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A Ballade on Being Commissioned 

Twixt Florence and the Holy See
Of every artist you could hire
You thought it meet to torture me.
You gave no weight to my desire
But quick to wield the Church’s ire
Commissioned me to paint for you
And mount a scaffold ever higher.
A blight, this work you’ve had me do!

Sienna, ochre, ebony…
Such hues as masters might admire
Combined with lush solemnity
Show prophets under Heaven’s gyre.
What humble skills I could acquire
Show Genesis from every view
For all who visit, Pope to friar.
Behold this work you’ve had me do!

At times I’ve been your enemy
Yet still did all that you require.
Where once was plaster now you see
A biblical, angelic choir,
Like psalms drawn with a paintbrush lyre—
Old Scriptures now revealed as new!
A few strokes more, then I retire
From all this work you’ve had me do.

But it is God, not me, whose fire
Reveals Man’s birth with spirit true!
What He hath wrought let men inspire!
Lord, bless this work You’ve had me do.

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On Integrity

a Spenserian sonnet

Integrity, like courage, soars above
The mottled landscape—city, forest, farm.
It feels but will not bow to hate or love
Nor genuflect to weariness or harm.
It neither sings nor shouts, but ever calm,
Speaks out objectively, disdaining fear.
Denouncing lies, it raises the alarm
On those who seek to obfuscate what’s clear.
Integrity flies high yet hovers near
In what we see and know, all that is right.
It scorns to offer honey to the ear
But to the eye brings sharp, unblinking light.
It dares us to display a spine of steel
And honor truth—no matter how we feel.

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San Juan Capistrano

An earthquake-ravaged church, its silent apse
Rubbed blank by time, a bleached and fleshless skull;
Raw brick replaces icons; nothing traps
The ocean wind nor guards the roofless hull
And crumbling deck of what was once alive.
Yet Mission bells cast echoes on the walls;
Not all is dead! they ring. The swallows dive
And glide, sea-weary pilgrims. Something calls
To them come home, come home, you should have stayed!
They journey here each year. None will say why.
The breeze through ruins breathes be not afraid,
But join in worship underneath our sky!
Before dawn’s light the swallows may be gone.
O, let us join their vespers on the lawn!

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Poet’s note: The famous swallows of Capistrano make the 6,000 mile journey from Argentina each year and arrive at the Southern California mission on March 19th, St. Joseph’s Feast Day.

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


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32 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    Very fine, all 3, Brian. I think Capistrano is my favorite, but I love lines 11-12 of Integrity (calm or not).

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Julian! And those happen to be my favorite lines in the poem as well.

      Reply
  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Nicely done work, every one. After a second reading of “A Ballade…” I no-ticed the shift that occurs. The three full stanzas are written in such as way as to lead the reader to think that the speaker (Michelangelo) is addressing the Pope who commissioned the fresco. But in the concluding quatrain the addressee is God, as the capitalized “You’ve” makes clear. This does not mean that the reader has been tricked in what came before… it simply means that the speaker is recognizing a larger and transcendent directed purpose in his labors.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      I’m very grateful for your comment, Joseph. I’m especially pleased that you understood precisely what I was going for in the Ballade and it’s change of focus in the envoi. I imagined Michelangelo conversing with Julius II but then, as he weighs the true significance of the commission, turning his gaze upwards to his true “employer” and the true source of his inspiration — as you phrased it so perfectly “recognizing a larger and transcendent directed purpose in his labors.”

      Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Joseph, I would like to credit you with some of the inspiration behind the Ballade. Your recent essay “Crank Out a Few Please” did make me consider situations in which poets, artists and others must create “on demand” rather than sit and wait for inspiration. That led me to Michelangelo who rather famously did not want to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling but was pressured to do so by Pope Julius II. Even though the inspiration wasn’t quite there at the beginning, Michelangelo did receive that divine inspiration eventually which allowed him to paint a masterpiece that would never have been created had he simply followed his own “druthers.” Thank you for bringing this interesting subject of duty versus inspiration up in the first place.

      Reply
  3. Paul Freeman

    Funnily enough the words ‘ever higher’ came at exactly the same time in a song I was listening to as I read them in ‘On Being Commissioned’ – call Mulder and Scully!

    Like Julian, I enjoyed all three, but related more to ‘On Being Commissioned’ with the blank canvas beginning so familiar to artists, to the questioning of where the motivation and ability comes from to create and finish a work of art.

    Thanks for the reads, Brian.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Paul. Thanks for reminding me about the X-Files which I haven’t thought about in years. I’m especially glad you liked the Ballade. I like to contemplate the question of obligation versus inspiration. This was especially well covered in Dr. Salemi’s recent essay “Crank Out a Few Please” in which the subject of creating even when you don’t necessarily feel like it was addressed. Instead of waiting for it, sometimes you have to just sit down before that blank canvas and start. Hopefully, inspiration will come.

