Anthony Hecht: Tarantula, or, The Dance of Death

During the plague I came into my own.
It was a time of smoke-pots in the house
Against infection. The blind Head of bone
                                      Grinned its abuse

Like a good democrat at everyone.
Runes were recited daily, charms were applied.
That was the time I came into my own.
                                      Half Europe died.

The symptoms are a fever and dark spots
First on the hands, then on the face and neck,
But even before the body, the mind rots.
                                      You can be sick

Only a day with it before you’re dead.
But the most curious part of it is the dance.
The victim goes, in short, out of his head.
                                      A sort of trance

Glazes the eyes, and then the muscles take
His will away from him, the legs begin
Their funeral jig, the arms and belly shake
                                      Like souls in sin.

Some, caught in these convulsions, have been known
To fall from windows, fracturing the spine.
Others have drowned in streams. The smooth head-stone,
                                      The box of pine,

Are not for the likes of these. Moreover, flame
Is powerless against contagion.
That was the black winter when I came
                                      Into my own.


from Anthony Hecht: Selected Poems (2011) (p. 26)