Palermo’s great basilica is still—
All prayers are tongueless for a lonely hour.
Here high and holy silence can be breathed
Like incense from the smoking thuribles
Swung by acolytes at solemn mass.

Antonello’s Virgin turns her eyes
Ever so gently to one side. Perhaps
The sacristan has shuffled into view
To snuff a candle, or replace dried blooms
In the small vase atop her votive shrine.

Robed in heavy blue, she cannot move
Her head more than a barely noticed notch,
Her pearl-pure skin enshrouded in a weight
Of ultramarine, as ponderously dark
As far-off mountains when the vespers ring.

Nevertheless, she lifts a sculpted hand
(So perfect in its shape and comeliness
That God Himself might envy its chaste form)
And holds it forth in admonition to
Whatever has disturbed her solitude.

The angel of annunciation? No:
Her cool composure’s quite untouched by fear
Or marvel at a preternatural light—
Her face shows brief distraction from her thoughts
Caused by some human presence, nothing more.

The sacristan most likely, for he comes
On no fixed schedule, and his heavy tread
Breaks the cathedral’s silence, while his gown
Swishes along the foot-smooth slabs of stone
That pave the aisle up to the Virgin’s niche.

Or else he is too stealthy in his steps—
His sudden, startling presence may have irked
Our Lady, who in pure Sicilian says
Fa scrusciu, pregu, quann’ intrati ccà!
(Make some stir, please, when you enter here!)

She uses arch intrati, a prim verb
With high-class connotations that recall
Dante’s Inferno and its fabled gate;
Out in the street you would have heard trasiti
But after all, she is the Holy Virgin.

Chastened by Our Lady’s soft reproach
The sacristan—done trimming candle wicks—
Gathers his gown and tiptoes quietly
Back to his cloister, where he meditates
On Satan as the Father of All Noise.

In any case, strict silence falls anew
After the man’s departure, and remains
Until devotions fill the spacious church.
Some simple souls kneel at the altar rail
To whisper decades of their rosaries

But when they reach the mystery of how
A messenger came to a humble girl
To tell what would befall her, even they
Know this face too wise and self-possessed
For God’s own sovereign voice to disconcert.

From Skirmishes, Pivot Press, 2010.



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 and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. 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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9 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    And today, on the Catholic calendar, is the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Temple.

  2. James A. Tweedie

    “. . . his heavy tread
    Breaks the cathedral’s silence, while his gown
    Swishes along the foot-smooth slabs of stone
    That pave the aisle up to the Virgin’s niche.”

    The vivid and visceral descriptive eloquence of this poem recalls memories of the audible silence that stirs within the vast echo-chambers of the great cathedrals of Europe; spaces where the click of a single footstep resounds and startles with the realization that one is not, in fact, alone.

    The painting depicts this moment wonderfully, and Dr. Salemi, in turn, not only captures its essence, but expands and elevates the image into a holy meditation on the Annunciation and the divinum mysterium of the Incarnation to which it leads.

    Deo gloria.

  3. C.B. Anderson

    To have the painting come alive, as it were, is a marvelous conceit. This texture-laden piece of blank verse might well be referred to as hyper-ekphrastic, and is an illustration of the artistic power of both the poet and the painter.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Kip. Yes, I did intend the piece to be more than simply ekphrastic. More than merely describing the painting, I wanted the work to have a life of its own.

  4. Sally Cook

    The color and emotion of this poem match the painting perfectly. As an artist. so often I have wished that someone with descriptive powers would look into a painting. Usually all they want to know is size, medium and when it was completed. Name,, serial number and of course, monetary value.
    Here, you show us the breadth and depth of your sensitivity. A lovely poem, Joe/.

  5. Carl Hildebrand

    Ave Maria! Ora pro nobis nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.
    Thank you, Mr. Salemi, for honoring the Blessed Virgin with these worthy verses. I admire your work.

  6. David Watt

    Your verse adds even greater depth, life, and meaning to what is already a captivating painting.

  7. James Sale

    This is a wonderful poem: the language enacts the movement of the story and its speculation, which is low-key but compressed, and this creates a sense of underlying mystery and power. The detail, for example, of the ‘Robed in heavy blue’, such a striking feature in the picture, here in the verse seems to carry that same sense of being under the authority and protection of deep heaven. I have in the last 18 months, since my trip to the Basilicas of Ravenna (and incidentally, Dante’s grave) converted from being a Quaker to joining an Anglo-Catholic fellowship, but that said, I don’t think that I can ever reach the point of faith of the last two lines of this poem. Maybe I should; but it is too much for me. But the wonder of the poetry is that it immediately caused me to reflect on all those who had directly encountered – Moses, Elijah etc – that voice and how it affected them. Then, to return to the poem, the picture, and that face: poem and painting both great works of art.


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