Steel Masks

King Henri II of France was accidentally killed in 1559 during a festive tournament when he was lanced in the eye by Gabriel Montgomery, seigneur de Lorges, a member of his Garde Escossaise. A young Italian nobleman named Luigi Corbinelli witnessed the event, and was so profoundly moved by it that he renounced the world and joined the Jesuit order.

The swirling pomp of ceremony, gold
And ermine, banners blazoned in vermilion—
Heraldic pennants waving in the sun
Float high above the lists and the pavilions.

The wedding day of France’s royal daughter
Has packed Parisian streets with festive throngs,
While clanking weapons and the thrum of lutes
Contend with trumpets, bells, and brazen gongs.

The king is flushed, ebullient, in his prime—
A monarch at the pinnacle of pride.
His every gesture summons from the crowd
A roar of hoarse approval. Then there rides

Montgomery to the joust. His face is masked
In gleaming steel; he holds his ribboned lance
Level and ready for the playful tilt.
The lords and commons cheer as horses prance.

The Scotsman’s lance-tip glances off the shield
King Henri holds at some ill-fated angle
And drives right through his visor. In one pass
The king is dead, his brains a bloody tangle.

A shock runs through the city, and then France,
Where death has entered like a silent thief.
A young Italian noble who had come
To take part in this wedding-turned-to-grief

Is stricken to the core. He cannot sleep.
All food is tasteless, every pleasure nil.
He thinks of Henri, vigorous and fit,
Dead for a silly, momentary thrill.

Returning home to Florence, he then deeds
All rights in his estate to a relation,
Presents himself to the Ignatian Order.
When asked, he gives this simple explanation:

“I saw King Henri speared straight through his mask
Of iron, by another masked in steel.
And at that moment I saw through the sham
Of life, and how it hides us from the Real.

We think our vizards tempered, well-wrought, proof—
But they are brittle masks that cannot blunt
The thrust that sends us down to that cold realm
For which life is a flimsy, pasteboard front.”

From Steel Masks (White Violet Press, 2012)



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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12 Responses

  1. Sally Cook

    As always, Dr. Salemi has struck well below the surface of the meaning of a poem.

  2. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    This is precisely it. Anyone can understand the final moral of this poem—who is not a vegetable—without study. And yet, I can say that, even at my current level of scholarship, I enjoy this poem as much for its perfections as for that wonderful invitation it contains, the invitation to look further into history. (I am aware of all things Valois/Poitiers/Medici but not Fr. Lewis Corbinelli—who, I find, appears in a biography on my shelf of St. Alyosis Gonzaga as a friend of this latter.) Salemi I appreciate because he always makes me aware of my scholarly limitations while teaching a great lesson at the same time. Historia magistra vitae. But also, history is everything.

    Truly there is even more here. There is also the ultimate triumph of lyricism in this poem, and that triumph takes place within the reader. Just as Salemi draws us into the pageant and pomp of a very real story, making it all the more real by his versification, he helps us, in our mindless, carnal age, to receive the “shock” that men of a more spiritual time would have experienced.

    But the lyricism is undeniable with the final expression of life’s passing nature, it’s vanity, and the sin of pride that clings to it. Here, we are truly in the realm of classic verse, a continuation of a grand tradition, all very fresh and, as I say—inviting!

    I think Mr. Salemi’s masterpiece a fit subject for meditation, and a haunting one. I might have added the adulterous love interest concerning Diane de Poitiers who is also associated with the all-important lance ribbon. So many stories. Thank you, Mr. Salemi, for opening the treasure chest of history, and with it our minds, in your marvelous works.

  3. Hibah Shabkhez

    Wow. Brilliantly written, and very relatable, especially as the incident in question had a rather profound effect on me too when I first read it.

  4. James Sale

    Truly, a wonderful poem – the language is economical, evocative and finally conclusive. Poetry revealing the horror of life, and yet with beauty. This kind of poetry should be taught in our schools and colleges.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Mr. Salemi’s poem can never be taught in our American schools or colleges. By its allusion to Western European culture, it directly conflicts with American public education’s gay, transgender, secularist-communist agenda. As Mao’s “cultural revolution” is the official template of American public education, school and college administrators would automatically condemn Mr. Salemi as a “feudalist” and punish anyone who teaches his poems with termination, defamation, and, eventually, physical attack by an Antifa member “when least expected.”

