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Poetry Competition overall winner - Rebecca Calderon

Johnny Bugeja

Plague by Rebecca Calderon

When this plague came there were no horses heaped beside the gates of Troy,

Their twisted hooves and nostrils flayed in pain.

No signs or marvels in the sky to warn the common man.

The rivers did not turn to blood,

Nor did great swarms of flies and lice descend to decimate the trees.

It came so very quietly, too far away to harm the good.

No frogs inside the kneading troughs of basic women, ignorant.

This plague was spread by mouths devoid of pustules and boils,

Their whispering tongues still fresh with mint, immune to putrid germs.

The cobbles were not slippery with slops from overhanging roofs,

The walking poor not drenched in fetid sprays kicked up from carriage wheels.

Yet still it seeped in rapid haste, the deadly droplets apt to fall

On surfaces and crevices invisible to all.

When this plague came no one could blame the fleas embedded on the rats,

Or filth piled high outside the city walls.

Rank and rancid reservoirs of infection left to rot.

This plague required no ringing bells.

The rakers did not push their laden death carts through the muddy lanes.

Instead our screens would scroll the toll of who was best and who was worst.

Conflicting knowledge festered lethal doubt inside the porous minds,

A vulgar competition of statistics chimed the hour.

Ale houses closed, the homeless driven from favoured arches,

All human life in hiding from the dreadful visitation;

The sombre darkness could be felt on melancholy empty streets.

A sprig of hyssop soaked in lamb’s blood brushed on lintels could not save

The terrifying call of a cold and early grave.

When this plague came our crowing masters flailed like corybantic fish,

Spat out from ugly poisoned, tainted lakes.

A sad pathetic scramble for the hallowed finish line.

Not one of them could find a cure.

A meagre baker’s oven would not spark a bonfire great enough,

To quell this epic thunderstorm of hail and embers for too vast.

The lonely, ageing unarmed victims had their latter years cut short.

The ones who stayed to help them fought in vain with plastic shields.

The solitude of terror, could there be another way?

Out the pestilence glowed a renaissance of artists stacking shelves.

Their sad songs fell on ears long deaf to such poetic sympathy.

But in the end they were content to sit transfixed and watched the screen,

Their wringing hands with fingernails and palms bleached squeaky clean.

Judge Charlie Durante’s comments

Overall Winner: Rebecca Calderon with The Plague. Rebecca’s winning poem is a deep meditation on the history of different plagues which have assailed mankind over the ages. The opening line plunges us ‘in medias res,’ with a glancing reference to the beginning of Western literature, recalling the opening lines of Homer’s Iliad.

Agamemnon’s refusal to surrender Chrsyseis to her father brings a swift retribution in the form of a plague which decimates the Greek army. Other pestilences are referred to more obliquely: a Biblical plague, ‘the rivers did not turn to blood;’ a late medieval plague, ‘embedded on the rats.’

But what is particularly threatening about our plague is that it has come surreptitiously and unannounced. There were ‘no signs or marvels in the sky’ when the coronavirus struck in Wuhan. Instead, our plague is one peculiar to the digital age: our screens keep a toll of the dead and dying, no ringing bells bring the comfort of religion to those infected.

Even the apotropaic hyssop which protected the children of Israel with the blood of the lamb has proved singularly ineffectual.

The frantic efforts by politicians to stem the spread of the virus are likened to ‘corybantic fish’ flailing aimlessly and maniacally.

The overall feeling of gloom is only marginally lifted at the end with a vision of a ‘renaissance of artists’-the burgeoning of the arts some lockdowns engendered. We are left with a picture of the obsessive washing of hands, which seems an inadequate defence against so insidious an enemy.

Rebecca has written a major piece of work on the devastating effects of Covid-19. It doesn’t just re-create the panic and fear-it re-enacts our sense of helplessness within the context of other historical plagues. A very worthy winner indeed. Well done!