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Tag: Plague

Elise Partridge’s Hyper-Realism and Naming the Unknown

To read Elise Partridge’s 2002 collection Fielder’s Choice is to enter a highly-tuned world of memory and perception. The poems are precise, guided by observational skills and a lifetime’s worth of knowledge that transform even distant memories of childhood into something much more certain and accessible than what many readers may experience when recalling their own childhoods. Similarly, Partridge’s observations of nature are encyclopedic in their attention to detail and naming. The natural world that Partridge represents in these poems is not impressionistic, but is instead rendered scientific, knowable, able to be mastered. Even the collection’s opening poem, “Everglades,” which trains its attention on the submerged, fleeting things of the wetlands, ends with an appeal to the practice of naming: “A bird swaying on a coral bean / sang two notes that might have been ‘Name me’ ” (ll. 14-15). Yet what I find most interesting about these lines is not the poet’s knowledge, which extends to the coral bean, nor her desire to know the name of the bird, which she cleverly suggests is the bird’s desire to be named, but rather the subtle anxiety she seems to experience when confronted with something that resists identification. It’s as if these extraordinarily detailed, taxonomic poems carry within themselves an awareness that every experience contains an element of the unknown and the unknowable. Even the most observant poets must, in the final analysis, stand before a horizon beyond which they cannot see.

A good example of this tension between mastery over nature and the impossible horizon of knowledge comes in the collection’s second poem, “Plague.” Following immediately after “Everglades,” with its explicit appeal to naming, “Plague” begins with a catalogue of medicinal herbs: “Heal-all, yarrow, alum root, / sweet annie, angelica, hazel shoots” (ll. 1-2). To this list are added “Lemon verbena, spearmint beds, / feverfew blooms nodding heads,” “a spray of Solomon’s seal,” and “magenta balm, white chamomile” (ll. 7-8, 18, and 26). In all, Partridge names nineteen specific plant species, telling us that they are “herbs renowned for healing power” (l. 6). The herbs’ medicinal properties compliment the poem’s title, which emphasizes illness and suffering, and the poet’s ability to recognize each plant species—even if only by their common names—suggests that she knows something about how to use them against the plague. And she does indeed understand the practical use of at least one of the plants, as she makes clear when she writes: “Medicinal ferns were brewed for tea / to soothe sore throats, cure pleurisy” (ll. 29-30). The impression this encyclopedic approach gives is of a poet who moves through the natural world as an omniscient observer. She knows the names of every plant she sees, and she knows how to transform these wild things into wholesome teas, medicines, and cures.

But “Plague” is not a poem about what ails the body, for the poet’s attention is drawn to a mass of caterpillars as they crawl through this abundance of medicinal herbs, their jaws hard at work consuming lambs-ears, red root, and jewelweed. Driven by hunger and eating everything in sight, the caterpillars occupy a menacing place in the poem, yet the care with which Partridge observes their eating renders them beautiful:

Two pinks caught my eye. I bent down.
Caterpillars were going to town
on a faltering stem, bodies slung
underneath like sloths'. The feet clung;
the heads chewed. Four gnashed a meal
under a spray of Solomon's seal
whose white drops quivered. Paired prongs,
the front legs worked like icemen's tongs
curving to stab. Rear-guard pylons,
flat-soled, gray, dutiful cousins,
helped shiver along the elegant back,
blue-and-red pustules edged with black. (ll. 13-24)

How are we meant to feel about these creatures as they consume a landscape full of life-giving herbs? One way to read the caterpillars is as the very plague the title references, a plague with the potential to destroy the plants altogether. Partridge makes this point clear when, at the poem’s conclusion, she anticipates their metamorphosis into fully-developed butterflies who will “alight on fewer, finer legs / and discharge an arsenal of eggs” (ll. 49-50). The implication is that this spray of eggs—figured here as “an arsenal”—will spell ruin for the herbs catalogued in the poem. They will multiply the number of larva, which will in turn eat their fill until the landscape is left barren. And yet, for all the potential destruction the eggs represent, the caterpillars are doing exactly what they evolved to do. They consume the herbs, and in so doing, they transform themselves into butterflies. There is great mystery and beauty in this process, and the fact that the garden itself is an integral part of the metamorphosis serves to complicate the disgust one may feel toward the poem’s “plague.”

