiences: fertile ground for poems, I’ve found. Yet, ‘All art is failure,’ as Richard Hugo reminds us, a Sisyphean labor when compared to our hopes. Rilke was clearly right when he said, ‘If you don’t have to write poetry, don’t.’ He meant that kindly. It’s harder work than scrubbing stone floors, Yeats said, but instead of fame and cash, you’ll be thought ‘an idler’ by ‘the world.’ Tough dues! Yet our dominatrix of a muse can at times tease out rewards so magical as to seem (and perhaps be) sacred. Like a woman’s labor pains. ‘Never again,’ she lies. If you, like me, can’t stay away for long: Get to work. But always remember, as Eliot says, ‘For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’”

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