Fortune and Poverty: Boccaccio’s Seminal Image
LyR Session Essay Delivered May ‘99
by Historian, Patricia Franz

Bench, Bag and Frozen Styrofoam:
The Homeless Action Committee's Sleep-a-thon in Albany
by Dan Wilcox

The Poem's Embassy:
March 29 UN Reading Features Poetry P-5's

Fortune and Poverty: Boccaccio’s Seminal Image
LyR Session Essay Delivered May ‘99
by Historian, Patricia Franz

Poverty subdues Fortune, demanding respect and redress . . .

My point of departure is a late fifteenth century miniature from a large and lavishly produced French manuscript of Boccaccio’s Les cas des malheureux Nobles Hommes et Femmes. The miniature, one of seventy-six in the manuscript and one of the nine major illuminations which open each of the work’s nine books, is variously described as "The Contest between Fortune and Poverty," and "Poverty Kneeling on Fortune." It illustrates a tale which Boccaccio claimed to have heard in Naples while attending a lecture by the noted astrologer Andalone di Negro. As related by Andalone, Poverty was seated by the road one day when Fortune came by and began to laugh at her, mocking her ragged dress and pitiable state. Angered, Poverty leaped on Fortune and pinned her down. The dispute was settled when Fortune agreed to keep Misfortune in check.

The miniature depicts both the tale and, parenthetically, its telling. The principal scene is that of the physical struggle between the figures of Fortune and Poverty, with Poverty the clear victor. Andalone’s lecture, meanwhile, is neatly portrayed in an inset, and shown as taking place within the walled city.

In the emblematic nature of its two figures, Fortune and Poverty, this tale may be seen as having universal appeal and applicability. No one, however wealthy and powerful, is secure from the hand of Fortune. Poverty may be one’s lot tomorrow. In this tale of Boccaccio’s, however, that inherent insecurity is briefly overturned and power inverted. Fortune herself is subdued, as Poverty demands acknowledgment, respect and redress.

A dark reading with resonant polarities . . .

Taken on its own, it is a pretty tale and perhaps even a humane one. This late fifteenth century miniature, however, fosters a rather darker reading. Poverty, an old woman in tattered clothes, is shown overcoming the elegant young figure of Fortune. The physical struggle of the women is set in a rocky and otherwise uninhabited landscape, and stands in sharp contrast to the ordered propriety of the male conclave of the inset and the calm, magisterial authority of the speaker addressing them. The men are visually associated with the civilized security of the city, just as the women are associated with the wilderness lying beyond its walls. And in the conflict between Fortune and Poverty, it is the struggle, not its amicable, if coerced, resolution, which is emphasized.

In visual terms, this illustration of Boccaccio’s tale sets up a series of resonant polarities: of man and woman, youth and age, wealth and poverty, city and wilderness, reason and irrationality. Their visual juxtaposition suggests a striking message of threat and exclusion. Both Fortune and Poverty have been banished beyond the city walls. Their struggle is framed by images of authority, from the intellectual authority of the male speaker in the inset to the more naked authority represented by the gibbet silhouetted on the horizon.

Christianity converts a pagan goddess to whore . . .

Of necessity, the illumination stands as an artifact and reflection of its historical moment, that of late fifteenth century France. By the time of the Renaissance, however, the emblematic figures of Poverty and Fortune had already enjoyed a long and ambiguous tradition in the Christian West. This was particularly true of Fortune, a pagan goddess of immense and tenacious popularity whom Christianity reluctantly accommodated.

The goddess Fortuna spoke to the insecurity of human life. She could confer wealth, power, health and happiness, and just as easily strip them away. She was a figure to be courted and placated, but never wholly won. Not surprisingly, she was often depicted as having two faces, and chief among her attributes were capriciousness and unreliability. Always, Fortune was conceived as a woman, and while she might be garbed as a queen and wield the powers of one, she nonetheless bore the enduring characterization of mérétrix, whore.

As unpalatable as this figure was to Christianity, she was doubly so in her challenge to the Christian concept of an omnipotent deity in whom all things are ordered. In an attempt at domestication, the pagan deity Fortuna was reconfigured as God’s handmaiden, the agent of divine justice. The vagaries of chance merely veiled the workings of God’s will. Though this medieval conceit was vigorously promoted, it never wholly succeeded in uprooting Fortuna from the popular imagination.

to be subdued in a display of Renaissance manly ‘virtu’ . . .