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    I’m deeply grateful for all of the many comments made on my poem. Thank you all.

    Let me add one thing: J.C. MacKenzie is absolutely right about the vicious left-wing control that obtains in most American colleges and in public education in general. There is a palpable and deeply oppressive hostility towards Christianity, Western culture, white males, heterosexual relations, and anything that is perceived as conservative or traditional. Quite naturally, this carries over into curriculum decisions, pedagogical policy, and even campus atmosphere.

    Academic freedom? There is none. Say anything that someone in a protected c;lass of pampered minorities objects to, and you will be called on the carpet by some “Diversity Committee” composed of vicious inquisitors. This happened just recently to Professor Michael Rectenwald at New York University, and I could mention several other cases from all over the nation.

    The most intolerant persons on the planet are academic left-liberals.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      When I returned from Paris, triumphant, with the finest 30-page biography ever assembled on my then contemporary poet subject, to my department at the University of New Mexico, I found my dissertation director, a grand and important lady of the old Sorbonne, exiled from her own department and replaced by a junta of modernists including a Harvard feminist. I was suddenly alone.

      That year, French was no longer spoken in our French classes and French literature was scarcely read at all at the graduate level with most readings replaced by Russian structuralists, deconstructionists, and African American post-colonialists. The stench of Marx poisoned the air.

      A girl doctoral candidate wrote her dissertation, so she boasted, in two weekends. The subject was how St. Theresa of Avila, in her moments of ecstasy, was being literally and figuratively “raped by God.” At the very same time, my exhaustive dissertation was rejected because I used the name of Christ only once, which automatically made it “a work of theology outside the competence of the committee”—although it was sensu stricto nothing more than straight literary history in the old traditional manner my former director had taught me, and it was in French.

      When I protested, the committee agreed to move forward with the dissertation on two conditions: that I “remove the name of Christ” and “any Christian god” from the body of my text, and that I expunge from my bibliography all references to Catholic Déportés and Résistants, many of whom I painstakingly interviewed in Paris.

      Sitting in a chair before my assembled committee, I told them quite politely to go to hell and walked out of the room. Eight years of hard, expensive work, gone in an instant. And a the girl who boasted that she wrote her dissertation—in English—in only two weekends, was recommended to teach at Harvard as her reward.

      Like Fr. Corinelli, I renounced the world, placed all my papers and effects in a dumpster, and entered the religious life, studying in France, Switzerland, Italy, and back in the States as a cleric in Minor Orders. As it happened, my true vocation was poetry, all along.

      Far more important: Let us pray for Henri de Valois. Does anyone ever think to assist this poor soul? Death had entered his roving eye long before Montgomery’s lance, in his beholding Diane de Poitiers with an adulterous intentions. For, the French are not exempt from original sin as so many of their princes have pretended. In the spirit of Mr. Salemi’s poem, let us always hold our guards aright against the false temptations of this world.

      All tournaments are won by the deflecting angle angle of our shields.

      • James Sale

        Thank you for your ripostes to what I thought was a simple assertion: that we should be teaching this kind of poetry in schools and colleges! But I agree that something has gone profoundly wrong with our education system and its values. I am reminded of St Paul’s statement to the Ephesians: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places”. There is a ‘spirit’ in modernism/post-modernism way in excess of the original rationale for its existence (as a protest against excess conservatism); and this spirit is atheistical, implacable, hostile to all forms of goodness, beauty and truth, and especially loves Pilates’ question – ‘What is truth?’ but of course like ‘skipping’ Pilate, never stays for an answer.

  6. Luc Ebrewe Dias

    Mr. Salemi, the pacing, phrasing, sentence balance, and diction of your composition are accomplished with skill. Also, thank you for keeping us informed, as in the case of New York University’s treatment of Michael Rectenwald. Your stand is a blessing to American literature.

    Thank you, Mr. MacKenzie, for keeping us informed about intolerance at the University of New Mexico. Such a bizarre reaction to the name of Christ is appalling, their understanding of “any Christian god” an unsurprising demonstration of ignorance, and your reaction, inspiring.

    The attack upon truth, compassion, and forbearance is real, and it is definitely not limited to China.


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