Tag Archives: literature

Storytelling in a time of plague: Boccaccio’s Decameron

In the face of its onrush, all the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing…numerous instructions were issued for safeguarding the people’s health, but all to no avail. (4)

Boccaccio describes the Black plague then, the swellings in the groin or armpit, the spread of swelling, the blotches and bruises. From the time of the first sign of swelling you knew you would die.

I can’t imagine it. All that we know now of science and medicine and so this bubble we find ourselves in and the ambulances to take people away and the clean white antiseptic of hospitals and experts and antibiotics and you can still die and it is still terrifying…but not like then.

Against these maladies, it seemed that all the advice of physicians and all the power of medicine were profitless and unavailing (5)

But what made this pestilence even more severe was that wherever those suffering from it mixed with people who were all unaffected, it would rush upon those with the speed of a fire racing through dry or oily substances…

It did not just do so through direct touch, but through clothes and other objects handled by others. Some became more sober and abstemious and god-fearing, others hedonistic, satisfying all cravings. Laws broke down. Servants died or fled, breaking down some of the distinctions between people, women were no longer able to gather and mourn the dead. The bodies were left lying outside of the door of the home for collection to be buried in mass graves.

…it is reliably thought that over a hundred thousand human lives were extinguished within the walls of the city of Florence…Yet before this lethal catastrophe fell upon the city, it is doubtful whether anyone would have guessed it contained so many inhabitants.

Ah, how great a number of splendid palaces, fine houses, and noble dwellings, once filled with retainers, with lords and with ladies, were left bereft of all who had lived there… (13)

Thus the circumstances that lead seven young ladies to gather at a church. Pampinea says:

Here we linger for no other purpose, or so it seems to me, than to count the number of corpses being taken to burial, or to hear whether the friars of the church, very few of whom are left, chant and their offices at the appropriate hours, or to exhibit the quality and quantity of our sorrows, by means of the clothes we are wearing, to all those whom we meet in this place. And if we go outside, we shall see the dead and the sick being carried hither and thither, or we shall see people, once condemned to exile by the courts for their misdeeds, careering wildly about the streets in open defiance of the law, well knowing that those appointed to enforce it are either dead or dying; or else we shall find ourselves at the mercy of the scum of our city who, having scented our blood, call themselves sextons and go prancing and bustling all over the place, singing bawdy songs that add insult to our injuries. Moreover, all we ever hear is “So-and-so’s dead” and “So-and-so’s dying”; and if there were anyone left to mourn, the whole place would be filled with sounds of weeping and wailing.

And if we return to our homes, what happens? I know not whether your own experience is similar to mine, but my house was once full of servants, and now that there is no one left apart from my maid and myself, I am filled with foreboding and feel as if every hair of my head is standing on end. Wherever I go in the house, wherever I pause to rest, I seem to be haunted by the shades of the departed, whose faces no longer appear as I remember them but with strange and horribly twisted expressions that frighten me out of my senses. (13-14)

Our coronavirus is not quite like this. It is strange to know that it is all around us, to watch the numbers of the dead climb, to mourn. To hear accounts of places like New York where a friend of mine describes constant sirens, fear, a life more at risk for Asian features as attacks spread. To see the strange attacks here in the UK on G5 masts, this mad conspiracy theory but yet its components not mad at all in marking out the collusion of government and industry for profit without caring about human cost. I can’t look too hard at what is happening around us to be honest.

We have been in a bubble, my partner and I, still allowed to go outside though as of yesterday lockdown extended three more weeks. It will be more, how could it not be more?

And today my grief sits hot and unbearable in my chest, it is not the covid but the cancer, taking my aunt and there is nothing to do. No way to go. Impossible to travel to be present to say goodbye to grieve with family. I am not the first by any stretch to note the horror of this epidemic is the way it keeps us apart from one another, though if we are lucky we can drive by family homes, speak to them from the drive, press our hands against their windows. But not when they are an ocean away.

To travel such distance, always a privilege. It requires money or credit cards, the right to travel with a legal status and passport that permit exit, entrance, return. This should belong to all of us. The cost of its absence immeasurable.

I take refuge, as my family always does, in some level of dark humour. This is from the introduction to the Decameron:

…the sombre and frightening prelude which medieval rhetoricians regarded as an essential component of the genre of comedy to which the Decameron, like Dante’s great poem, was intended to belong. Both works, in fact, despite their obvious differences in form and subject-matter, respect the definition of comedy formulated for instance by Uguccione da Pisa in his Derivationes: ‘a principio horribilis et fetidus, in fine prosperis desiderablis et gratus’ (foul and horrible at the beginning, in the end felicitous, desirable and pleasing’). (xlii)

You don’t even need a translation for that. I rather love this idea of comedy, always have, but it seems even more necessary now. It makes me think of Stewart Lee, though he rarely gets around to the felicitous, desirable and pleasing. I love him for it.

Starting an author evening in the East End…

Reblogging a work blog…building community through writing along with all the other ways we are working at it.

