Mohammad Memarian in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
On Friday, March 20, I called my father to congratulate him on the Persian New Year. It felt gloomy, to put it mildly. We used to do it in person, shaking hands, hugging, and the three traditional kisses on the cheeks. As we are in self-quarantine, 300 miles away from each other, he acquired his very first smartphone just a week ago, rapidly catching up with technology to keep in touch with me. I watched him as he tried to turn on the selfie camera. He kept the phone so close that I could only see him with difficulty. But I could observe parts of him that usually go unnoticed: details of the wrinkles on his face, the tears he was struggling to hold back, a bruise on his left cheek, speckles I hadn’t seen before. We talked for a while, five minutes maybe, the longest routine call we had in years, and then we retreated into solitude, each into his own. The whole episode reminded me of stories of families torn apart by immigration. We are now torn apart by another, equally invisible force.
This invisible force, otherwise known as COVID-19, intruded into our lives in pretty much the same way it did into the lives of countless other people elsewhere. Except, perhaps, the context. For us Iranians, the disease came as the culmination of a long streak of unfortunate events, which inflicted upon many here a deep sense of helplessness.
This woman seems to have been standing in the meadow forever, with it and of it, welcoming us all, an earthbound archangel of the topsoil. You could imagine that below her housedress her feet have taken root or her torso has become a tree trunk, and the way she smiles and reaches out that right hand seems like the most generous way to say that this place is hers.
Everything in the picture affirms a sense of stability. The square photograph is bisected horizontally by the straight line where the flowering meadow joins the bare hill on the right and the tree-covered hill on the left that rise up from either side of her like wings. That line is even with her bosom, and her outstretched hand seems almost to rest on it.
My favourite essay, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s ‘At Home with Tennyson’, is both a bravura work of close reading and a highly sensitive study of the poet’s loyalties, yearnings and fears about homes and homelessness. Tennyson, he demonstrates, was profoundly touched by the idea of home and ‘was equally good at evoking home when it existed only as an idea, as in “The Lotos-Eaters”, where so much of what the speaker broods over – “roam”, “foam”, “honeycomb” – has the word “home” flickering through it like a nagging but elusive memory’. Douglas-Fairhurst is yet another of the essayists here to be attracted by the word ‘nest’: Tennyson produces a ‘voice that is keen to create a nest of words for itself but also appears to be nervously eyeing up the lines of each stanza like a little set of prison bars’. This is criticism that draws quite close to the status of poetry.
The biopharmaceutical industry will be able to make a Covid-19 vaccine— probably a few of them—using various existing vaccine technologies. But many people worry that Covid-19 will mutate and evade our vaccines, as the flu virus does each season. Covid-19 is fundamentally different from flu viruses, though, in ways that will allow our first-generation vaccines to hold up well. To the extent that Covid does mutate, it’s likely to do so much more slowly than the flu virus does, buying us time to create new and improved vaccines. Every virus has a genome composed of genetic material (either RNA or DNA) that encodes instructions for replicating the virus. When a virus infects a cell, it accesses machinery for making copies of its genomic instructions and follows those instructions to make viral proteins that assemble, with copies of the instructions, to form more viruses (which then pop out of the cell to infect new cells, either in the same host or in someone new). There is a critical difference between coronaviruses and flu. The novel coronavirus genome is made of one long strand of genetic code. This makes it an “unsegmented” virus—like a set of instructions that fit on a single page. The flu virus has eight genomic segments, so its code fits on eight “pages.” That’s not common for viruses, and it gives the flu a special ability. Because the major parts of the flu virus are described on separate pages (segments) of its genome, when two different flu viruses infect the same cell, they can swap pages.
Imagine two people with eight-page reports fighting over a copy machine. In the tussle, some copies might turn out to have a mix of pages from two different reports. This page-swapping process, where viruses exchange parts of their genome, is called reassortment. The flu can change rapidly when multiple strains pass through the same host. But coronavirus, as a one-page report, tends to stay together, and while coronaviruses can swap sections—in a process known as recombination—it is difficult to achieve and thus rare. (Imagine two pages ripping in the same way and swapping pieces that get glued together again.)
Take this poem and copy it in your handwriting on a piece of paper and insert words from your soul between the words your hands copied. And notice the additions made by the words from your hands and the subtractions made by punctuation, the spaces and the lines which are broken within your life. Take this poem and copy it a thousand times and distribute it to people on the city’s main street. And say to them I wrote this poem this is a poem I wrote this is a poem I wrote this I wrote this poem I wrote this I wrote this I wrote. Take this poem and put it in an envelope and send it to the one your heart desires and include a short letter with it. And before you send it change its title and at the end add rhymes of your own. Sweeten the bitter and enrich the spare and bridge the cracked and simplify the clumsy and enliven the dead and square the truth. A person could take many poems and make them his. Take this very poem and make only this one yours for even though it has nothing special which ignites your desire to make it yours it also has no possessiveness of the kind which says a man’s poems are his property and his only and you have no right to meddle or ask anything of them but this is a poem which asks you to meddle with it to erase and to add and it is given to you freely for free ready to be changed by your hands. Take this poem and make it yours and sign your name on it and erase the previous name but remember it and remember that every word is poetry is the offspring of poetry and poetry is the poetry of many not one. And someone after you will take your poem and make it his and command those after him the children of poets take this poem and copy it on a piece of paper and make it yours in your handwriting.
by Almog Behar from Wells’ Thirst publisher: Am Oved, Tel Aviv,2008 Translation: 2017, Alexandra Berger-Polsky
The coronavirus pandemic has brought chaos to lives and economies around the world. But efforts to curb the spread of the virus might mean that the planet itself is moving a little less. Researchers who study Earth’s movement are reporting a drop in seismic noise — the hum of vibrations in the planet’s crust — that could be the result of transport networks and other human activities being shut down. They say this could allow detectors to spot smaller earthquakes and boost efforts to monitor volcanic activity and other seismic events. A noise reduction of this magnitude is usually only experienced briefly around Christmas, says Thomas Lecocq, a seismologist the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, where the drop has been observed. Just as natural events such as earthquakes cause Earth’s crust to move, so do vibrations caused by moving vehicles and industrial machinery. And although the effects from individual sources might be small, together they produce background noise, which reduces seismologists’ ability to detect other signals occurring at the same frequency.
Data from a seismometer at the observatory show that measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Brussels caused human-induced seismic noise to fall by about one-third, says Lecocq. The measures included closing schools, restaurants and other public venues from 14 March, and banning all non-essential travel from 18 March (see ‘Seismic noise’). The current drop has boosted the sensitivity of the observatory’s equipment, improving its ability to detect waves in the same high frequency range as the noise. The facility’s surface seismometer is now almost as sensitive to small quakes and quarry blasts as a counterpart detector buried in a 100-metre borehole, he adds. “This is really getting quiet now in Belgium.”