Re-reading La Peste in the time of COVID-19

By Phil Vernon

I.

Fléau – I had to look it up – it’s ‘scourge’:
gunshots and shouts heard faintly in the night,
and then the sound of nothing, from the hour
we woke, till darkness muffled even silence.

It means the silhouette of cranes, unmoved
day after day, against the sea and sky,
the broken cliffs that penned us in, the tides
that ebbed and swelled but carried only time.

And coffins, queueing to be tipped in layers
and heaped with lime, in ground so hard it hurt,
and seabirds, flying from and to where only
they could know, and never looking down.

II.

We were apart: from other towns,
from friends and lovers
gone before the gates were closed
or lost in layered graves,
and families of whom we feared to hear the news.

We were divorced from who we’d been
and from the times ahead
we’d dared to see in times before,
when we’d known how to grieve.

III.

At first, when the sickness began to slow,
as birds returned, to watch us from the trees,
we couldn’t remember how to celebrate.

When we’d begun to learn the art of joy again
and rediscovered how to walk in crowds,
and ring the bells, a close friend died:

a soldier fallen,
as news of the armistice arrived.

Phil Vernon lives in Kent, and works as an advisor on international development and peacebuilding. His micro-pamphlet This Quieter Shore was published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press in 2018, and his first full collection Poetry After Auschwitz is due out from Sentinel in September 2020.

I had decided to read at least two French novels in French this year (something I hadn’t done for years), as a way of keeping up my French. When COVID came along, I decided on La Peste, which I had read as a teenager more than forty years ago. Meanwhile, I was feeling discombobulated by the COVID-19 experience, but couldn’t find a way in, to write about it, at least not directly – though my mood certainly affected poems I was writing about other things.  

Re-reading the novel – which is about a city in French Algeria afflicted with plague, suffering terrible mortality and being cut off from the rest of the world, and how people responded – gave me a language (Camus’s language, really), for how I was feeling. Camus wrote the novel just after the Second World War, at least partly as an allegory for the experience of Nazi occupation, and how the French had reacted to it. So my poem ended up being written on multiple levels: the experience of re-reading a novel I’d read before, as a sort of allegory to the experience I was going through, and knowing that the novel itself was an allegory for something even worse – hence the appearance of gunshots in the poem, and parallel between the person who dies as the epidemic is diminishing, and a soldier killed right at the end of a war. These multiple threads gave me the space I needed in which to express myself. Sometimes – just as reading someone else’s poem can provide an opportunity to imprint one’s own emotions on it – a work of art or literature provides an opportunity for the poet to imprint his or her emotions on that.

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Hélène Demetriades
Guest
Hélène Demetriades
23 days ago

I enjoyed this Phil. Particularly part I. Some lovely lines here, ‘in ground so hard it hurt’, and ‘tides that ebbed and swelled but carried only time’.

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