The extent of Partridge’s ambivalence toward the caterpillars is thrown into relief by “Phoenixville Farm,” the poem that follows directly after “Plague” in Fielder’s Choice. Partridge uses “Phoenixville Farm” to align her sympathies with one side of a starkly-drawn contrast between the artificiality of the subdivision where she grew up and the more rustic, natural setting of her friend Anne’s farm. Her sympathies are clearly with the farm over and against the controlled, disciplined, and supremely boring subdivision where “the change of seasons was marked by switching off / or on the central AC’s monotone thrum” (ll. 17-18). The farm provides her with access to a much more diverse and exciting environment, where the presence of foxes, hornets, spiders, bats, raccoons, and other critters stir within her a desire to escape the constraints of suburban life. When her parents come to pick her up after a sleepover at Anne’s farm, Partridge imagines herself undergoing the very sort of metamorphosis that threatens the medicinal herbs in “Plague”:

Some day, some day---we'd each spin sleeping bags,
doze for six weeks, thrust, gnaw, unkink striped wings,
try out our newborn feelers, lurch to Anne's farm,
bathe in dust puddles, lay eggs, and worship weeds. (ll. 50-53)

This closing metaphor bears a striking resemblance to the metamorphosis described in “Plague.” Not only does Partridge figure her escape from the suburbs as a transition from larva to pupa to imago, but one of the central acts she will commit after emerging from her chrysalis is to follow the example of the butterflies in “Plague” and deposit her eggs among the weeds. Her desire for liberation is very much tied up in questions of seasonality, transformation, renewal, and reproduction, all of which are given a positive gloss within the context of the poem. Yet read alongside “Plague,” the metaphor that concludes “Phoenixville Farm” unsettles any easy interpretation of the “arsenal of eggs” that the former poem’s butterflies will discharge throughout the herbs. If the caterpillars are symbols of destruction in “Plague,” they represent the potential for freedom in “Phoenixville Farm,” and it is in the contradiction between the way these two poems represent metamorphosis that the horizon of Partridge’s knowledge appears.

The plants and animals that demand so much attention in “Plague” and “Phoenixville Farm” may be named and described, their life cycles and practical uses understood, but the larger questions of interdependence, metamorphosis, liberation, death, and beauty are left unanswered, perhaps because they are unanswerable. And perhaps this is the point of Partridge’s hyper-realistic poetics. By training her eye on the fine details of her surroundings, and then expressing those details with clinical precision, Partridge exhausts the mundane and positions her readers before the ineffable. It’s almost as if every meticulous description—every act of naming—moves us one step closer to what can never be ultimately known. And it is the stubborn presence of the unknown that makes her poems worth returning to. Like the bird that cries, “Name me,” at the conclusion of “Everglades,” Partridge invites us to name the unknown in her poems, knowing full well that no mastery and no knowledge will ever empower us to do so with finality. Yet the attempt yields its rewards, training our attention as it does on those qualities of being that transcend certainty and give rise to what must always be rediscovered anew.

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“But then my Servant who I had intended to take down with me, deceiv’d me.”

Reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is a depressing experience, even under the best of circumstances. But read under quarantine, with healthcare and economic systems in collapse and hundreds of thousands of deaths expected by summer, the novel assumes a degree of realism that feels positively oppressive.1 Perhaps this feeling is rooted in a desire to interpret COVID-19 through Defoe’s text, with similarities between the coronavirus pandemic and the bubonic plague seeming to appear at every narrative turn. I suppose one can’t help but project a little. But issues of projection or confirmation bias aside, there are real similarities between what Defoe describes in A Journal of the Plague Year and what we are currently experiencing, and it seems to me that these similarities offer valuable lessons not only about how contagion spreads, but also about how to navigate the social fissures that appear at times of public health and economic crisis.

