Danse Macabre

The dance of death: the careless and the careful, coloured aquatint; Thomas Rowlandson

Abrid las orejas, que ahora oiredes
de su charanbela un triste cantar.

[Open your ears and now you will hear
from its lonely flute a sad melody.
– Anónimo, La Dança general de la Muerte

Forget the flowers, the pulse, the floozies
the second credit card, the techno club
the valeted Mustang Mach, the free booze

the lobster bisque congealing on a spoon
the wine glass holding a half-drunk cab
the waiter who brought the check too soon

violating protocol, killing your buzz
suggesting you rush to pay the tab
while your mates shift like disturbed bees

about to attack fellow citizens en masse
right as you were toasting the New Year
by raising somebody else’s glass

one from which you’d mistakenly sipped.
In the din of ill-advised bonhomie, ear
cocked to the future, you infected your lips.

Nobody knew it yet, not the cute brunette
you took to bed five days later, her lithe
arms entwining her one-night pet

before she found herself a new settee
taking lightly her lissome life
treating trysts as sporting bets

on love, that most elusive quality
knowing that becoming a wife
requires gym-like reps and sets.

You gave the plague to her and several friends.
Now she’s dead, you’re infected, your life
slipping like a silk tie through your hands.


When the rooster crows, you lose your beauty.
It’s just that fast. Meanwhile, skeletons
rise from graves to dance, as if the deity

required that a troupe of fleshless, spooky
bone-puppets serve as object lessons
mocking you with orgiastic levity.

Death at parade’s head, followed by the duke
and after him, the abbot, canon, sacristan
the common soldier, prostitute, then you.

Your demise, if it happens, was an accident
unforeseen, lamented beforehand
or was it moral proof of a youth misspent?

Yet allegories don’t go with our age.
They’re absolutes, choices of right or wrong
in themselves reason for outrage

at the universe, which is arbitrary
not even relative, like atoms or pop songs
which admit for every truth its contrary—

don’t they? As fever sets up in your bloodstream
and you cancel work and begin to shiver
take Nyquil and fall into troubled dreams

suddenly slave to your heartbeat, pulse, lungs
the beads of dew on your skin, your liver
the burbling in your gut that makes you lunge

for the toilet, you’re not outraged at science.
Rather, you find yourself praying to your Maker
seeking atonement, growing a conscience.

Breaking the news is a game of telephone.
As you send out texts to your close-held gang
you’re requited with silence. No one’s home

unless you count a raft of scream emojis
and one leering smiley face with fangs.
It’s like when you gave a few women herpes

back when you assumed girls cute, clean and hot
weren’t contagious. You gave some victims a ring
but all you got back were threats of a lawsuit

and otherwise, ghosted, rebuked, a pariah.
But this time it was innocent! You even
used protection, but there’s none for saliva.

All the same, you feel guilty, contrite, sad.
Your fellow creatures’ minds are uneven
and even worse, their hearts have turned hard.

Meanwhile, Uber Eats brings your hot lunch.
You cannot even taste spicy dim sum
a bowl of chicken soup remains untouched.

In desperation, you call your distant mom
the one who never calls you and when she does
it’s to complain she’s stuck at home alone

since everyone’s afraid to put on masks
and play Bunco like they did before.
She doesn’t bother to console, or ask

why you’re not at work. Instead, she complains
of the mole on her arm, that your dad snores
as your febrile body is racked with pain.

In the nightmare, you’re freshly disemboweled
unearthed, set in a line. A pan flute pipes
the one the Spanish call charanbella

as one ghoul seizes your hand, you another’s
and forward you lurch, with a merry half-step
a contradance, like those at county fairs

where peasants drank mead, ate roast minted lamb
stroked their loins, picked noses, scratched their heads
looking for lice, and after they joined hands

to wrestle, kiss, wed, give birth, divorce, die.
Their relatives wept openly, bowed heads
Whether in despair, rage or piety.

They knew they were pawns of the deity.
They had no doubt as they lay in bed
of life’s cruel, grinding, prankish brevity.

You who has read both Sartre and Descartes
and grew up in suburban sleek enclaves
attending prep school because you’re damned smart

and clerking law, how can you be afraid?
The universe was made for you. Be brave
and assume your poxed corpse won’t soon be laid

in a morgue, a tag on your toe that doesn’t
even mention the villages you hoped to save
pro bono, as a vacation savant

helping build houses. The charanbella
sounds again. With hop-steps the black parade
with withered festoons of braided grass, begins.

As you awake, the light around is green.
Your throat’s parched. You’re alive so far
and a single fly bothers the window screen.