      Reply
  4. Jeremiah Johnson

    I liked the birds’ call to worship in the final lines of the “San Juan” poem. It’s redolent of all those passages in the Bible where nature is metaphorically spoken of as worshipping.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Jeremiah! I’m very glad you made that connection. I wanted the reader to think of all of Nature itself making pilgrimages and worshipping and the swallows seemed like the perfect subject. Especially since what Man builds is fleeting and temporary in the face of Creation. Here, even though the church is in ruins, vespers may still takes place.

      Reply
  5. Yael

    All three poems are lovely for the vivid pictures they paint as well as the depth of story telling in each one. It’s said that a picture is worth a 1000 words, but I appreciate the fact that you used much fewer words to add so many layers of meaning and emotion on top of the pictures which your words paint in my mind’s imagination. Really well done and very enjoyable, thank you.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Yael. I’m very grateful for your comment. I can’t imagine having the stamina to write a poem of 1000 words!

      Reply
  6. Roy E. Peterson

    Three wonderfully intriguing poems, Brian. 1.) ”Ballade…” is exquisitely composed with sharp depictive imagery and the turn at the end as to whom the artist is really addressing. 2.) “On Integrity” speaks directly to my moral foundation. “Flying high, yet hovering near ,“ stimulates the senses with a neat juxtaposition of thoughts. 3.) San Juan Capistrano is a place I have visited, as well as the Vatican. It seems to me I remember a song, “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.” The ravaged church structure is enshrined in your poem almost as a place where the sparrows alone are free to worship. Thank you for some great words and phrases in all three.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Roy. I’m especially pleased that “On Integrity” resonated with you. It went through a few incarnations and the fancier it got, the worse it got. This final version is very simple but best speaks to my own moral foundation as well. I too have been to the Sistine Chapel and Capistrano (I used to live in Southern California) and both captured my heart in different ways. And yes, that song! From the 1940s I believe. I’m pleased to have helped evoke some hopefully fond memories for you.

      Reply
  7. Jeff Eardley

    Brian, thank you for a memory jerk for the song, “When the Swallows come back to Capistrano” which bounced out of my mum’s radio (I think it was by Pat Boone) when I was a toddler. I love, “Integrity” a quality I assume to be in the DNA of every New Mexican lawyer. A most enjoyable read which has put me in the mood for painting the ceiling tomorrow.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you for your kind comment, Jeff, and for the mention of “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.” That wasn’t the inspiration for the poem and I wasn’t really familiar with the song, but I had heard of it and so looked it up on Youtube. Pat Boone as well as a number of other singers who covered it (Bing Crosby too, I believe.) It’s a charmer.

      As for “Integrity,” you are very kind. I don’t know about the other New Mexico lawyers, but it’s certainly something I strive for! As an aside, one thing about NM lawyers is that they are unfailingly polite. The president of our Bar association said that in New Mexico lawyers may certainly disagree but that when they disagree they should agree to disagree agreeably.

      Can’t wait to see what fresco images you paint on your ceiling today!

      Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      A great show, C.B., which fortunately bears little resemblance to the reality of practice here in New Mexico. Some of the lawyer commercials here, though, are almost bizarre enough to belong on Better Call Saul.

      Reply
  8. Margaret Coats

    Fine work and nice special touches on all three poems, Brian. Use of the refrain is far more natural than in most ballades, and outlines a progression revealing the speaker’s understanding of his own work as God’s work. “Integrity,” with its flying and soaring, is like a challenging angel to anyone willing to give it serious thought. When it is read along with “San Juan Capistrano, I think more seriously about what the bells, the birds, and the breeze represent in that poem. It seems the ruined church is calling anyone within hearing to return.

    There has been much rethinking of Capistrano in recent years, since the cleaning and strengthening of the structure greatly reduced the numbers of the swallow population. The nests were removed, and although new nesting spaces were provided, the birds did not accept them, but chose another location some miles away. Bird experts tried luring the swallows back by providing nest building materials, and letting the birds decide how to use it. That has had limited success. And all of a sudden during the pandemic years, people became greatly worried that the happy omen of return on Saint Joseph’s Day might not happen at all, portending worse to come for human inhabitants. This stands in great contrast to the commercial and political posturing of the days when the birds were just window dressing to parades and street fairs that happened noisily, no matter what the avian environment or spiritual atmosphere. With all this, I should point out that the first small church (the only one where Serra celebrated Mass) remains in operation, and that there is an enormous basilica parish church as well. Engineers are hard at work to keep the earthquake-damaged church an attractive ruin.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Margaret, for your wonderful comment. I’m especially pleased that you agree with my use of the Ballade refrain with slight alterations in each iteration. You of all people know that the ballade is a tricky form in terms of bringing in new understandings using substantially the same language so I’m glad that you find that it works.

