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From the Bay of Naples

To Titus Caesar and the Senate, Hail!
Gaius Pliny brings you news most dire
From Naples where your frightened people quail;
Vesuvius has turned to molten fire!

Pompeii is buried. Other towns as well,
With countless Romans bloodied, lost or dead.
I, across the bay, observed the hell
Of Vulcan overtaking those who fled.

Lightning torched a sky of thick, black clouds
As Jupiter with cinders drowned the land.
The roads and harbor groaned with panicked crowds
Of screaming refugees where’er I scanned.

My father Pliny rescued those he could
But then the mountain breathed a wall of heat
So vicious that he perished where he stood.
Aghast, I nursed a wounded man from Crete

Who’d seen his villa crumble into dirt,
His noble wife and servants crushed inside.
I pray that Mars release the hordes of hurt
And dying victims trapped at Neptune’s tide!

Men of Rome, a reckoning is nigh.
Disaster had been augured but ignored:
New frescoes cracked, the aqueducts ran dry,
And quakes occurred which scribes failed to record.

Though Vulcan’s wrath rained fire far too fast
To spare the loss of life and wealth to flame,
The mountain did quake warning ere its blast.
Those who spurned the gods must share the blame.

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The Arrow of Time

The arrow of Time flies relentlessly straight—
Exacting, unyielding, it never comes late.
It flees to the future appallingly fast
Disdaining the present, discarding the past.

It offers no mercy, it harbors no trust;
It causes whole cities to sink into dust,
Reduces tall mountains to undulant hills
And darkens fine art with the drear Age instills.

Time makes flowers brittle, it desiccates trees;
Time’s arrow carves canyons and dries up the seas.
It turns sap to amber and wood into stone.
Divorced from all pity it turns flesh to bone.

The arrow of Time yields to nothing on Earth
Not the weeping of death nor the cries of new birth.
It robs me of peace with an edge which cuts deep
And rushes me forward to unwelcome sleep.

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St. Anthony of the Desert

The closest water is three days
Of desert travel—scorching heat,
Harsh blinding glare, the sands ablaze…
A curse, the burning sun to greet!
Dust chokes me with its smoky haze.
To cross these wastes is no mean feat.

The tortured lungs, the sunburnt skin
The covered face, the reddened eye;
So lost, my soul parched from within.
No mercy from the searing sky—
Communing with the scorpion,
I thirst. I pray I do not die!

But ah! At night the stars shine clear
And guide my path Oasis-bound
Where holy words will vanquish fear
And cool, fresh springs flow from the ground.
I bless Whatever led me here—
This empty land where God is found.

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Poet’s Note: St. Anthony, who lived to be 105, died in 356 A.D. When he was 20, he devoutly followed the exhortations of Matthew 19:21. He sold everything, gave it to the poor and went into the deserts of Egypt to become a monk. A monastic community later grew around him from which other monastic communities took inspiration. He is revered as “the father of all monks.”

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


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29 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    This is simply brilliant poetry – one poem as good if not better than the next – and each an excellent read!

    One technical question about “The Arrow of Times”.
    Should “with” in line eight have been “which”?

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you very much, Joe! Thanks for your suggestion but the word I chose is “with” — the meaning being the art is being instilled with drear by Time. But I could be persuaded… Either way, I’m very pleased you like my work!

      Reply
      • Joe Tessitore

        I do think you’re coming into your own and I always look forward to reading you.

    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you, Joe. I feel that way about your work as well, so your support means a lot to me.

      Reply
  2. Peter Hartley

    Brian – I don’t know whether you were aware of my little poem about Vesuvius before you wrote your own (published January 7th) but I can’t help feeling that yours has everything that mine has not. It gives a fascinating slant on the scene to masquerade as Pliny the Younger giving a contemporary account. The foolhardiness of man in ignoring the auguries (that you so well describe) appears to be matched by the follies of those today who still live and work uncomfortably close to the summit. I don’t know whether or not you have been to Vesuvius but something that struck me was the survival of countless cartwheel ruts in the roadways that must have been preserved even though they must have been fairly soft mud when Pompeii was engulfed.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Peter, thank you greatly for the compliment. No, I had not read your poem but I just went to January 7th and read it for the first time. I think it’s a marvelous poem which indeed captures the horror of the eruption. I’m posting the hyperlink to your poem and recommending it highly as another take on a fascinating subject:

      https://classicalpoets.org/2021/01/07/a-poem-on-sir-edward-john-poynters-faithful-unto-death-by-peter-hartley/

      I’m very glad you picked up on the issue of ignoring the auguries and its contemporary application. Although my references are to pagan gods, my subtext here is to caution against a culture which completely mocks and ignores the Higher Realm of a spiritual world beyond our mere mortal dross. I have long seen many similarities between our cynical, ungodly modern world and ancient Rome.

