1348 & Other Equations, Valeria Melchioretto

Eyewear Publishing, 2019     £6.00

The plague of now

When this pamphlet was published in 2019, we had not yet encountered Covid-19. Now that we have, this work seems prescient, and the connections unavoidable as a talking point.

Most of the ten poems consider the Black Death of 1348, the plague which inspired Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a set of tales told by a group of people self-isolating to avoid the disease.

The correlations in the poems are, of course, not exact, but there are constant echoes in our own daily news — for instance, loneliness and fatalism leading people to (in our terms) ‘break lockdown’:

If we must go down why not drown in love’s emanations
rather than wait, patient as sheep, for the fatal nosebleed.
Anything is better than being alone with one’s own sorrow.

Or problems with debt and economic disparity (or finding flour in the supermarket!):

Yet profits must soar as if driven by leaven and yeast.
Creditors ascend the layers of Millefoglie to reach heaven
while the poor are out of pocket, longing for daily bread.

The introduction of the decimal system into medieval Europe is another interest. There was suspicion and resistance to decimalisation, which Melchioretta explores, considering how it was also a new way for the unscrupulous to take advantage of people. (I couldn’t help thinking about our reliance on algorithms.)

The medieval source material might make the work sound highbrow, but there’s much to enjoy and consider without familiarity with The Decameron. The content swerves between its inspirations and the modern world, in controlled three-line stanzas, even referencing Berlusconi’s notorious ‘bunga bunga’ parties.

I particularly enjoyed a poem on Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man (‘The Height of Man’) and how it moved forward: ‘In time, ladies will be reduced to ‘off-the-shelf’ sizes too’.

The poems explore a world in deep change, with a warning. The poet‘s view is that people haven’t changed for the better. In ‘Timeless Equations’, she writes: ‘It seems we are but a horde of brutes, with and without creed.’

Heidi Beck