Poetry Journal

Issues / Volume 5 Issue 1 , July 2015


Medico della Peste

Chloe Wilson

      The nose (is) half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume…
      —Charles de Lorme, chief physician to Louis XIV and designer 
      of the protective clothing worn by plague doctors. 
  Picture his visit from the perspective 
  of the one presumed condemned—
  a rat-a-tat-tat—the scrunch and creak 
  of head-to-toe goatskin approaching, 
  and then, when he enters, the fevered thought— 
  how you weren’t expecting death
  to have a beak and spectacles 
  or such a distinct perfume—is that 
  clove, cedar, vetiver—could it be
  a hint of myrrh? The medico della peste 
  would demur, continuing to rifle through 
  his swag of talismans and tinctures, 
  his charms—a dead toad threaded 
  onto a necklace, a baby’s fingernail, or
  a pebble, resembling a heavenly intercessor, 
  if tilted towards light. He’d palpate 
  the afflicted with a purpose-built stick, 
  or sometimes beat them senseless, 
  to expedite their entry into heaven. 
  Then, having listed the names 
  of the afterlife’s newest inductees 
  he’d trundle blithely on to spread news 
  and buboes to the next town, 
  and the next. And yet, we resurrect him 
  annually, the medico della peste— 
  at carnivale, he’s always
  rounding one corner or another 
  among the crumbling Venetian facades, 
  that beak emptied of everything 
  except the damp heat of his breath. 
  It’s as though we call back some 
  unassuaged god, half-avian—as though 
  we wish to settle all our debts 
  by letting him scavenge 
  through the revellers, 
  keeping any he can catch.