      And, yes, I’ve been to Pompeii. A fascinating experience and one which I highly recommend. I don’t recall seeing the cartwheel ruts but will look for them if I ever go back. I do remember the expressions of horror still visible on plaster mold casts of ordinary Romans caught in sudden death. Utterly haunting.

      Reply
  3. Paul Freeman

    These works are so vivid. I knew Pliny witnessed Pompeii and Herculaneum being destroyed, but what you’ve written feels like a firsthand account.

    St. Anthony of the Desert also has a feel of great authenticity. It reminded me of Lawrence’s journey across the desert to Aqaba, a key scene in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

    Thanks for three great reads.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Paul. I’m very pleased that you liked these poems!

      Reply
  4. James Sale

    Three excellent poems. The Arrow of Time is my favourite, though it is more abstract than the other two, which are historically situated. The power of the poem – like many a Shakespeare sonnet – lies in the final two lines where all the abstractions condense to how they affect the ‘I’ or … me! Well done Brian.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you very much, James. Of the three, the Arrow of Time is the most personal. Maybe that’s why you like it best. I think I like it best too. And if I were to answer your poetic question of which line is my favorite, I would have to say “divorced from all pity it turns flesh to bone. ” Not a happy thought but, I think, all too real.

      Reply
  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, these poems prove to me that you have found your poetic voice and it sings loud and clear with clarity, beauty and sincerity. Your words have a way of transporting the reader to the very heart of history with tangible scenes and relatable characters that lift the fusty pages of an educative book to fresh and breathtaking heights that engage the brain and touch the heart with an immediacy and intimacy that brings history alive. We can all learn from history. “From the Bay of Naples” and “St. Anthony of the Desert” is the way to go. Anyone reading these poems will be enriched by the experience.

    I love all three excellently crafted poems. My favorite is “The Arrow of Time”. It’s the bitter brutal truth made beautiful… poetic perfection! Thank you for your continued inspiration!

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Susan, as one of my very favorite poets, I am over-the-moon delighted that you’ve enjoyed my poems! Thank you for your kind words. My love of history certainly feeds my poetic inspiration — I’m pleased to be able to share that love with others who care about culture. Plus, as you know, I’m one of the harshest critic of “cancel culture” that you’re likely to find (other than you and others on this site.) I see it as a duty to preserve history. This is my way of doing so.

      I’m especially pleased that you like “Arrow of Time.” I wasn’t sure if it would work since it’s actually one of the simplest poems that I’ve written but on very ambitious subject-matter. Again, thank you for your kind words!

      Reply
  6. Margaret Coats

    As I was trying to think of a word that applies to all three poems, the French “foudroyant” came to mind. It has to do with lightning, thunder, and fire. Fits the topics and the treatments you’ve given to each. I cannot honestly choose a favorite, though I incline to “Saint Anthony of the Desert.” There, as in “From the Bay of Naples,” you’re exercising intense skill at characterization by dealing with a powerful defining moment in the life of the speaker. And with Anthony, we are left to ponder how this moment moved him toward the identity he ultimately earned as model abbot.

    Like Joe Tessitore, I have a little concern with line 8 in “The Arrow of Time.” The question is really whether “drear” can be a noun. At this moment I don’t have access to an OED, but if “drear” is a noun there, okay. My American dictionary has “drear” only as a poetic adjective, and my Scots resources show nothing but adjectival uses for “drear” at any period. If you are coining “drear” as a back-formation noun, from the adjective “dreary,” you may have to claim poetic license for the coinage. Seems like “murk” and “murky,” but those two are both recognized English words even in modern usage. I would say keep your “with” construction in line 8, and if you can’t justify the noun “drear” by any past usage, substitute “murk” or “haze” or something similar for “drear.”

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Margaret, thank you so much for your kind words. I learn so much from you and am always grateful for your insight! I’m especially grateful for your thoughts on my skills at characterization. Character-driven poems are a favorite for me — probably because one of my favorite poets is Robert Browning who was the master of the dramatic monologue (not that I will ever, ever be in his class.)