That A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722 and focused on the Great Plague of 1665, should map so precisely onto the coronavirus pandemic is a grim reminder that humanity remains bound by perennial failings of character, both individual and social. The fundamental meanness with which Defoe’s Londoners manage the plague is not incommensurate with some elements of the global response to COVID-19.2 This meanness is expressed most pointedly in the “shutting up of houses,” i.e., the strict quarantining of the sick, together with their families, in their homes. This policy not only violated the rights of the sick, but it also forced large numbers of healthy people to remain cloistered with their contagious housemates, thus dramatically increasing the likelihood that they too would contract the plague. At the same time, Defoe describes the widespread refusal of the sick to remain in their homes, even when they knew that breaking quarantine was likely to further spread the disease throughout the city. He even goes so far as to voice the suspicion that those with the plague willfully infected their neighbors, writing:

The People broke out, whether by Force or by Strategem, even almost as often as they pleas’d: And . . . those that did thus break out, were generally People infected, who in their Desperation, running about from one Place to another, valued not who they injur’d, and which perhaps, as I have said, might give Birth to Report, that it was natural to the infected People to desire to infect others. (61)

Though ultimately dismissed as rumor, this account nonetheless suggests that a pervasive sense of suspicion and hostility, along with a disturbing disregard for the lives of one’s neighbors, accompanied the plague.3

The spectre of people intentionally infecting their neighbors is one of several sensationalist ideas developed in A Journal of the Plague Year, but the bulk of the novel focuses on the many mundane ways that people failed to contain the spread of the plague. One example comes when the novel’s narrator, H.F., follows a grieving husband who has become distraught after witnessing a group of “Buryers” unceremoniously dump the bodies of his deceased wife and children into a mass grave.4 Traumatized by this grizzly sight, the man retreats to a local tavern, which is owned by family friends to whom he turns for solace. Although the tavern runs a clear public health risk by continuing to operate, H.F. expresses sympathy toward its owners, stating that they are “civil” and “mannerly” people, and that they did not operate their tavern “so very publickly as formerly” (56). However, within the tavern is a group of patrons who are not so mannerly, a “dreadful Set of Fellows” who are undeterred by the panic that has gripped the city. These men “behaved with all the Revelling and roaring extravagances, as is usual for such People to do at other Times.” They drink late into the night and mock those who “call upon God to have Mercy upon them, as many would do at those Times in their ordinary passing along the Streets” (56). Not surprisingly, the men soon contract the plague and die a painful death, taking with them an unknown number of people they may have infected along the way.

H.F. openly rebukes these plague-time revelers for their atheism, which he sees as at least partially responsible for their ultimate demise, thus leading to a verbal confrontation that Defoe uses to introduce the regrettable argument that the plague is the “Hand of God” sent to punish a wicked people (57). We have heard enough such claims in our own time to render H.F. himself a suitable representative of the perennial failings of character I mentioned earlier.5 However, despite his religious bigotry, H.F. clearly recognizes the irresponsible behavior that is taking place in the tavern—both on the part of the tavern’s patrons and its keepers. While his contempt for the “dreadful Set of Fellows” is explicit, it is also “with Regret” that he mentions the owners of the tavern who have insisted on keeping their establishment open, even as the dead carts were wheeled by their doors each evening (56). Reading this section of the novel, it is tempting to draw a parallel to similarly irresponsible incidents that have made their way into the media over the past month or so. For example, are Defoe’s revelers really so different from the many spring breakers who defied urgent coronavirus warnings in order to travel to popular party destinations in Florida and Mexico? According to one New York Times report, approximately seventy students from the University of Texas traveled to Cabo San Lucas for Spring Break on March 14, despite the fact that the university cancelled classes on March 13 due to coronavirus concerns. As of April 1, forty-four of those students had tested positive for COVID-19. Those students are now back in Austin, my hometown, where the number of positive cases have increased dramatically from three to nearly eight hundred since spring break. The case count will no doubt continue to grow.

