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.