      Now on to that dreary “drear” issue! I did look the word up and although in modern usage it’s used primarily as an adjective, well… Wiktionary (admittedly not the greatest authority) does indeed list “drear” as an obsolete noun meaning “gloom or sadness.” So does Etymologeek. I like the word drear much better than murk or haze which have rather different associations than what I’m looking for. I’m recalling all of those Renaissance paintings (including the Sistine Chapel ceiling) which ended up dark and dreary from being exposed to centuries of incense smoke and dust. So for me drear is a shortening of dreariness. Maybe it’s risky but I think I prefer to claim poetic license and stick with “drear.”

      Further note: Aha! I found the first reference to “drear’s” use as a noun: Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queen (1596) according to definify.com:

      Noun
      drear ‎(plural drears)
      (obsolete) Gloom; sadness.
      1596, Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, VI.2:
      She thankt him deare / Both for that newes he did to her impart, / And for the courteous care which he did beare / Both to her love and to her selfe in that sad dreare.

      I think that gives me enough legitimacy in retaining the word “drear.” Margaret, I love that you have a meticulous eye that seeks to keep poetry honest. As I said, I learn so much from you and now, in giving me the chance to do the research, you’ve made me a more honest poet. I’m satisfied and hope that you are too. Thank you!

      Reply
      • Margaret Coats

        Of course I’m satisfied with Spenser! You’ve shown a poet’s sure instinct by wanting the word, and done a good job confirming your instinct by finding the precedent. And I was glad to see amber in line 11.

    • Brian Yapko

      Margaret, the amber referrnce was a happy coincidence, but just a pale shadow compared to your wonderful amber poems! Still, I am indeed following up on the Amber Room as new poetic inspiration! Thank you for the suggestion.

      Reply
  7. Jack DesBois

    Dear Mr. Yapko,

    All three of your poems transported me, “From the Bay of Naples” perhaps most vividly. I found “The Arrow of Time” the more moving, though – in fact, it moved me to write a bit of poetry myself, for your despairing ending left me restless for a resolution. Here’s my answer (I substituted anapests for your line-starting iambs, marking mine a response to, not a completion of, your evocatively complete poem):

    But the Arrow of Time, in its unbending path,
    Brings, along with its grief, its Creator’s great seal:
    The unfolding of Life, more in grace than in wrath,
    For the tip of this Arrow has power to heal.

    Thank you for your inspiring rhythms and rhymes,
    Jack DesBois

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Dear Mr. DesBois (feel free to call me Brian), thank you for your kind words about my poems. Thank you especially for your wonderful and more spiritual response to The Arrow of Time. I’m delighted that you were inspired to write on my subject and someone very close to me actually prefers your version to my bleaker ending. Very well done indeed!

      Reply
  8. Cynthia Erlandson

    These are all beautiful, Brian! My favorite is “The Bay of Naples”. Your description of the visual scene, as well as of the people’s trauma, is powerful; and I echo Peter’s comment regarding ignoring the auguries, and how that subtly but clearly applies to the present time.

    Reply
  9. Cheryl Corey

    My favorite is “The Arrow of Time”. I especially like the last two lines of the first stanza. What inspired you to compare time to an arrow?

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you, Cheryl! Good question: I’d love to take credit for the metaphor but it’s actually a commonly used way of looking at time’s directionality in quantum physics and general relativity. I’m no scientist but I do like the idea of repurposing scientific ideas for the sake of spirituality and for poetry!

      Reply
  10. Julian D. Woodruff

    Brian,
    I 2nd the opinion that these must be the best of your poems to have appeared on this site. “Arrow” is probably the most impressive of the 3, but I really enjoyed “Naples”; I think it’s a much better piece of writing than Pliny’s letter, which I remember slogging though in hs Latin.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Julian — wow! Thank you for the great compliment! As for Pliny — I’ve never read him, but I’m fascinated by the role he and Pliny the Elder played at the time of the eruption. Volcanologists actually use the term “plinian” for the type of eruption that occurred at Pompeii. On a personal note, I appreciate meeting someone who also studied Latin in high school! Not many schools offer it any more. I remember a similar slog trying to get through The Metamorphoses and The Aeneid.

      Reply
      • Julian D. Woodruff

        I have to admit, Brian, that I avoided Latin in hs more than I studied it, though I have picked up a smattering through grad school, the Church, and on my own.

  11. Sally Cook

    Very, very nice ! I always watch for your excellent work. The
    arrow poem would be my favorite if I had to choose. But with your work that is a difficult thing to do.

    Reply

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