These scenarios obviously occur within the realm of the social, but they are, at a more fundamental level, driven by the irrational decisions of individuals who feel emboldened by a mix of arrogance and self-centered denialism to defy even the most urgent, well-founded public health warnings. Those who go partying during a pandemic (or a plague) are exercising willful ignorance, not acting according to a clear sense of socioeconomic necessity, or even according to a clear sense of class privilege. The willfully ignorant are in the minority in A Journal of the Plague Year, as they are now as well, but both the novel and our contemporary moment are filled with clear examples of social failings and fissures. In other words, it is at the level of the social, and not the individual, that Defoe assigns the most blame for the spread of the plague, and it is at the level of the social that we too should turn our attention when considering the causes and potential effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the remarkable qualities of A Journal of the Plague Year is the amount of attention the narrative pays to matters of economic and social stratification. Because Defoe uses H.F.’s restless wanderings to document where and how the plague spread through London, he is compelled to address in detail how the particular social inequalities that existed in seventeenth-century England contributed to the disproportionate infection and impoverishment of certain classes of people over others. For example, he makes clear that the moneyed class, to which H.F. belongs, has largely abandoned London for the countryside, estimating that as many as 200,000 people fled the city during the plague.6 And those property owners who chose to remain in the city depended on servants to run errands, do the shopping, procure medicine, etc. in order to spare themselves from the dangers they were sure to encounter when walking the streets. Or so went the logic. The fact is that this practice did little to mitigate the risk of infection. Defoe writes:

The infection generally came into the Houses of the Citizens, by the Means of their Servants, who, they were obliged to send up and down the Streets for Necessaries, that is to say, for Food, or Physick, to Bakehouses, Brewhouses, Shops, & c. and who goinggenerally came into the Houses of the Citizens, by the Means of their Servants . . . who going necessarily thro’ the Streets into Shops, Markets, and the like, it was impossible, but that they should one way or other, meet with distempered people, who conveyed the fatal Breath into them, and they brought it Home to the Families, to which they belonged” (63).

What is clear throughout the novel is that the servant class was expected to risk direct and regular exposure to the plague in order to satisfy the needs of their employers. This class-based practice not only subjected the most vulnerable to disproportionate risk of infection, but it also—in an ironic feedback loop—carried the plague directly into the homes of the privileged classes.

There is a marked ambivalence in the way Defoe represents these class tensions. For example, he clearly pities the poor and laboring classes, recognizing that they are the most vulnerable to infectious disease precisely because they lack the material resources to remain in quarantine. He explains that “that the Poor cou’d not lay up Provisions, and there was a necessity, that they must go to Market to buy,” and that this necessity “brought abundance of unsound People to the Markets, and a great many that went thither Sound, brought Death Home with them” (67). Similarly, he notes that the laboring classes continued to work during the plague with “a Sort of Brutal Courage.” Driven by necessity, they “ran into any Business, which they could get Employment in, tho’ it was the most hazardous,” and it was due to this necessity that “the Plague was chiefly among the Poor” (75). That people should be driven by such necessity is repeatedly condemned in the novel. Indeed, one of Defoe’s goals in writing A Journal of the Plague Year was to educate his readers about how to more efficiently contain the spread of future plagues, and he repeatedly suggests that public assistance to the poor is one way to mitigate the spread of epidemics.7

Yet at the same time, Defoe expresses contempt for the poor, repeatedly asserting that the desperation of the lower classes threatened to devolve into pillage and rioting. The fear of mob action becomes something of a recurring motif as the narrative progresses, and it ultimately strips away any pretension of authentic sympathy for the poor. Defoe goes so far as to suggest that the death of 40,000 poor people was a “Deliverance” for London, as higher rates of survival among the poor “would certainly have been an unsufferable Burden, by their Poverty, that is to say, the whole City could not have supported the Expence of them, or have provided Food for them; and they would in Time have been even driven to the Necessity of plundering either the City it self, or the Country adjacent to have subsisted themselves” (81-82). So while Defoe understands full well that the lower classes are most vulnerable to the plague, and while he uses his novel to encourage both governmental and philanthropic aid to the poor, his calculus is clear: better the poor should die than public resources be strained to their limits. The role of class in this calculus couldn’t be clearer.

Defoe’s ambivalence toward the poor and laboring classes is not surprising considering that both he and his narrator belong to the propertied class. We learn early in the novel that H.F. is a “Sadler” who operates a thriving business exporting goods to the American colonies.8 He commands a fair deal of capital and is anxious about how to secure his possessions during the plague. At the outset of the novel, he says:

I was a single man ’tis true, but I had a Family of Servants, who I kept at my Business, had a House, Shop, and Ware-houses fill’d with Goods; and in short, to leave them all as things in such a Case must be left, that is to say, without any Overseer or Person fit to be trusted with them, had been to hazard the Loss not only of my Trade, but of my Goods, and indeed of all I had in the World. (11-12)

The way he characterizes his servants is revealing here. He introduces them as a proxy “Family” that substitutes for his being unmarried, yet they are also listed among his other property as “Goods” that cannot be left without a proper “Overseer.”9 He clearly feels a sense of responsibility toward his servants, but this feeling of responsibility is embedded within a larger context that ranks the servant class among the possessions of the propertied class.