The pagan goddess enjoyed a striking rehabilitation during the Renaissance, part of a pre-Christian classical legacy enthusiastically embraced by scholars and princes alike. The Renaissance Fortuna, however, was Fortune with a difference. She now appeared as a worthy adversary, to be countered and subdued in a display of manly virtu -- the word signifying less virtue in any Christian sense than wit, courage, and strength of body and mind. In short, Fortuna became the testing ground of individual worth in a competitive world. That world, of course, was male and elite -- the world of the courtier, whether noble or baseborn, fighting to advance himself through princely favor. Whatever his immediate obstacles, his larger opponent was the whore Fortuna.

Fortune’s emblematic counterpart, Poverty, fit far more comfortably within the Christian universe. In fact, she was necessary to it. After all, Christ himself had lived a life of voluntary poverty, and had blessed and celebrated the poor around him. Poverty itself was seen as an organic phenomenon, part of the natural order of things. Its existence made possible the exercise of caritas, Christian charity. And so, while poverty might be ameliorated in specific circumstances, it remained a necessary part of the greater spiritual economy, the means by which those cursed with wealth and power might yet hope to aid their own salvation.

while actively renouncing the privileges of nobility . . .

Thus poverty itself was sanctified in Christian belief, and the poor accorded a spiritual advantage which inverted structures of worldly rank and wealth. In the process, it served to reinforce those structures. Happiness, after all, was something to be sought in the next world, while humility and pious resignation were appropriate to this one. That was a given, hardly worthy of note. Acknowledgment of sanctity fell, not to the long-suffering peasant, but to his more active counterpart, the noble who voluntarily surrendered worldly wealth and power for a life of holiness. Active renunciation, not passive suffering, merited recognition and canonization.

This spiritual exaltation of poverty, however, rested uncomfortably beside its grinding and often hideous reality. Hunger and want were enduring and very visible features of preindustrial Europe. The structural existence of poverty was compounded by circumstantial misfortunes of war, crop failure, injury and disease. The church traditionally maintained institutional refuge in the form of almshouses and hospitals. Even these, however, were insufficient to counter the hardships produced by overpopulation, or the more episodic consequences of famine or warfare.

rampant indigent feared, suspected as thieves and deceivers . . .

As care for the indigent fell to the limited resources of local parishes and municipalities, assistance to the poor soon became a matter of identification and exclusion. Distinctions were made, for example, between the native poor of a town or locality, deserving of organized alms, and outsiders who were readily seen as a burden without legitimate claim. Further distinctions were made between the deserving poor such as the widow, the orphan, or the permanently disabled, and the undeserving, those who enjoyed health and vigor and who could be expected to find work, even if none existed in reality.

Beyond these pragmatic categories, however, another darker identity attached itself to the poor, that of thief and deceiver. The beggar who feigned his blindness or his twisted limb was one with the cutpurse whose outstretched hand was nothing more than a cunning diversion. Beggars real and bogus, the hungry, the vagrant and the criminal, the prostitute and the thief -- these were a real and visible presence in the walled medieval town. The predator lived by deceit and concealment, and actual discernment of the officially deserving poor often proved difficult. In consequence, that other distinction between poverty and criminality tended to blur.

Tenuous as urban life might be, the walled town offered a measure of order and security largely surrendered in the countryside. Here theft and murder on the road were a constant danger. And here the poor could be found wandering from one parish to the next in search of food -- not journeymen set on their appointed travels, not clerics or students, not pilgrims. Uprooted and without affiliation, the itinerant poor might be objects of pity, but they would also be objects of fear and suspicion.

Poverty maligned as toothless old woman, then witch . . .

It is here that the figure of Poverty in the miniature becomes particularly eloquent. She is not Poverty as dreamed by St. Francis, a fair maiden of crystal and precious metals, clothed in rags. She is Poverty in the guise of a toothless old woman. She is neither fair nor dignified, violating the Renaissance equation of beauty and virtue. And, perhaps even worse, she is an active figure. This is not Christian Poverty, humble and resigned. This is Poverty rising up to seek recognition and redress.

