Y is for Yasmin – Ouch! Ouch! The Tough Truths – “Confront the Complexities” – in Seema Yasmin’s Must-Read Poetry Collection: “If God is a Virus”

Seema Yasmin M.D. (1982 -) British-born American doctor and journalist who in recent years now adds poet to her “other” accomplishments!!!

(Starting with Z for Zwicky this blog post, Y for Yasmin is now the second in a series of blog posts to feature contemporary poets by going backwards through the alphabet according to the initial of their last name. Next: X for Xie!)


Yallah habibti, move your tongue like the sea
easy. My big sister teaches me to ululate, rolls
her tongue in waves. Dips thin fingers inside
my mouth to pull out mine, stretches it long
and pinches the tip. Watch, we move tongues
like this. I see the walls of our father’s house
collapse and we swim free leleleleleleleleleee

On the ferry to Tangier I shriek across the sea.
Practice how to sound like a real woman. Old
aunties grab my buttocks, smush their breasts
against my back and sing leleleleleleleleleleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
Don’t cover your mouth habibti! Only women
on the upper deck, only sea. We move tongues
like this to tell the waves stay back, tell men

stay back, tell the dead stay gone, tell runaway
wives stay gone. They turn me into wisteria
woman, limbs wrapped around poles and thighs
as they guide me. Throw back your head, epiglottis
to the breeze. Salt air burns my hot membranes,
scratches at the tight knots of my chords.
All my life I was told

women must swallow sand
unless we are sounding
a warning.

Seema Yasmin M.D. (1982 -) from Foundry magazine, 2017 and from If God Is A Virus, Haymarket Books, 2021

What a musical spell of a poem. What a cry of feminine freedom. Of power strong enough to still waves, keep men, the dead and runaway wives back, away and gone! And the hammer blow of the last stanza set apart in line length and stanza length so tellingingly from the stanzas and lines that come before. This shortening of a woman’s life, her importance, her voice.

women must swallow sand
unless we are sounding
a warning.

This poem comes from an important book for our time published just weeks ago. In this pandemic time. And the title of  this book say so much. In so many ways if you see a god or gods as a prime mover of events of the world what a god Covid-19 is. Fierce and deadly. And it’s as if so much of the author’s life prepared her especially for this moment. I can think of few, if any, people who could with such authority pen this book and bring disease, as personified by a virus and its unexpected consequences, so to life!

What a woman, what a poet I say. And yet what I now know to say also is what a heck of a life this woman, this poet has had. Born in England to a mother who came to England from northwest India this woman became a doctor and then transformed her life as a high-profile medical activist and journalist, television and print analyst and academic in the United States. All in thirty-nine years! And now with her debut full-length poetry collection she is also a notable (I say) poet! In this she joins other notable contemporary doctor poets Rafael Campo and Amit Majmudar. And going back some, of course William Carlos Williams!

As I introduce Seema and her poems I have to admit there are times I ask myself: “Where have I been?” I ask myself especially this week after coming across Seema and her disturbing necessity of a book: If God Is a Virus? It seems that this extraordinary woman has accomplished in thirty nine years what many would not manage in six lifetimes. And she has done it in full and very obvious sight on-line, in television and print publications for many years but especially last year when she became a noted spokesperson debunking myths surrounding Covid-19. And no wonder: Seema, as a doctor and journalist has lived and breathed epidemics (including the Ebola outbreak in 2014-16) for many years and was writing years ago about critical misinformation issues surrounding illness and epidemics. This title which could be from something written today was from an article published by her in December 2017: Epidemics of misinformation and why we should stop oversimplifying things. And so many of the poems in her book could be about Covid-19 yesterday instead of other horrific outbreaks of disease and contagion.

If I was to fully describe Seema’s life it might seem to make sense only in a fantastical novel! Combining her jornalistic and medical skills has enabled her to experience life in an almost unimaginable way! Imagine this: she is on a rooftop in a city in Liberia reporting on the Ebola crisis in 2015 when a tornado hit Dallas where she was based and demolishes her house. Gone. And then later she writes an award-winning article on the tornado! But, but remember, a poet, too! Here this small but huge poem based on lines from newspaper reports on the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis. This compelling curse poem. How the dancer can’t out-dance, disease, prejudice but she can dance a curse:

Ebola Cento

Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?
Fling your red dress faster and faster, dancer,
And say: Sir were I you, as I should be,
A very pestilence upon you fall!

Seema Yasmin from If God Is a Virus, ibid

I so recall Jane Hirschfield’s words about writing poems and the importance of living a full life first and foremost! The craft, second! Seema checks that box.  What a life experience to write from. And that is why so many of the poems in her book come from her medical and journalistic fitrst-hand experiences around the world. I think it was said we should have had a poet as the first person to set foot on the moon. Well, it could be said as shown by Seema’s trenchant poetics that we need more poets reporting from places of crisis in the world. Voices made insistent and powerful by their poetry.

Some further glimpses into that life. She was nominated for an Emmy award in 2016 for a feature on a tropical parasitical disease and was a finalist in 2017 for a Pulitzer as part of a team from the Dallas Morning News investigating a mass shooting. She moved into journalism from medicine through a fellowship at the University of Toronto in 2013 as a way she says to help shift public policy after her experiences as a former intelligence officer for the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the CDC in the US. And in 2017 she accepted a fellowship at Standford University where she now teaches as a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Primary Care and Population Health and is director of Research and Education Programs for Stanford Health Communication Initiative.

