Plague Victims Catapulted over Walls into Besieged City

 

Early germ
warfare.  The dead
hurled this way turn like wheels
in the sky.  Look: there goes
Larry the Shoemaker, barefoot, over the wall,
and Mary Sausage Stuffer, see how she flies,
and the Hatter twins, both at once, soar
over the parapet, little Tommy’s elbow bent
as if in a salute
and his sister, Mathilde, she follows him,
arms outstretched, through the air
just as she did on earth

 

Of all the pleasures poetry can give, one of the greatest has to be the aha! flash: an explosion in the brain that makes the world more understandable, mysterious, poignant, piquant, enjoyable—that lets us see ourselves and other people with new eyes, and routs the specter of “Been There, Done That, Bought the T-Shirt.”  Thomas Lux’s deceptively simple “Plague Victims Catapulted Over Walls Into Besieged City” delivers that flash through a series of subtle turns, ending with a hairpin epiphany.

Lux snags reader interest right away with the ghoulish fact that, lacking today’s weapons of mass destruction, armies of the past weaponized victims of disease.   Since plague in the Middle Ages killed millions, and was spread by fleas—which medieval folk were full of—these corpse-bombs were effective.  Besides that, the beseigers’ willingness to desecrate the dead must have spread fear in the besieged, demonstrating their enemy’s ruthless contempt for human life.

As these ideas sink in, the poem begins to turn.

Catapulted over city walls, the dead turn too, “like wheels in the sky.”  There’s something cartoonish in this; yet the image, with its echoing of Journey’s famous song, adds a cosmic quality to the otherwise undistinguished, disposable dead.  Now they revolve like the heavenly bodies that circle overhead, counting off, and—some still say, controlling—every person’s days on earth.

In the next turn, two of the dead are named: “Larry the Shoemaker,” and more humorously, “Mary Sausage Stuffer.”  These names force us to see Mary and Larry not as human bombs, but individuals who had real jobs and real lives before the plague snuffed them out.

The next name—“Hatter twins”—brings the corpse-bombs’ humanity into sharper focus still.  Since mercury was used in the production of felt hats, and since there were no child labor laws, no workman’s comp back then, the twins would likely have become “mad as hatters,” and died young, even without the plague.  To further emphasize their humanity, the boy is named “Tommy”: probably Lux’s boyhood name.

A darkly comic quality returns to the poem when Tommy, airborne, seems to salute as he flies over the castle walls.  But the comedy turns sad with the entry of Tommy’s sister, Mathilde, who “follows him, / arms outstretched, through the air . . .”

The sharpest turn arrives with the last line.  The fact that Mathilde follows her brother “just as she did on earth,” triggers the heart-breaking realization that this instrument of death was once a little girl who loved and idolized her big brother as sisters do to this day.

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin is said to have stated (and would have had cause to know).  With Lux’s last line, the poem’s turning is complete.  Like a supernova collapsing into a black hole, the incomprehensible statistics of war, plague, and mortality collapse into Mathilde’s single death.  The abstract horror of human calamity becomes, for an instant, concrete, focused, real.  I lift my eyes from the poem feeling that my own life, and everyone else’s, has become, for at least a moment, more precious and—because so much at risk—more sweet.

 

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Charles Harper Webb’s latest book is Shadow Ball: New & Selected Poems, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.  What Things Are Made Of, also from Pitt, is forthcoming in 2013.  Recipient of grants from the Whiting and Guggenheim foundations, Webb teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at California State University, Long Beach.

Thomas Lux, “Plague Victims Catapulted Overs Walls Into Besieged City” from The Street of Clocks © 2001 by Thomas Lux.  Reprinted by permission of the author.

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