She seeks redress from Fortune, the queenly mérétrix who has mocked her. And, in Boccaccio’s tale, this appears as a happy ending, a proper blow struck for justice. The miniature, however, suggests another disposition. The struggle of the women takes place in the desolate countryside, beyond the city walls. The ordered substantiality of the city, with its spires and towers and prominently placed cathedral, suggests the union of human reason, government and faith, all combining to assure ordered society. And in the heart of that setting, we have the gathered assembly of men respectfully attending yet another authority, one whose learning has given him mastery of the workings of the heavens.

as Gutenberg breaks the Church’s hold on words . . .

This urban preserve, clearly demarcated by it wall from the surrounding countryside, suggests a confidence in the calm strength of reason, learning, and authority, all visually gendered as male. This confidence would soon be belied. At the time our illumination was painted, the first printed Bible had already issued from the Gutenberg press. A tidal wave of printed works was building, more than 30,000 editions of diverse works by the century’s end. Classical writers, popular works, how-to books and books on the occult, and new treatises issuing challenges and arguing new interpretations, all were about to break upon Europe, swiftly outpacing the ability of authorities to check their proliferation or channel their dissemination. Instability was coming with a vengeance. In 1492, Columbus would make landfall in the Caribbean, believing it the East Indies. In 1517, Martin Luther would post his 95 Theses, sparking not just church reform, but Reformation. The great dynastic wars of the sixteenth century would quickly shade into civil and religious wars which would carry into the seventeenth. And the poor would multiply, their numbers swelled by warfare, rampant inflation, enclosure and dispossession.

It was the state that would respond, leading the distracted church. As the forces of disorder multiplied, those of order responded in kind, sharpening the machinery of law, censorship and inquisition. And while it is historically irresponsible to read the work of that painted gibbet forward into the next two centuries, it is worth remembering that these were the centuries of the great European witch-hunts. Civil authorities led the way, and foremost among those typed for suspicion were solitary, irascible older women of uncertain means.

© 1999 p h i l o p h o n e m a


Bench, Bag and Frozen Styrofoam
The Homeless Action Committee's Sleep-a-thon in Albany
by Dan Wilcox

Evening. Cold, and getting colder. Already, sleeping bags lay arranged on many benches in Albany’s Townsend Park in preparation for the HAC's annual Sleep-a-thon. In February. In the great Northeast. By sunrise, air temperatures would be close to zero -- with some gusting wind and snow flurries thrown in just to keep it interesting. But at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 23, it was still a balmy 20 degrees.

The Sleep-a-thon is held each year to raise funds to keep Homeless Action Committee’s roving van and its single room occupancy (SRO) residence operating. The people HAC serves and watches over are the hard-core homeless, those with alcohol-, or other substance-abuse problems, who are turned away from shelters that require them to be sober. The HAC does not. Its roving van volunteers provide transportation, food, blankets and a friendly face to the many homeless caught out on the street without distinguishing between sober and not.

Likewise, the HAC SRO, dubbed "Our House," does not turn the intoxicated away. Located in an industrial/warehouse district, the building was converted from commercial use a few years ago with a grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). There are individual rooms for 30 residents, plus staff quarters, spacious common rooms, and a big kitchen. Many residents have found the supportive atmosphere in Our House to be exactly what they need to begin taking the first steps toward getting their lives back together again, comforted by the knowledge that they have a warm place to sleep.

Townsend Park, home to the annual benefit, is, in the words of local poets, the 3 Guys from Albany [last year they toured the country, from Albany to Albany to Albany], "where Washington and Central [Avenues] meet and the flag flies and the cheap wine flows amid the car exhaust." Two of those 3 Guys, Tom Nattell and myself, are in the park for the benefit, to read poetry and entertain, along with performance artist Nicole Peyrafitte and some folk singers. Local activist speakers are there too, including Helen DeFosses, president of the Albany City Council, and Congressman Michael McNulty, who was instrumental in getting the HUD grant for Our House. McNulty has stayed overnight in the park for the Sleep-a-thon every year for the last five years.

The Homeless Action Committee was founded in 1989 by Donna DeMaria and other community activists concerned that some of the most vulnerable of the homeless individuals in Albany were being turned away from shelters and other facilities because they weren’t sober when they arrived at the door -- or were, but couldn't remain that way. Some homeless alcoholics had died as a result of having to sleep outdoors, exposed to the harsh winters in the state capital, 150 miles up the Hudson from NYC.