Every third Tuesday of the month we are planning to hold the Yurt Salon — a night of words, and sometimes music, with authors local and not-so-local. It’s a good question how many local authors and poets we can turn up who live or work within walking distance!

We hope that this will become a night that will bring them together to share their work, to inspire us and to find inspiration. We hope, too, that this might spill over into unexpected encounters in the yurt cafe as people start dropping by, or becoming part of the WorkHub and joining us on a Wednesday, or through any number of ways we might help create and foster a diverse and supportive creative writing community.

Our first Tuesday was an amazing way to kick it all off, mainly through the brilliant efforts of Bobby Nayyar, poet and publisher of Limehouse Books who brought these wonderful poets together and acted as M.C. If you wish to experience the wonderful poetry, albeit at one remove, you can follow the links to their books.

Bobby Nayyar
Bobby Nayyar

Our own Seb opened up the evening, introducing The Royal Foundation of St Katharine and the precinct and all of our greater hopes for this space.

I followed with our efforts to collectively create projects through the community and wellbeing hub, and our standing invitation for all to join in or to work with us to start something entirely new.

This is, in fact, how I first met Bobby — through one of our community conversation afternoons. We had a chat about what was possible and thus the idea behind the yurt salon was born.

It felt amazing to sit in the yurt less than three months and a Christmas holiday later, remember that afternoon back in November. I remember this as empty ground, and now for the first time the yurt was packed just full enough to be splendid without being so rammed it was unpleasant.

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photo (c) Limehouse Books

Michelle Madsen kicked it off, lively and energetic and jumping and funny. A little sad. She had the crowd in stitches most of the time, the bittersweet laughter shared because everyone there had shared the emotions and experience behind them.

Michelle Madsen
Michelle Madsen

Photo (c) Limehouse Books
Michelle Madsen, photo (c) Limehouse Books

But her last poem left a silence. A poignant reflection on the state of the world, it set the change of tone.

Gretchen Heffernan was a very different performer altogether. Soft spoken, caught up in her words not the audience. She didn’t play to us, but read quickly. We didn’t always know where one poem ended and another began in time to clap, but her words were beautiful and carried us away. Her last poem I remember best too, on the beach. The wonder at our power to create a human being. Seeing living things in the stones.

Gretchen Heffernan, photo (c) Limehouse Books
Gretchen Heffernan, photo (c) Limehouse Books

Then a break! Time for wine, or beer if that was your fancy, or water or juice or the most delicious hot chocolate you have yet tasted, with or without cointreau. And cheese — by plate or baked in a toastie.

Bobby started the second set…it is funny to see someone you know and have worked with, transform himself through powerful words that try to express all those things we never talk about in everyday conversation. He succeeded in expressing those things — memory, loss, love. It was, in fact, wonderful. These powerful, short poems poured out…the emotion deflected a little at the end of each one by a joke.

photo (c) Limehouse Books
Bobby Nayyar, photo (c) Limehouse Books

Before planning this evening, I had no idea quite how pun heavy it all would be, but it stood in such contrast to the poems from Glass Scissors, whose beauty knocked me over just a bit.

We finished the poetry with Sophia Blackwell, charisma personified there on stage, wearing the most marvelous shoes. I sat in terror, worried she might fall between the boards of our upcycled pallet stage I had earlier been so proud of.

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Sophia Blackwell, photo (c) Limehouse Books
Sophia Blackwell, photo (c) Limehouse Books

She knew all of her poems by heart, told of love and loss, invited us into her life. She shocked and awed. It was a wonderful finish.

Break again! And then the wonderful harmonising of Long Stride Lizzy (who I am afraid I persisted obstinately in calling Thin Stride Lizzy because, well, you know. Thin Lizzy. I can’t apologise enough!) But they are their own, near perfect sound, and you will love them if you love bluegrass or part singing, and have any desire at all to enjoy thoughtful, beautiful often funny lyrics. Another form of poetry.

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Music was the perfect way to end I think, and they performed an old old song to finish — Green Apples. I imagine they didn’t know it, but Raymond was sat next to me who knew all the words and might well have remembered when it first came out in popular form…it was a gift to him. It made me happy.

As did the whole night, we could not have asked for a better start. I was trying to convey how wonderful it was to Carrie Ffoulkes, who is also a poet and part of the team for convening these evenings and sadly unable to make it. I said — I can’t tell if we don’t have to worry too much about future events, or the bar has been set too high.

I still can’t tell. But I am so much looking forward to the next one. I am also glad some of the work is behind us, as preparations for the night included much that was new for us. Seb was here for hours the night before setting up the speakers and figuring out the PA system, and working on some spotlights (they looked beautiful I think). Gabby and I worked on a small stage. More upcycled and recycled wood!

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To what we hoped was a striking design using the precinct colours, which are symbolic of the three different areas of the precinct this event brought together — yellow (eat: share food, drink and conversation at the cafe), turquoise (connect with the community), and orange (create, used in the ArtSpace).

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Arguable there was plenty of reflection happening as well, both during the poems and after as they resonated through the evening.

