This poem was published in Off Colour in 1998. It focuses on illness, wellness, and death, as well as the lack of morality found in society. (Another well-known poem found in this collection is ‘Love Nest.’ ‘Plague’ focuses on the experiences of a mother who is suffering under the burden of her sons’ impending deaths.
‘Plague’ by Jackie Kay describes the experiences of a lonely mother suffering from the knowledge that both her sons are soon going to die.
The poem begins with the speaker describing a white X being painted on her black door. This marks her home as one infected with the plague. Inside, she struggles to cope with the knowledge that her two sons are both sick and dying. But, her home is only one of many that she knows of that are struggling to contend with the illness.
As she goes about her day-to-day life and tries to help her sons, she struggles with the image of the X. It’s in her dreams and everywhere she turns. The poem ends with a haunting image of her bones and those of her sons piled in the black earth, recreating the same white X as is painted on her black door.
You can listen to the full poem here.
This unique poem focuses on the plague and the number of lives it took in the 14th century. (It returned in the mid-1660s in London as well.) The female speaker, a mother likely in Scotland due to her dialect, describes the “terrible breath” in her home, a reference to one of the main symptoms of the plague—shortness of breath. She’s trapped inside the home, as many people were after their homes were marked with the disease, and experiencing her sons wasting away. Her house is marked with a white X to tell the neighborhood that danger lurks there and to keep anyone from accidentally going to the house and getting the disease.
The main themes of the poem are loss and grief. The poet also explores the view of society on those who have been marked for death. The speaker, a mother who knows her sons are about to die from the plague, struggles to sleep and go about her day-to-day life. The “X” that marks her home as being infected with the plague haunts her dreams and makes her wish that her sons would pass on peacefully as soon as possible.
Structure and Form
‘Plague’ by Jackie Kay is a fifty-line poem divided into couplets or pairs of lines. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, the poet does use half-rhymes like “morning” and “four,” as well as exact rhymes, seen through the repetition of “X.”
The poet’s use of couplets makes the poem move quite quickly and was likely meant to mimic the fast way the plague moved to take lives.
Some of the literary devices at work in this poem are:
- Epistrophe: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of multiple lines. For example, “a white X” ends the first two lines.
- Anaphora: the opposite of epistrophe. It occurs when the poet repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “I” lines twenty through twenty-two.
- Juxtaposition: is seen when the poet contrasts two, unlike things. In this case, the white X and the black door.
- Repetition: the use of the same poetic element more than once. For example, the poets use of epistrophe and anaphora as well as the way the poet returns over and over again to the image of the white X.
- Alliteration: is seen throughout this poem when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, in the third line, the same “s” sound at the beginning “64, 65, 62, 68.”
- Internal Rhyme: rhymes that are found in the middle of lines rather than at the end, for example, the poet’s use of “Last night, the shape of it falling asleep / I don’t sleep deep now. I sleep the sleep” found in the eighth stanza. The “e” sound in these lines is also an example of assonance.
Our black door has a white X.
the first thing I see is the white X.
The tone in these first lines is declarative and without much emotion. The poet uses juxtaposition to contrast the black door with the white “X.” Readers who have prior knowledge of the way society operated during the plague will already know that homes marked with an X had someone in them that was suffering from the illness.
The numbers in the next lines demonstrate the houses, one after neater, that were affected by the plague. It’s a list that’s most certainly still growing in the speaker’s world. Newly, just this morning, the speaker says, door number 58, was added to this list. The twins who live there only “turned four.” This adds the first bit of humanity to the poem and helps readers better visualize, although minimally, the terrible human impact the plague had. It also contrasts the liveness of a young child and the darkness of death. No one is capable of escaping.
The speaker also has an X on their door; she reminds the reader. When the speaker says that her “X” seems bigger, she’s likely feeling that way because the plague is impacting her family. Because it’s now within her home, its impact is much more severe.
It’s the first thing she sees when she comes home, and it is impossible to look away (a fact added in line 10).
I can’t help myself.
strange sudden still moments, long empty moments
The speaker emphasizes how disbelieving she initially was when the X was first placed on her door. She saw it, and she couldn’t forget it. She continues to see it in her mind even after moving inside. Although she knows very well that there is more than one person sick in her home, it’s hard to believe that the same terrible fate that’s befallen many of her neighbors is now going to happen to her own family.