Using her ties to Albany’s Roman Catholic bishop, Howard Hubbard -- himself a veteran of community activism among the poor -- and the eclectic activists from Albany’s Social Justice Center (located right across Central Ave from the park), Donna fought the zoning board's opposition to the SRO. She battled City Hall by keeping it up nights, staging a series of "sleep-ins" on its steps, enlisting the help of veteran street activists, mainstream leaders of community and religious organizations, and the pressure of strong, political allies such as city and county legislators and Congressman McNulty, until the Mayor and the zoning board backed down. Our House opened in October, 1999. Now she needs about $6000 a month, in addition to the public funding HAC receives, in order to keep Our House open, thus, the annual Sleep-a-thon.

Tonight, nearly a hundred gather in Townsend Park, at the foot of its old monument to the Spanish-American War. They are students from Siena College, the College of St. Rose, SUNY Albany, as well as high schoolers, church groups, residents from Our House, suburban volunteers, the familiar grizzled activists from the anti-war era and the Amadou Diallo* trial, and fresh, new faces. It is fitting that they have chosen this spot, this park, a regular hangout for the homeless and others in distress, located conveniently close to both a liquor store and the Social Justice Center. Small groups cluster under the bare trees to talk, sample the chili or just drink coffee, listen to the speakers, stamping their feet and clapping their hands to stay warm.

At the park's perimeter, near each of its busy intersections, groups of all ages hold signs urging passersby and motorists to "Help the Homeless," "Honk for the Homeless." One older volunteer grabs a styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cup and steps into traffic to canvas cars stopped at the red for "loose change, small bills, whatever, for the Homeless Action Committee." He's having pretty good success, his cup full of creased green and a growing sediment of coins at the bottom, when a well-dressed couple get out of their two-letter vanity-plate Lexus and enter the park to see what's going on. When the volunteer solicits the man -- far more elegantly turned out than any Albany vintage-in-crystal restaurant expects him to be -- he peels off a 50 and stuffs it into the fast-food-franchise cup. Before too long, the old volunteer has collected over a 100 dollars from the passing traffic, and so he hurries home to watch the news coverage, leaving it to young, first-timers to try their hand.

Just before 11 o’clock, the TV vans arrive. Reporters interview McNulty and other participants and videotape the sleeping bags rolled out on the benches for the hardiest who will spend the night in them, then seque to the updated weather report: Cold, and getting a lot colder.

(The Homeless Action Committee is located at 393 North Pearl Street, Albany, NY 12207; (518) 426-0554. Contributions of time and money are always needed. DW)

©2001 Big City Lit™

[* Amadou Diallo, a Liberian (West Africa) immigrant, was fatally wounded just after midnight on February 4, 1999 when officers from New York City's Street Crime Unit fired forty-one shots into the vestibule of his apartment building on Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx. Because of the case's local notoriety, defense counsel had the trial moved to Albany. The second anniversary of the incident was marked by neighborhood processions and on-site demonstrations attended by Diallo's family and by community leaders who led the crowd in a unison count to 41. See New York Times story, Feb. 5, 2001. Ed.]

The Poem's Embassy:
March 29 UN Reading Features Poetry P-5's

On March 29, a 600-seat conference room at the United Nations will be the site for a reading by Yusef Komunyakaa (Talking Dirty to the Gods), Joyce Carol Oates (Blonde; Black Water; Bellefleur), and James Ragan (Womb-Weary ; The Hunger Wall; Lusions; upcoming: The World-Shouldering "I"). While Komunyakaa and Oates are heard frequently by New York area audiences, Ragan's most recent appearance here was April, 2000, when he featured (with Galway Kinnell) at the multilingual Lyric Recovery Festival™ at Carnegie Hall. [See Poetry, and Essays, this issue.]

The March 29th reading culminates nearly two hundred others scheduled to be held during the last week of the month on land, at sea and even in space in conjunction with the 2001 "Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations" program. The related "Dialogue Through Poetry" initiative is being coordinated by Bhikshuni Weisbrot, Secretary of the UN Society of Writers, with the aid of print and online journals and of Poetry International Foundation, web site sponsor of the high-profile festival in Rotterdam. Moreover, the team expects to receive and anthologize in ebook form unlimited quantities of individual poems submitted from the 200 participating venues and elsewhere around the globe. At the press conference held at the National Arts Club on January 10, spokespersons indicated that any timely reading is eligible to participate, so long as it focuses on dialogue, adheres to UN principles, and charges no admission. Similarly, any and all poems submitted will be published, the goal being dialogue, not quality, to which end, bilingual versions are recommended.