Our next Yurt Salon will be on 15th of March, celebrating the new short fiction anthology being brought out by Open Pen (found nearby on Commercial Road) and Limehouse Books. We really can’t wait. But between now and then, there are three more Yurt Lates, running every Tuesday from 6:30 to 9 pm. They will be:

Tuesday, 23rd Feb — World Bingo

Tuesday, 1st March — Social evening

Tuesday, 8th March — Boardgame Night

We hope to see you at one or all!

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Stuart Dybek’s Chicago Coast

Stuart Dybeck - The Cost of ChicagoWhy did no one tell me about Stuart Dybek before? These stories were extraordinary. Just as a writer I found the quality of his prose alone making my little heart beat faster, these stories are breathtaking. But these are also stories of a working class kid growing up in a fucked up but well-loved Catholic, half Polish half Mexican neighbourhood. A view and a voice that is all too rare, and perhaps explains why no one has told me about Stuart Dybek before. It involves memories, beauty, urban myths, cross-race romance that brings shame and wonder, music, weed, wandering, the ordinary overlaid with magic.

Mrs. Kubiac’s building seemed riddled with its secret passageways. And, when the music finally disappeared, its channels remained, conveying silence. Not an ordinary silence of absence and emptiness, but a pure silence beyond daydream and memory, as intense as the music it replaced, which, like music, had the power to change whoever listened. It hushed the close-quartered racket of the old building.

Then of course, there is the short story ‘Blight’ that so embodies the lived experience of urban renewal — everything I care most about, have fought over.

During those years between Korea and Vietnam, when rock and roll was being perfected, our neighborhood was proclaimed an Official Blight Area.

This is the relationship with power poor people know far too well:

Still, in a way, I could see it from Ziggy’s point of view. Mayor Daley was everywhere. The city was tearing down buildings for urban renewal, tearing up streets for a new expressway, and everywhere one looked there were signs in front of the rubble reading:

SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE
ANOTHER IMPROVEMENT
FOR A GREATER CHICAGO
RICHARD J. DALEY, MAYOR

A series of paragraphs I have gathered that seek to understand what this declaration of blight means, the point of view the young men who live there — who are themselves more than likely seen as blight by the men in suits:

It was the route we usually walked to the viaduct, but since blight had been declared we were trying to see our surrounding from a new perspective, to determine if anything had been changed, or at least appeared different. Blight sounded serious, biblical in a way, like something locusts might be responsible for.

Nor did anyone need to explain that Official Blight was the language of revenue, forms in quintuplicate, grants, and federal aid channeled through the Machine and processed with the help of grafters, skimmer, wheeler-dealers, and army of aldermen, precinct captains, patronage workers, their relatives and friends. No one said it, but instinctively we knew we’d never see a nickel.

Blight, in fact, could be considered a kind of official recognition, a grudging admission that among blocks of factories, railroad tracks, truck docks, industrial dumps, scrapyards, expressways, and the drainage canal, people had managed to wedge in their everyday lives.

What its last days were like, and the vibrance that existed there before the destruction:

It was an old neighborhood that Mayor Daley, despite his campaign promises, was preparing to demolish to make way for a new university. But life went on that summer as it always had — daily newspapers printed in strange alphabets; nuts, cheeses, dried cod sold in the streets; the scent of crushed lemon from the bakery that made lemon ice; Greek music skirling from the restaurant downstairs.

It is not all easy to sympathise with, honest in the lines of race that divided neighbourhoods and their changing contours:

Douglas Park was a black park now, the lagoon curdled in milky green scum as if it had soured, and Kapusta didn’t doubt that were he to go there they’d find his body floating in the lily pads too.

And always a sense that the past hardly exists:

It was hard to believe there ever were streetcars. the city back then, the city of their fathers, which was as far back as a family memory extended, even the city of their childhoods, seemed as remote to Eddie and Manny as the capital of some foreign country

What past there is is constantly under threat, actively being destroyed through the destruction of the city:

The past collapsed about them–decayed, bulldozed, obliterated. They walked past block-length gutted factories, past walls of peeling, multicolored doors hammered up around flooded excavation pits, hung out in half-boarded storefronts of groceries that had shut down when they were kids, dusty cans still stacked on the shelves. Broken glass collected everywhere, mounding like sand in the little, sunken front yards and gutters. Even the church’s stained-glass windows were patched with plywood.

This feeling — I know this feeling.

Things were gone they couldn’t remember but missed; and things were gone they weren’t sure ever were there…

At times, walking past the gaps, they felt as if they were no longer quite there themselves, half-lost despite familiar street signs, shadows of themselves superimposed on the present, except there was no present–everything either rubbled past or promised future–and they were walking as if floating, getting nowhere as if they’d smoked too much grass.

I know I’m just quoting the things that touch upon all I obsess over in thinking about cities have been made, could be remade. It’s almost like Marshall Berman writing crystalline stories of coming-of-age perfection to encapsulate his pain of losing the Bronx. There is so much beauty and life here beyond that, and this last line is splendid:

He had special windows all over the city. It was how he held the city together in his mind.

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