Moving like a ninja, you slide from the covers
pajamas soaked, your nose a solid booger.
Gingerly you make it to the shower

where you stand naked in the hottest water
you can stand, naked before the Lord
the Endower, the one with the power

to take it all away, or let you make
amends, be a better friend, not keep score
with promotions, prestige, how much you make

per year. You think about that old word forsake,
that corny Bible word, and that other word forswear
vocabulary from another age.

Hanging on to the Plexiglas, you brood
how you became a player, an arrogant
social climber, handsome and fit but rude

to those who didn’t serve immediate ends.
You never got sick, said only weak pissants
got laid low. It’s a new year. That was then.

You’re too nervous to strike bargains with God.
No quid pro quo. You have to take a chance
on doing something good because it’s good.

But if you get your health back, if you survive
there might be time to make a difference.
At the moment, you have serious doubts you’ll live.


Your phone is dead, not you. You let it charge
leafing through Origin of Species, The Rubaiyat
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Will to Change

and other books you read in college, or did not
or ones you were gifted, their spines still uncracked
gracing your bookshelf, waiting for dust and rot

a bit like you, their covers shiny as if new
but given wind, fire, water or simply time
they’ll end up as dust, ash, mold, mildew

without having ever been put to real use.
Opening them, sipping ginger lemon tea
you squint like a sage, beginning to peruse

their contents. bell hooks speaks of feminist manhood
Khayyam says set not thy heart on goods or gain
Darwin of man as rivulet of blood.

Blake claims that poison comes from standing water
prisons are built with stones of legal pain.
So much accumulated thought to master

words that you should have pondered on before
when you were strong, unblemished by disease
when your being was less rickety, sound, purer.

It’s never too late. Your phone screen lights up white
as if an archangel swooped down from above
to blind you with its awe-inspiring sight.

But no, a friend has said he’s sad you’re sick
asks if you need provisions, sends his love
and not to beat yourself with a sin stick.

You’ve been absolved, if only by one man
albeit one who didn’t catch the crud
but who implicitly speaks for the clan

who days ago, in all good spirits clad
gathered to hark the new year with their buds.
You know you grasp at nothing, but you’re glad

that he at least remembers you as sound.
And then, as though a host of fireflies sent
from the merciful open hand of God

the screen lights up with notifications
dinging one by one like holy bells
ringing in a blessed annunciation.

You get a host of texts from all the ones
who’d sent emojis, this time to console
you on the loss of your one-night girlfriend.

You soon begin to weep, remembering her smile
as your friends strive to make your sick soul whole
coaxing you from your cramped crustacean hole.

You vow to be well for her funeral
and if you can’t, you’ll send a floral wreath
not risking that your infectious arrival

will perpetuate the damned pandemic cycle
and its blind, senseless all-consuming wrath.
For once in your life, be sensible.

The knowledge that you probably won’t die
is just enough to make you take an oath
to give your flawed benevolence one more try.

A local bar is where you learned to dance
Argentine tango, foxtrot, bolero, waltz
picking the moves up fast, holding a waist

spinning a willing body full of health
less interested in romantic schmaltz
or sex than thrilling at the heft

of one who came to you and spun away
nodding and smiling at your natural moves.
You’ve never felt such comfort as those days

when you wanted less to take and more to give
feeling you’d live forever, fall in love.
Now you and many others must survive

a different kind of dance, the danse macabre
whether from the pandemic, or because
your perishing is what death craves

as if it were a person with a grudge
a dance master who dances you to bones
like a hostage in a locked, dank garage

torturing your mind and body for pure sport
a dull, diabolical marathon
until you end a prone, spent, face-up corpse.

Okay, you’ll dance if you have to, but not die
not yet, until the four-hand song is done
one you’ll compose as well, not just stand by.

You put on clothes, stand on the balcony
A blue jay squawks on the iron balustrade
as wind waves the grass like a soft green sea.

Weeks later, you’ve survived and all your friends.
The funeral passed. You couldn’t attend
it wasn’t safe but sent condolences.

To your surprise, her parents sent a note
Wishing good luck, not assigning you blame
Rather, they hoped for a young man good health

the kind their daughter had enjoyed before “events,”
their word, had stolen their little girl away.
You still grieve her, the one you only spent

one night with, wishing you had the power
to give back life, to wish that night away.
She bongs in your mind like a clock each hour

as you cook for those you love, run errands
ask how they’re doing, let each have their say
do small new kindnesses for your parents.

It’s not enough, can never be enough
even though no one’s asked you to atone.
Your buddies tell you not to be so rough

on yourself. You promise that you won’t.
Yet late at night when you are back alone
a soft tune from nowhere comes to haunt

your ears, your brain, soft and medieval
played on a flute, its melody lying
somewhere between sacrosanct and evil

a danse macabre, a permanent background
noise, the faint, sweet gasp of someone dying
who leaves behind a last significant sound.