“St. Vitus’ Dance” by Joseph Fasano

Joseph Fasano


“In 1518, hundreds of citizens of Strasbourg danced uncontrollably and apparently unwillingly for days on end; the mania lasted for about two months before ending as mysteriously as it began … Such outbreaks take place under circumstances of extreme stress … [such as] famines … diseases … and overwhelming stressors.”
—Encyclopedia Britannica

Given affliction, the body will find
a way; the body will turn itself

to music.
1518, and when the first of the dancers takes

to the streets, starving arms
akimbo, it is because

the crops have failed, the thresholds are plagued
with ashes; it is because, in the black mass

of the body’s sacrament, the remedy is fiercer
than the curse—and when the searchers found

the neighbor girl deep in the forest
last winter, the blizzard lifting the worried fur

of their collars, she had stripped
naked, wholly, as the freezing

will do, the body gone mad in the last blaze
of being here, the body blossoming into music.

Once, the body says. Once
I knew a woman

whose madness took the shape of infinite music
filling her body

until nothing was left to her, and she became
water, fire, a palace where her ghosts could enter,

departing and hollowing her
at will. It was not grace,

exactly. And when
they left, for good, and left her

with nothing, she became
the same song that the world would have sung

without her. She stood
above the promise of some river

and looked back into the city
of her one life, its fallow fields

and endless choirs of fire,
and she heard, in time, the music,

and she became, in time, the music,
and she listened for how it asked itself

to end.
Think of it: the first step

forward, the tired soul like its own plague
in its blazing, lifting up its mild eyes

for the dancing.
Think of it: the rising up, the wonder.

Think of it: the brokenness,
the holding. And then the moment

when you look up at the wild skies,
your one life

in blazing flames around you—
the moment

when you do it, then, you do it:
the one thing the flesh can do

with ruin, the one thing
the doomed can do

in ruin,
the ruined ones, who rise

again, in fever,
and are briefly, briefly

like the saved ones,
whose maddened dance of splendor

is their rest.

from Poets Respond
March 19, 2020


Joseph Fasano: “This poem came to me during self-quarantine amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It seems to me a poem about how the human spirit finds a way to endure—even if that way looks like madness–and how the things we do to feel alive in the face of doom are enough to defeat that doom, even if the remedies—even if we—cannot last.” (web)

Rattle Logo