Quarantine by Eavan Boland

Today I saw a photo of two skeletons from the Neolithic period, believed to be young lovers. Discovered by archaeologists in Italy, it was said that their location was “just 25 miles south of Verona, the city where Shakespeare’s love story Romeo and Juliet was set.” ()

They died in an embrace. I am reminded by a poem that still hits me hard after all these years:

Quarantine
Eavan Boland

In the worst hour of the worst season
       of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking — they were both walking — north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
       He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
       Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
       There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
       Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

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