A clown comes on the stage.
The Devil never left Black Death in the foyer
to be discussed at length in devastating detail.
Cleverer than Satan and Iblis, those soul-sawyers,
the Devil could not let himself fail!
He checked out of Hilton, memory had him dismayed:
Didn’t the hotel echo some rhymester of yore?
Yes of course, the guy who needed vision aids.
Having planted Brexit, the Devil planned an exit.
But how could he run, leaving Hilton behind?
Told the cashier, “This place is truly gala.”
His task severe: bury memories of Black Death
in some catafalque, beyond the reach
of sonneteering bums like Daruwalla.
The boats don’t keel as they unload their cargo
and Black Death, which has no nameplate yet,
clambers up Europe’s back; the Fates, hard put to watch
its moves, have sin on their minds and redemption;
can cuirass, crown, a monk’s cowl save a soul?
“They’re all mashed up here, your fucking Highnesses
from Greek shithouses, naked corpses.
How would we gondoliers know who’s who?”
A friar shouts, “Wash the sickness into the sea,”
till he is scythed himself. Nations outlaw
coffin, cerements, shroud; or was it plague that did it?
The Cardinal hands over a year’s hard labour for the crime.
The scribbler asks, “What have I done, my Lord?”
“You dared write a sonnet without a rhyme!
The summons were from the Byzantium court,
he was wanted there, the king’s son was dead,
the advance guard of buboes had got to him.
“How did he take it?” he asked. The king’s eyes bled,
the messenger answered. Isaac, coiner and scribe,
tried to address the king in that ornate hall
but hysteria ruled, courtiers screamed, “The Tartars,
stricken with disease, threw plague across the wall,
they catapulted corpses into the city.”
The royal ribs withstood a shudder, “Think of Kaffa,
that Genoese port, with terror, not with pity.
Leave witches alone, and their ghastly spells,
and keep the Jews away, they’ve suffered enough,
and no, they haven’t put poison in our wells.”
Reports from the sea crowd my dreams, winds seethe
with salt and fear; this could have been a jest
in the old days, a threat from rat and flea, but now
this line of rodents, themselves fleeing the pest,
frightens my court. Doctors tell us, the ones
in shining belts, with faces grey as sand,
that rats are the invading army of the plague,
buboes their night camps on our dying glands
which burn like cinders in the armpits, tough to view.
“Why have the heavens cursed us?” the victims shout,
those still left with some spark in their sinew.
“They did it,” the court says, “beggar, witch, Jew
and migrants.” Were there minaret and dome
dusk-lit, they’d have blamed it on mosques aglow.
“How did we falter?” my queen asks, tongue timorous
as it moves in her just withered face.
“Were defilers abroad in our kingdom, blasphemers?
Did usurers have a free run of the market place?
Has your executioner taken leave of his axe?”
“He’s dead, my lady, of the disease.” “And during Lent
did the peasantry fast with us?” Some were lax,
but our kingdom’s no longer a divine instrument.”
“Whose wrath have we incurred then, some scullion’s
from Devil’s kitchen, or an enraged spark divine?”
“Wife, too many heresies around, trackers of bad smells,
gluttons for good beef but guzzlers of bad wine.”
The plague moves on; for death it is harvest time.
Who dies tomorrow, rodents alone can tell.
Doubt doesn’t clear the brain but corrodes.
The future, will it float?
Or go down? The coming years are bands across the eyes.
No black sails flare with dark omens on the boats.
As the fleet from the Black Sea moves into Messina
with rodents draped in flea and flea bites that bleed,
what is the bird-liver reader doing here?
What on earth is there left to read?
Night, no Lord’s Prayer comes in dreams; some hear tambourines!
Only the clatter of hooves on cobblestones,
as a skeleton rides a horse – must be quite a scene –
and women have seen fire in a dead man’s bones
instead of marrow. The Queen
closes the door of dreams in sorrow
The Cardinal from Venice
[A pilgrim to Jerusalem, the Cardinal
drops by. Queen kisses his ring.
He offers his limp hand to me.
Sorry, I ain’t gonna kiss no such thing!]
“Death is dying,” he says, “without absolution.
This nightlong traffic isn’t going well.”
He shakes his locks: “No penitence, no confession,
the spirit in agony hissing away to hell.”
“What of the stricken?” I ask. “Shillings as they clink
in the armpit? Why so bogged down with the soul?
We need doctors more than priests, don’t you think?”
My queen looks at me, her eyes burning coals.
He changes tack, “The entire order will be upset,
the Holy Church itself could be facing blight.
It’s an end to serfdom: footmen, scullions
will question authority – they’ll ask for rights!”
He waves his arms, “When will all this be curbed?”
“There’s no salve,” I answer, “but Time is herb.”
Excerpted with permission from Landfall: Poems, Keki N Daruwalla, Speaking Tiger.