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Anno Domini 1348

‘Tis thirteen months since those twelve ships of death
Docked in Messina bearing vicious plague
From the Black Sea. The fevers, rasping breath,
The frightful buboes, tortured minds gone vague…

The panic of the masses makes it worse.
All kindness dies as fools seek sword or rod
And seize upon some scapegoat they can curse.
Shall times like these cause us to question God?

A foolish query. God is everywhere
In every birth, in each march to the tomb.
Push fright and hate aside. Consider prayer—
For faith and valor grant fear little room.

That beast that threatens Bethlehem comes near.
‘Tis best we fight. To Hell with death and fear.

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Poet’s Note: the Black Death (bubonic plague) arrived in Europe in October of 1347 when 12 ships from Constantinople arrived at Messina. Those greeting the ships were horrified to find that most of the sailors were dead and the few survivors gravely ill and covered in black boils. Sicilian authorities ordered these ghost ships from the harbor, but it was too late. Within the next five years, the Black Death would kill one third of the population of Europe.

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The Tarantella

On a dark deserted inlet
Where Amalfi meets the sea,
Lit by torches she must dance the
Tarantella to be free.

There is frenzy in her movements
Twirling to the tambourine.
Though exhausted she keeps spinning
Dueling with the spider queen.

In the bite of the tarantula
Is poison that can kill—
But by sweating out this devil’s bane
The fever may break still.

There is courage in her spirit
She will not succumb to fear;
She will dance beyond the twilight,
Through the night she’ll persevere.

She is dancing not just for herself
But for a world of woe.
She would sacrifice her life
To spin a web to thwart her foe.

As she whirls about the fire
She ignores us in her trance
Don’t disturb her or inquire.
She must dance her spider dance.

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Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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22 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    On re-reading “The Tarantella”, I see that the meter of the poem is the same as the meter of the dance!

    Bravo, Mr. Yapko!

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Again, thank you. I was trying to make the meter work. I had been inspired 100 years ago as an English lit major by Robert Browning’s “A Tocatta of Galuppi’s.” The meter of that poem had stuck in my head and I always hoped for the chance to try my hand at it.

      Reply
  2. Julian D. Woodruff

    I had the finale of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony twirling and spinning through my brain as I read this “Tarantella.”

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you very much. I had not thought of that connection, but I greatly admire that symphony.

      Reply
  3. Cynthia Erlandson

    “Anno Domini” is extremely moving; I especially love the closing couplet! And in “Tarantella”, the extended metaphor is beautifully drawn out, illustrated especially by “She would sacrifice her life / To spin a web to thwart her foe.” Lovely stuff!

    Reply
  4. C.B. Anderson

    Both, Brian, are very interesting, strong poems. But I am at a bit of a loss to understand your metrical plan in the second one. Most of the lines are trochaic tetrameter, some of them catalectic and some not. But in the third stanza you break form, giving us four lines that (in order) are: catalectic trochaic pentameter, iambic trimeter, catalectic trochaic pentameter, and iambic trimeter. But rest assured that the casual reader will not notice this, because the poem nonetheless rolls along swimmingly, yet I cannot help but ask: Was this by design or from a lapse of attention to the meter you had established earlier?

    This anomaly is not a disqualification, but I am damn curious about it.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Good eye! I struggled with how to get the word “tarantula” into the meter of the poem. If you actually sing the poem as written it scans because you’re not aware of line breaks. But if you read the poem with line-breaks (as it is actually printed) the meter will not scan unless you cut off the word tarantula mid-way through and add it to the next line:
      In the bite of the taran-
      tula Is poison that can kill—”
      I worried about actually cutting the line off mid-word so this was my admittedly imperfect solution. I went more with the song than the poem.

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        Cutting a line off in mid-word is not advisable, but it HAS been done by some noteworthy poets. Do it if absolutely necessary, but don’t do it too often. Others may tell you not to do it at all, for various reasons, and I would be hard pressed to make an argument to counter their opinions, except to say that freedom of expression and expedience in a time of need are paramount virtues.

    • BRIAN YAPKO

      I appreciate your insights. I tried hard not to do the cut-off and would be reluctant to do so in the future. But I see the price I paid was ambiguity. Poetry is full of difficult judgment calls! Anyway, have a very happy new year!

      Reply
  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, these poems are an accomplished triumph. “Anno Domini 1348″ sent a shiver down my spine, especially the image portrayed in; ” The fevers, rasping breath,/The frightful buboes, tortured minds gone vague…”. I honestly think the level of fear around Covid-19 has conjured similar images. I also like the complete change of tone in the closing couplet… surely a metaphor for today’s dilemma. As a matter of interest, I lived near Blackheath where I played as a child… I was told those with who died of the Black Death were buried beneath the heath (hence the name), and the images of your poem brought back the horror I felt upon hearing this.

    “The Tarantella” is magnificent. I had the same trouble as C.B. initially, but upon rereading the poem, worked out the formula for maximum enjoyment. For me, your solution is perfect – well done!

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Susan, I really appreciate your comments. Thank you for the kind words about both. I wanted to do a covid poem that puts fear in its place and which serves as a reminder that we’re not the only generation to be challenged by such suffering — and that what we carry in our hearts — fear or valor — matters tremendously. I’m fascinated by your history at Blackheath. I wonder if you’d be interested in writing about that experience in the future…? The Tarantella was something I really wanted to write but wasn’t sure if I had the skill. I still feel ambivalent about. Sometimes words can be so uncooperative! I’m grateful that you gave it a second chance!

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Brian, thank you for the suggestion. I will most certainly write a poem about Blackheath, and some other places in London that chilled my young heart to the core… Traitors’ Gate at The Tower being another. It’s a wonder my impressionable and highly imaginative mind survived the ghosts of such a gory history. lol

        Please know, your Tarantella is superb. I was intrigued by the meter, which reads beautifully (I might add), hence the second and now third and forth reading. It’s truly inspirational.

    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you so much, Susan! Happy New Year! And I’m looking forward to Blackheath!

      Reply
  6. Margaret Coats

    Before Anno Domini 2020 comes to an end, let me say that “Anno Domini 1348” is a first-rate sonnet. The subject is treated in an impressive way, and the crucial question that emerges is answered to perfection. Each quatrain and the couplet make important, distinctive contributions to this powerful poem. Very well done!

    Regarding the metrics in “The Tarantella,” I found it most pleasing to read each stanza as a long-line rhyming couplet. That allows the dance rhythm to dominate while the reader finds only a few suitable variations in the reading rhythm. As you remark above, the line breaks are problematic, but the music of the poem is clear.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you very much, Margaret! I appreciate your comments. Happy new year!

      Reply

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