David Malouf, Friedrich Hölderlin, Katharina Hartwell, Ralph Giordano, Ricus van de Coevering, Jens Petersen, Benoît Duteurtre, Gerard Malanga, Henrik Johan Ibsen
From a Plague Year
A sign first in the sky, then other tokens,
but plainer, on the flesh. June’s thirty suns
flared and we were tinder. Flies appeared
and bubbled in pools, their green gaze multiplied
the dead. But we, the elected, all that term
kept house, kept shop, kept silence, knowing no harm
would come to us. We paid our taxes, served
on juries, saw men punished or reprieved
from death under the law. God’s eye
was on us. Like a red-hot cautery
it pricked and burned. Who keep His just commandments
shall live. No terror can afflict the saints.
But still each week the numbers swell, the needle
glows. In a devil’s covenant, through all
the colours of the rainbow, pale flesh bruises
black, then stinks and softens. We stop our noses,
the death-cloud blooms. We find its dark seeds scattered
like sunshine, everywhere.
And so we board
our houses up, burn pitch, read in the Book
and choke. By day no footfall, no wheel’s creak
in the cobbled square. At night the town’s aswarm
with cries, a fearful traffic. Dung-carts climb
to where, in moonlit fields, whole families meet
at the real it’s edge, new nameless suburbs greet
new citizens; they seethe like privy holes.
Some say the plague’s a rat, soft-bellied squeals
in the rushes underfoot, a red-eyed fever
that glares. Or blame the Jews. Or claim the air
itself turns poisonous; where warm breath clouds
a glass invisible armies spawn, one word’s
enough to quell a city. It is death
we suck on now. The plague in our mouth.
No help! Gender of spiders on the tongue
that preaches, curses, pleads, God’s judgment wrung
in black sweat from our limbs. Are we in Bedlam
or is it Hell that rocks us with its flame?
The sickness in this month is grown so general
no man can judge. It comes to this: we kill
our neighbours with the very prayers we sigh
to Heaven. O my Lord, spare me, spare me.
David Malouf (Brisbane, 20 maart 1934)