Virus

Philip Rösel Baker

Image of Philip Rösel Baker

Philip Rösel Baker

Virus was selected for MSUL’s themed call for work about Water, in coordination with the MSU Broad Art Museum’s fall 2023 exhibition, Flint is Family in Three Acts, featuring the photography of Latoya Ruby Frazier.

It's a child sea - artless, wild, petulant,
prone to cry easily, seized by wants it cannot speak,
by tides that peak, recede and are themselves drowned
by sheer walls of ocean, towering raw emotion,
rolling ramparts, roiling power, pulverizing solid rock
—the aftermath of toecap shocks,
that crack the sea floor from below, sending waves
to grow and grow in silent sumo rage.
 
On quiet bloodless afternoons, the warm sea,
arms outstretched, engages with the youthful moon,
that orbits close, so very close, that her acne'd
adolescent face, volcano-scarred, not yet displaced,
dominates the methane sky. She draws the sea
and it recognizes, reaches up towards her,
singing, rising, falling with her bell-like melodies.
 
A sea of possibilities. Bubbles form everywhere,
seething, bursting — gas enclosed in liquid membranes
—foamed in wave-crests, surging, swelling breakers,
smashed on shoreline rocks, on teeth that unlock,
spawn more short-lived globules — self-organizing
models for the shape organic life might take.
 
Abandoned, in the orphan shallows, a game,
whose rules have written the players, begins
—a dividing game. Blind players, single cells.
No shell, self-organized. No sense of smell or taste,
but able to clone themselves. Microbial life, anoxic,
multiplying in wild abundance, engrossed
in the nameless game - expanding, thoughtless,
simply playing, for the sake of simply playing.
 
They are not alone.
 
With every wave that breaks
along the rough resisting shoreline,
the sea throws dice, combining, foaming
in infinite variations, revolving turns of chance
continually. Each breaker breaks uniquely,
and some have spawned rogue virions - hungry,
deadly, predatory threads, cloaked in proteins, spiked
and ready.
 
They too have woken to the game.
 
Prowling the busy, carefree crowds they wait
for a match their protein spikes can penetrate,
then strike the naive insouciant cell, that has no way
to protect itself. They inject themselves
like confidence tricksters, duping the cell to write
blank checks to the intruder's specification,
extruding them in bursts of thousands,
till overdrawn, deep in the red, tired and fevered
over the edge, the exhausted host expires,
while legion virus copies ghost off in the shallows,  
to stalk new unsuspecting victims.
 
As the game takes off, microbial life thrives
and multiplies in the generously supportive sea.
And virions thrive too. A perpetual pandemic rains
and rains microbial corpses down through the water
to the sea floor, to decay. Washed in
by the returning tides,they make fresh seedbeds
for new life - blue-green algae, living from light,
fixing nitrogen, sighing out oxygen,
changing the meaning of sky.
 
Single-celled, they also die
from viral infection. New algae appear to replace
the dead in constant trial and error. No sense of loss,
no shiver of terror on recognition of the foe.
No recognition. Unable to plan, unable to think,
no awareness of self as distinct from others,
but alive to possibility.
 
The moon recedes and tides grow weaker.
Trillions of tides, quakes, slides heave up new land,
while oxygen gains the upper hand and the sky clears
and algae bask in stronger sunlight above the waterline.
Moisture cycles between sea and clouds and falls
as a new and different rain. The balance of power
slowly changes. Rules mutate.
 
Now single cells stumble on ways to retain
information, react to threats, learn photo-fit
identification. Confidence tricksters,
protein pranksters, smooth talkers of the lingua franca
can now be matched and taken out. They learn
to fight their corner.
 
With the beginnings of cell memory,
immunity is born.
 
And with it the scores between virus and cell
on the leaderboard look more equal now.
Virions play their tireless game of tag
among the players, but the players carry out
constant sweeps - learn vigilance, even
while they sleep.
 
Perhaps it had to happen.
If not in this sea, then in another. Sooner or later,
perhaps, continual dice falls had to uncover
this new combination of givens and chance.
Or perhaps this unlikely pairing, of two rival dancers,
might never have arisen, anywhere.
This equilibrium, that seemed to work perfectly well
and the restraining rules of this bagatelle
might have ruled out certain angles for ever.
 
But on this day, at this unique moment,
it happens. In an untidy tangle,
without self-aware mind, somewhere in the ocean,
ignorant of the heedless sky,
a virus,
just one of countless look-a-likes,
strikes but the cell's defenses trap it.
Imprisoned, but still alive, paralyzed, it waits,
pretense abandoned, unable to self-replicate.
A tense stand-off ensues. Since terminating the intruder
seems not to be possible, the cell waits too.
In each, the innate urge to survive, pulses fast,
leads them to barter. Without thought or plan
or speech, the virus negotiates a change of status
—from captive to partner.
 
Together, they create a symbiotic we.
A new way of being, that works for both.
A cell with, at its core, a virus that, in time, will form
a nucleus. The we
is gradually forgotten, habituated, learns to be
a new i.
 
The first eukaryote, with the means to escape
the zero sum game, learnt by rote by cell and virus
—a new i with a future.
The potential now to transfer genes,
through sexual reproduction, to set new seed
for evolutionary networks, that will bud
with fish, with whales, with reptiles,
eventually with human beings.
 
Without this alliance between cell and virus
in the young, speculative, impetuous sea,
there will be
no us.

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