The poet uses a great example of repetition in these lines when she uses the phrase “the terrible breathing” twice. Inside her home, the speaker is surrounded by the sounds of death and the constant image of the “X,” a symbol of impending death. Knowing that her family is inflicted with this disease is something terrible, a feeling intimately connected to the sound of their struggling breath.
The “X” haunts her dreams, and she sees it there as she struggles to sleep. The moments during the night she struggles to get to sleep, she’s feeling ” fitful, fearful” and fighting against the long moments.
The speaker also describes how she sleeps the sleep “of the dying’s companion.” She is not herself dying, at least at this point, but she’s filling a terrible role anyway. She’s close to those who are dying and is their companion in their final moments of life.
and the loud breathless breathing.
I want a plain black door
It’s in the next lines that the speaker describes those who are suffering from illness in her home—her two “shrunken sons.” They are no longer like themselves, seemingly shrunken away from their previously strong state into something unlike them.
The poet uses an oxymoron in the nineteenth line when she writes “breathless breathing,” another reminder of the shortness of breath that affects those with the plague.
The X continues to haunt her, she says, finding her throughout the day as she watches her sons waste away. It’s the “sign of the devil,” she adds, conveying her belief that an illness such as this could only have an evil origin.
The poet’s speaker describes the moon as “canny” or hopeful, an example of personification. It symbolizes her hope that her sons’ suffering is soon going to come to an end. In fact, it’s something that she even wishes for. If they could pass away peacefully tonight, she’d also have some relief.
There is a transition in the next lines when she describes “them,” coming with the black paint to cover the white “X,” which reminds her of her loss. The poem transitions into the future when her sons are gone, and she’s alone with her grief. She can’t get her sons back, but she can reclaim the death-filled home she’s been living in.
But 62 says, “Once a marked
You can only see your own X then
The next lines convey the words of those living in home 62. They tell the mother there is no way to get rid of death or get the X off one’s home. Once it’s painted there, it’s always going to be there. Here, Kay is also likely commenting on society’s reaction to illness and how, once sick, a family is ostracized from the community.
The loss and trauma are impossible to erase, the person living in home 62 adds. In these lines, the speaker notes that the woman in 62 smiles strangely. This also alludes to the possibility that the woman living in home 62 has lost her grip on reality. The next lines back the suggestion up.
Lines thirty-seven and thirty-eight add that once the X is painted over, it’s now only visible in your own mind. It’s something that’s still going to haunt the mother. Her sons’ deaths will not erase the terror and trauma from her mind.
She gripped my arm till it hurt.
one big white X lying on the black earth.
The woman in 62 is still in the poem in the final lines as the speaker describes the woman gripping her arm. She convinces herself that she isn’t going to be like this woman, that 62 has lost her mind due to the trauma of her loss.
The next lines contain more examples of personification. The “X” enters her home and crashes through the rooms with a life of its own. It’s a symbol of death that no one can stop. It’s also in these lines that the speaker appears to be ill as well. Her bones are going to lay beside her sons, she knows. The three family members will have their bones arranged as one “big white X on the black earth.” This returns to the image of the “X” on the black door of the house and ends the poem with a haunting image of loss.
The purpose is to describe how death haunts the living and how one’s pain and grief can be so intense that death comes as a relief. This speaker does not want her sons to die, but they are suffering so intensely that she feels like death will be a kind of release for them.
The message is that death is unstoppable and infects every aspect of one’s life. After the X is painted on the speaker’s door, everywhere she goes, everything she tries to do is influenced by it. The white X haunts her in her dreams and follows her as she tries to comfort her sons. Finally, it crashes into her home, a personified symbol of death itself.
The speaker is a mother in either the 1300s or 1600s in Britain. She’s suffering from the knowledge that her two sons are both sick with the plague and that there is nothing she can do to fix them. She is likely confined to her home, as many were during this period, something that results in her becoming sick as well.
Readers who liked ‘Plague’ should also consider reading some other Jackie Kay poems. These include:
- ‘My Grandmother’s Houses’ – a thoughtful recollection of a young speaker’s relationship with her grandmother.
- ‘Got You’ – is a poem about sibling jealousy and the strength of sisterhood.
- ‘Dusting The Phone’ – contains a woman’s monologue as she yearns for a single phone call from the man she loves.
- ‘Darling’ – describes a woman’s death on a beautiful summer day and her close friend’s reaction.