In Seema’s article mentioned above about misrepresentation in epidemics she says: Confront the complexities. And in her astonishing book she confronts them. As a woman! As a brown-skinned woman! As a brown-skinned Muslim woman born in England and living among non-Muslims in England, Canada and the U.S. This poem captures much of this: these complexities. Especially how often western medical systems disadvantage black and brown skinned patients.


There is a hippy lady in California
who calls sickness dis-ease, as if
it is mere discomfort that I shit coffee
grounds—as if it is my own doing.
She shares a mantra for each dis-ease
but has written nothing
for Ebola, nothing for Marburg, nothing
for viral hemorrhagic
fevers—things that afflict me. After I take Papa
to the white tent I walk along the coastal
road past beachside hotels where military doctors
unload black bags into rooms with fridges
and mosquito nets. A lady doctor looks up at me,
makes a spot diagnosis, but doesn’t know how
to read pallor in brown skin, can’t see cyanosis
through melanin. In her medicine, “typical
presentation” means White patient. Everything
atypical is me.

Seema Yasmin fromIf God Is a Virus

To say that Seema’s poems are timely is to understate how in so many ways they are timeless. They shout out  again and again how we fail each other as humans, how we fail each other as nations. And as Seema talks about how the death of white bodies in epidemics or other medical crises gets far more attention in the West than the death of black or brown bodies I think about what is happening so horrifically in India and Brazil at this moment.

And, and this is blunt truth these days for me, Seema is fearless in reminding me about how much damage whiteness has done in the world. This expressed so poingnantly in a poem called Anti Body  where Seema describes the horrors done to under-privileged and coloured people in the name of medical research and the names of doctors who have done unspeakable things or worked for unspeakable regimes who have had medical conditions or buildings named after them:

…………………………………………………………….The part
of your brain responsible for speech production is
Broca’s area, named for Dr. Broca who believed that
White men have larger brains and superior speech
to women and Black people. Asperger was a Nazi
so was Wegener so was Reiter so was Clara
so was Eppinger that is why they name body parts & medical
school buildings after them. When is Whiteness
not a weapon?

Seema Yasmin from If God Is a Virus, ibid

We need poets to remind of the hard truths to prod us to confront the complexities. And what is important for me is that her poems aren’t rants. they are poems that confront and challenge and often retain a haunting beauty! Think of her poem above: MY SISTER TEACHES ME HOW TO ULULATE. The beauty in her musical word choice and expression. And this eponymous poem below that provides her book’s startling title. And the startling reality inside the poem that viruses also enable us to live. Don’t just kill us!

In a wonderful free study guide made available for free for the book  by the Pulitzer Center  is says this: “These poems also give voice to the virus. Eight percent of the human genome is inherited from viruses and the human placenta would not exist without a gene descended from a virus. If God Is A Virus reimagines viruses as givers of life and even authors of a viral-human self-help book.”


                                                                   If God Is a Virus 

                                            Phytoplankton drips down her thick thighs
                                     as she stirs a primordial ocean with her toenail.
                                            Striped fish slap in God’s ankle bracelets
                                along the coastline she drags a tangled seaweed braid.
                                                      If God is a virus, she is naked.
                                      Shed her nucleocapsid when salamanders grew legs
                                               now she is two strands of missense RNA;
                                                 acid ladders reaching to the heavens.
                                                 God is in your fever in your dandruff
                                           between your teeth crying in the permafrost
                                           massaging her way out of a mammoth’s trunk,
                                                                   a bison’s tailbone.
                                                                    She is having sex.
                                      God is making babies in your tender lymph nodes,
                                             giggling when you prod the swollen knots.
                                                                      God is pregnant.
                                               Parasitic fetus supressing white cells
                                                                 God is an infection;
                          her incubation period as long as three sermons on the mount
                                 replication rate amplified by saline sweat and fear.
                      A virus gave you a gene called SYN so you could grow placentas.
                                   SYN fuses baby to mother fuses uterus to placenta.
                            A virus blew air inside your drowning baby’s pigeon chest
                                      put some respect on her phospholipid membranes.
                                                   Watch God’s fat molecules shimmer;
                                                               her flagella undulate.
                                                        If God is a virus we are over
                                                               over & over again.
                                                 Reborn absent pinky toes and coccyx,
                                                     spines seven degrees more erect.
                                                              Praise the holy fevers.
                                                    Pray for split-brained migraines.
                                           Seema Yasmin from If God Is A Virus, ibid

The hard beauty of so many of these poems. But poems that had to be said and this beautifully, no matter how hard. And in these poems the voice of a doctor, a journalist, a scientist calling out for a different way to be in this world.  A doctor who calls out the misrepresentations of anti-vaxxers as only a poet could. And a poet who sees and calls out the huge yeses and huge nos in this world of ours. The yes of a virus. One that makes babies possible. The no of a virus that kills, has killed millions in the last year.

I feel called at a deepest compassionate level by these poems; to stay awake, to pay attention, to allow my heart to be opened to others. I hope you may as well.


  1. Teri Young
    Posted April 30, 2021 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for writing your contemplative piece that twines around these stunning poems.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted May 1, 2021 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Teri: So glad you enjoyed this piece. I so love discovering poets “new” to me and sharing them!

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