The stark class divisions represented in the novel may be depressing, but they are also useful in understanding the social fissures that appear during times of crisis. One of the great services A Journal of the Plague Year performs for contemporary readers is that it lays bare the reality of how class antagonisms structure how public health crises are thought about and managed. Class antagonisms manifest themselves in many different ways throughout the narrative, but their most extreme expression comes with H.F.’s assertion that the death of 40,000 poor people was a “Deliverance” for London. While he attempts to qualify his relief as a righteous concern for the common good, the fact is that he places the lives of the poor within a contest between life and property, with property taking priority. This is ideology pure and simple, and it illustrates how easily a social situation that subjects the most vulnerable to the most severe suffering can be justified as a necessary evil.

At the same time, A Journal of the Plague Year dramatizes many acts of resistance against the ruling class. This is not because Defoe endorses such resistance, but rather because he has no choice but to represent these acts as a matter of verisimilitude. If he is to craft a novel that accurately represents the Great Plague of 1665, he must account for the fact that the poor and laboring classes carried within themselves the potential to revolt against a system that ranked them among goods and property. An excellent example of this impulse comes early in the novel, when H.F.’s plan to escape London for the countryside is stymied by the preemptive flight of his most favored servant. No sooner does H.F. decide to travel from the city on foot, with a single servant to aid him on his journey, then his plans are subverted: “But then my Servant who I had intended to take down with me, deceiv’d me; and being frightened at the Encrease of the Distemper, and not knowing when I should go, he took other Measures, and left me” (13). The result is that H.F. is left to look after himself, while his servant is liberated from the responsibility of putting his own life in jeopardy to ensure the health and safety of his employer. That the servant took “other Measures” thus becomes a point of departure from which readers can imagine a host of similar measures that the poor and laboring classes can take to liberate themselves from a system of social subordinating that always extracts the highest cost from those who have the least.

We never learn what became of this servant. He simply vanishes from the text. This disappearance can be interpreted in a number of ways. For example, one may reasonably conclude that the servant, like so many other poor Londoners, struggled mightily—and perhaps even died—during the plague. However, one may just as reasonably conclude that the servant successfully escaped the mortal danger that he most surely would have encountered if he had remained in H.F.’s employment. While Defoe spends a fair deal of time late in the novel illustrating the challenges that those who fled the city encountered, and while he makes the case that most people who fled the city ended up returning to their homes a short time later, he also details a series of successful strategies for surviving the plague while in exile. Indeed, the most detailed anecdote in the novel focuses on the successful escape from the city of three working-class men—a baker, a sail maker, and a joiner—who survive their ordeal through a mix of practical skills and wit. They also survive because they exhibit a strong sense of solidarity with other poor and working-class people they meet during their travels.10 Considered in this context, the story of the escaped servant takes on a utopian dimension, especially when we consider that the servant never returns. His escape, though left to the reader’s imagination, is permanent.

These stories suggest that the poor and laboring classes can fend for themselves, that they can survive free from the domination of capital, and that they are sensitive to the fissures that appear during moments of public crisis—fissures that present avenues of liberation that remain obscured under ordinary circumstances. This is not to suggest that the coronavirus pandemic represents a class victory. It doesn’t. The fact is that people are suffering and dying, and those who carry the greatest burden of suffering are the least advantaged among us. However, times of social crisis do tend to expose the tensions and contradictions that are all too often obscured by the routines of everyday life, and we would do well to learn from the coronavirus pandemic in order to build a better future. Reading A Journal of the Plague Year during this pandemic has helped me perceive some of these contradictions and opportunities more precisely than I otherwise may have. One of my takeaways after reading the novel comes from the relatively minor detail of the subversive servant. Perhaps there is something to be learned from his recognition that the plague presents a unique opportunity to reject subordination. Perhaps all of us can pursue “other Measures,” and not only in this time of crisis, but in everyday life as well.

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