      It’s many years since I was at Capistrano (I was there in the 1970s or 80s if memory serves) and the swallows were still very much a returning visitor each year. I’m saddened to hear that the renovations drove away most of the swallows and I imagine there’s a sad metaphor there that might be worth exploring. One of the beautiful things about poetry is that we don’t have to provide an accurate snapshot of what a place looks like now. If my Capistrano exists only in memory I’m grateful to be able to share that memory poetically. And who knows, the swallows may yet return.

      I’m most intrigued by your statements about the significance those affected by the pandemic now place on the swallows’ return. Too many people don’t appreciate what they have until it’s lost. That especially includes symbols of faith. I touched on this in my Amber Room poem some time back.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Yes, there are interesting parallels with your Amber Room poem. There you explain in a most compelling way how history, culture, and art are vital to the human spirit. And the lost work of art that had to be rebuilt is composed of a rare and naturally beautiful material, which enhances the value of human labor employed in creating and then restoring it. At Capistrano, the return of the birds is a natural occurrence that human beings cannot guarantee, no matter how sensitive their planning for it in a new situation. The birds respond to instinctive timing and location-seeking God has put within them. And they want the messy mud nests built and lived in by their ancestors–something ornithologists cannot provide. I understand as well your allusion to the architectural and ritual “renovation” of the church and the Mass in our lifetimes. The highest authorities and the most learned liturgists and theologians cannot renew what has been handed down from the time of Christ Himself without ruining it. They might as well move Saint Joseph’s Day to July, for example, and expect the swallows to conform to the new liturgical calendar!

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        Margaret, your comment has deepened the meaning and message of my poem in a very powerful way. I’m especially glad you understand my views on the church. Thank you!

  9. jd

    Enjoyed all three poems, Brian, and all the perspectives
    following. “On Integrity” is my favorite maybe because
    it seems in so short a supply.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, jd. And I most certainly agree with you on the integrity front!

      Reply
  10. David Watt

    Thank you Brian for three vividly portrayed poems, distinct from each other in form. I particularly enjoyed your soaring definition of integrity, which most appropriately leads to the return of soaring swallows in ‘San Juan Capistrano’. God’s work also soars in your neatly constructed ballade, completing the lofty theme.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, David. Sometimes when I’m writing and submitting I don’t even necessarily grasp the connections between the poems. But you’re absolutely right — especially about the swallows and soaring integrity! In a sense all three of these poems deal with flight or elevation — Michelangelo aloft on the scaffold painting Man’s Creation, soaring integrity and the gliding of the birds. Thank you for making these connections explicit!

      Reply
  11. Cynthia Erlandson

    These are all so impressive, and moving, Brian — “Like psalms drawn with a paintbrush lyre.” (brilliant line!) And comparing the San Juan church’s apse to a fleshless skull — and the image of the swallows holding vespers in the roofless church — thoroughly uplifting!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Cynthia. I’m especially glad you liked that line in the Ballade because it’s my favorite in the piece. And I’m also thrilled that you liked the imagery in San Juan Capistrano. I truly love the idea of God’s creatures joining in worship of Him.

      Reply
  12. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, what an exquisite treat of linguistic delights to feast upon with gusto! I really can’t pick out a favorite. They are all so beautifully composed with their rich array of melodious tones and perfectly painted images.

    I admire your ability to step inside the head of great historic figures and speak to your readers with a tangible honesty that brings these figures to life. This glorious gift is employed excellently in ‘A Ballade on Being Commissioned’. There is so much I love about this poem… the palpable pain, the angst, the ire, the whys, the wonder… and most of all, the clever twist. The ‘you/You’ works splendidly. It’s one of those poems that transcends the page and becomes a vision… the words melt away to reveal living, breathing moments.

    ‘On Integrity’ is a marvelous poetic lesson. It speaks with a wisdom that engages my heart and has me hankering after all those glowing traits. I love it, especially: ‘It scorns to offer honey to the ear/But to the eye brings sharp, unblinking light’. The closing couplet is spot-on… I’m aiming for a spine of steel… my backbone grows steelier every time I write a contentious poem.

    I adore birds. They are feathered miracles full of magic and mystery. ‘San Juan Capistrano’ captures their wonder perfectly.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you so much, Susan! I’m thrilled that you liked these three poems — especially “On Integrity” because the subject concerns us in so many ways — concerns which your own incredible poem for the 4th of July address. I do indeed love stepping into the heads of others and Michelangelo is a giant so I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I’m delighted to heart that you believe I have. And, being the bird lover that you are, I rather hoped you would like my swallows of Capistrano — a subject which I think you know is close to my heart.

      Reply
  13. Anna J. Arredondo

    Brian,
    I enjoyed all three immensely. I have to say my very favorite is “On Integrity.” Of the many delightful expressions, I particularly like “It feels but will not bow to…”, “Integrity flies high yet hovers near,” and the last line, “And honor truth—no matter how we feel.”

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Anna. I was inspired to write this poem because many people these days seem to forget that the foundation for integrity must necessarily be truth. I’m so glad that my final line as the summation of that point spoke to you!

      Reply

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