Laureate's 'Lockdown' poem on World Poetry Day refers to plague village
The poet laureate Simon Armitage has joined hundreds of other poets on Write Out Loud and on other social media in writing about the coronavirus pandemic. In ‘Lockdown’, a poem published today in The Guardian, which also happens to be World Poetry Day, Armitage moves from the outbreak of bubonic plague in the Derbyshire village of Eyam in the 17th century, when a bale of cloth from London brought fleas carrying the plague to the Derbyshire village, to the epic poem Meghadūta by the Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa.
Armitage said that “as the lockdown became more apparent and it felt like the restrictions were closing in, the plague in Eyam became more and more resonant”.
The poem refers to Eyam’s boundary stone, which contained holes that the quarantined villagers would put their money in to pay for provisions from outside, and then fill with vinegar in the hope it would cleanse the coins. It also touches on the doomed romance between a girl who lived in Eyam and a boy outside the village who talked to her from a distance, until she stopped coming. The poem was also influenced by a scene in Meghadūta in which an exile sends reassuring words to his wife in the Himalayas via a passing cloud.
Armitage added that he believed there was a message to be learned “about taking things easy and being patient and trusting the Earth and maybe having to come through this slightly slower, and wiser, at the other end – given that one thing that’s accelerated the problem is our hectic lives and our proximities and the frantic ways we go about things”.
by Simon Armitage
And I couldn’t escape the waking dream
of infected fleas
in the warp and weft of soggy cloth
by the tailor’s hearth
in ye olde Eyam.
Then couldn’t un-see
the Boundary Stone,
that cock-eyed dice with its six dark holes,
thimbles brimming with vinegar wine
purging the plagued coins.
Which brought to mind the sorry story
of Emmott Syddall and Rowland Torre,
star-crossed lovers on either side
of the quarantine line
whose wordless courtship spanned the river
till she came no longer.
But slept again,
and dreamt this time
of the exiled yaksha sending word
to his lost wife on a passing cloud,
a cloud that followed an earthly map
of camel trails and cattle tracks,
streams like necklaces,
fan-tailed peacocks, painted elephants,
of meadows and hedges,
bamboo forests and snow-hatted peaks,
the hieroglyphs of wide-winged cranes
and the glistening lotus flower after rain,
hypnotically see-through, rare,
the journey a ponderous one at times, long and slow
but necessarily so.
Also published today in the Guardian is an account by the young award-wining poet Mary Jean Chen of growing up in Hong Kong during the Sars epidemic of 2003. In the article she says: "I knew Sars was serious because of how my father, a rheumatologist, reacted to the news early on during the crisis. I remember him leaving for work in an N95 mask and returning home with the outline of the mask imprinted on his cheek, as my mother quickly stripped his suit off at the door for cleaning. One day, my father came home uncharacteristically quiet. He told us that a friend and colleague who had been working on the frontline in a local hospital had lost his life to Sars. In the weeks after, I developed a habit of feverishly washing my hands.
"As an only child, I turned to books for some sorely needed comfort. Soon after, I declared to my parents that I wanted to be a writer. My father replied: 'As a doctor, you can cure one person at a time; as a writer, you can heal a whole society.' As we mark World Poetry Day this year, I can’t help but recall this conversation and wonder whether poetry can offer some unique form of solace as we attempt to weather the current storm together, yet apart."