Poems about plagues have an understandable fascination nowadays, and this one, published in 2019, was ahead of the curve. 1348 was the Western European advent of the Black Death, and the title’s ‘equation’ here appears in its root sense of ‘making equal’ – not only in the irreparable way that death does, but also in terms of social re-stratification in the plague’s aftermath. Starting from England, and travelling with the Arthurian Prince Galehaut, the poem quickly reaches Italy, for 1348 is also the year The Decameron is set, its narrators wintering out from the carnage in Florence. Events in Boccaccio’s narrative and Pasolini’s film version are alluded to, but especially their themes: fortune, sex, trickery, mercantilism, class conflict and Church corruption. The poem has a lot of fun, too, with medieval numerology, expanding (or detouring) onto the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.
Some readers might be attracted less by the subject-matter than by hopes for more of the unique flavour of The End of Limbo, this poet’s earlier collection; for her far-out metaphors and eye-popping turns of phrase. They do reappear, but in place of the personal and family histories the voice here is of an annalist and purveyor of sententiae, reporting, lamenting, bewailing, and making historical and philosophical assertions. It does so in long, end-stopped lines, building into tercets that claim ancestry from the era’s terza rima, but with its devices of rhyme-scheme and metre now faded and only flickeringly detectable.
Those few left behind are without oat to cook or sprout
But now they own plenty of land to firmly plant their feet.
The righteous are said to bloom honourably as bay trees.
The marvellous quirkiness is still there: creditors ‘ascend the layers of millefoglie to reach heaven’; death ‘wears the skin of the living like the latest fashion’; dead peasants ‘went to plough the clouds’; poetry ‘is a scream under the skin’. On the other hand, in such a high-risk style some of the wordplay will inevitably be a matter of taste: ‘their issues take no issue with ill cruelty’; ‘overflowing coffers turn into overflowing coffins’; ‘the apple of the eye doesn’t keep the doctor away’. Unless perhaps it’s all the more fitting for The Decameron’s own blends of the sublime and the ridiculous. In either case, where the thoughts’ content (as befits the annalist’s character) is conventional, wit and readerly pleasure necessarily lie in the mode of expression. But there are occasional jump-cuts and flat lines and sometimes great ideas seem to be just missing a final edit:
Alas, rich patrons still carry cathedrals on their bad backs,
buy indulgences to fill treasure-troves and secure bliss,
bribe Saint Peter to turn a blind eye – turn heaven’s key.
This unusual and intermittently brilliant poem ends by briefly sketching Pasolini’s murder at Ostia, and then alerting us that the plague bacillus is still around, carried by rodents and occasionally infecting humans. Well, these days I suppose we can never be reminded too often.
Guy Russell 16th August 2020