This sounds for all the world like ambitious humanism, but what is a dialogue and why has the United Nations, successor to Woodrow Wilson's post-war, war-contraceptive brainchild, the League of Nations, designated a singular year to promote cross-cultural verbal exchange? Surely no other modern political organ has so refined the protocol attendant to conversation -- or documented as much of it (in official-UN-language translations). Goethe was once asked why, if everything significant had already been said in literature, did it all have to be repeated. Because, so the story goes, no one was listening. Better the diplomatic bastion on Manhattan's East River had designated 2001 the "Year of the Ear." Or not. We might have had a Viagra-enhanced outpouring of vitriol over an artist's depiction of events in Gethsemane after the Last Supper--from the mayor of the self-declared "world capital of (insert here any field of human endeavor)."

In a dialogue [legein (Gr. to 'speak'), dia ('between')], speech passes between or among parties occupying the same communicative plane. The prefix also does prepositional service for the concept, "through" (diaphanous, diorama, etc.). Diplomatic dialogue, which is intended to perform substitutive service for the concept, "war, with bullets," derives from diploos meaning "double." Speech is emitted (Lt. e-: "out", mittere: to "send"); an agent of diplomatic dialogue is an emissary or envoy (Fr. envoyer). The message borne, conveyed by the words, "Dialogue Among Civilizations" is: more of the same, from dignitaries who talk past one another and over the rest of us (Lt. dignus: 'worthy').

What is the poem's embassy (OE: ambassy)? Offered ostensible shelter under the ultimate 'big tent' of internationalism, can it withstand the dilution-by-resolution of working groups if it already succumbs so fecklessly to the protocol of workshops? Granted, the Poetry P-5's who will be appearing on March 29 can resist seduction by their supranational counterparts into extending a clearly failed paradigm to the dubious one of poet-as-peacemaker or strophe as history-undoing missive. (A 3-year law degree distills to one principle -- 'reasonableness' -- a master's in international law to 'comity' or courtesy among sovereign nations, and thus, "Do unto others . . . ," an unenforceable rule most often observed in the breach, example: Bosnia.) However, an open call to submit work for unedited publication seduces writers living in places exotic or not, who lack the seasoning and opportunities of these three, to infer that their hopeful contributions matter, as though speeches in a global poetic dialogue moderated by artists of diplomatic discourse.

Disregarding for the moment the lack of any quality control -- though the Net, as the latest e-volutionary twist on cable-access TV and 900-number party lines, is already rife with vanity postings and statement-response-rebuttal forums on poetry to pogo sticks -- this UN-sanctioned enterprise is missing the crucial preposition. In its Dialogue anthology, speech will not pass 'between' the parties, poets will talk past not to, let alone respond to one another (as even diplomats do), will be consigned at best to address a remote world readership with rock-tree-river grand occasional universality -- assuming anyone at all submits on theme. At worst, most will, as usual, submit conversations conducted with themselves. Thus, the reader will be left, if so inclined, to undertake the edition, coaxing out the theme where it can be found or else fashioning a cut-and-paste dialogue through juxtaposition of one closed speech with another: "To be or not to be," meet "Now is the winter of our discontent." Characters who have never shared a scene within the same play, the reader will have to set these poets to conversing from one play over to another. Shakespeare could and did. But can we?

The poem's embassy in the anthology project (ambi-actus) seems less one of being sent around than one of being set awandering (ambigere). An ambassador periodically reports back to his minister and eventually comes home and is debriefed on all impressions gained in his foreign post. Poetry needs qualified ambassadors. James Ragan is one. An obvious solution to the missing dialogue component in the UN Dialogue anthology would be to invite poets of promise whose work appears this year to submit a responsive piece for publication in an edited follow-up collection. The UN has declared 2002 the "Year of the Mountain," which presents an unmistakable theme. Already this year a poem will be read from the flanks of Mt. Everest by the leader of an expedition to recover the lost diary of George Mallory (maybe he wrote poems!) -- and to demonstrate cutting-edge technology on the summit of the world's ultimate peak.

©2001 Big City Lit™

To reserve free tickets for the UN reading on March 29, visit the project web site: