Monday, March 30, 2009

Triptych: Portraits of Doubt

My sister and I grew up Catholic, and when we were kids, my mom would frequently suggest we give up something for Lent. My suggestion that we give up homework never seemed to be appreciated.

Like most kids anticipating Easter, I looked forward primarily to searching our yard for plastic eggs and consuming puke-inducing amounts of chocolate. But the religious significance of the day was not lost on me. I grew up going to Sunday school and Mass and reading illustrated Bible stories that alternately fascinated and terrified me (there was an image of Absalom, his hair caught in a tree, that I still remember being upset by). Back then, both Easter and Christmas induced a sense of wonder, of unmooredness and mystery, that I no longer experience. I miss it, especially at Christmas.

Was I a believer then? I probably would have professed to be, into my early teens. But at some point, doubt entered the picture. When I went to Mass and it came to the time to recite the Nicene Creed, I started to be silent for the parts that I didn't believe anymore. I would mouth the words and hope my parents didn't notice. The part about "one baptism for the forgiveness of sins" was the first to go, because it struck me early how unfair it was that unbaptized kids in distant heathen lands who'd never even been exposed to Christianity would go to hell. It didn't seem like the kind of thing God—at least snuggly, post-therapy, New Testament God—would endorse. Gradually other pieces of it dropped too. These days, my performance of the Nicene Creed would probably resemble a Milli Vanilli concert.

My mother blames herself for this. My sister and I spent most of our formative years at good secular schools overseas and here in the U.S. It wasn't until we moved to Australia that we were chucked into a Catholic school, not due to any misbehavior, but simply because St. Clare's was the best educational option in Canberra. My mom sometimes mutters self-criticisms about how she should have put us into Catholic school earlier, because then we'd still be practicing. I think she's nuts: Nothing did more to tip out my dregs of religious piety than Catholic school. The first first day, I left class to go pee, and in the bathroom, a pack of feral adolescent girls were leaping around, shouting at a crying fifth girl and pelting her with feminine hygiene products. Imagine the shower scene in Carrie meets Lord of the Flies. I'm not saying that it was enough to make me question the existence of a benevolent God, but it was certainly enough to make me question the value of Catholic school in shaping good little Catholics.

Along with the picture of Absalom (lesson: When riding a hysterical mule away from service in your father's army, always put your hair in a sensible bun), a scene I remember seeing many times is that of "doubting" Thomas checking out Jesus after the Resurrection—the Caravaggio above is probably the best known. I always thought this was one of the weirdest stories in the Bible: Thomas says he won't believe Jesus has risen unless he checks out his wounds for himself, and when Jesus comes back, he makes him do it. Imagine having belief forced on you in that way! It's almost like fraternity hazing: Oh yeah? Well, here: stick your finger in this, pal, and tell me what you don't believe.

The poem below consists of portraits of Thomas and two other central figures of the crucifixion story, each grappling with what they did and why they did it; it appeared in Tar River Poetry last spring. The most interesting thing I learned while researching to write it was that the "good thief" crucified next to Christ had a name.


I. Pilate

What did he want—me to declare him innocent,
set him free to pull lepers out of hats?
I am not comfortable with the insinuation of miracles.
Torchlight laddering up a woman’s back,
the bruised figs brought to me by servants,
the sea-scent of olives and sweat—
already more than I expected.
Too much, perhaps—but worth protecting
against riff-raff sorcerers and all they might imply.
I washed my hands not to show my innocence.
The cloth and water were all I could be sure of.
My hands that night smelled not of blood, but lemons.

II. Dismas

The good thief, they called me, leaving out
excellent tax cheat, superior adulterer.
I’d spent time in the company of whores—
in this, our strung-up party of three, I was not alone:
I’d seen him before, threadbare and muddy;
long before he hung bloody beside me,
there were always women around, enraptured,
their dusty hair unbound, poor locals
drawn by those purpled eyes, that green garden
he claimed to have the keys to. My buddy
smarted off. But I was a good gambler
as well—I did not show my tell. I said:
Remember me when. Pain had blurred
my mind, breath and sweat were peeling
away from me in veils, I saw my death
elbowing through the seething crowd,
not a one of them was there to grieve it.
You’d do the same: Say the grace.
Kiss the kingdom. Hope to wake up and believe it.

III. Thomas

Unless I see the wounds, I said. Unless I stick
my fingers in his hands.
Around us in the room
the faces of our friends
hung slack as sails on a windless day.
Fresh from the tomb, he parted his robe,
drew my hand to his side,
then parted flesh rough cloth had uncovered,
to open in his battered side a small door
my hand slipped through. There were the ribs:
spines of books I could not read;
beneath, the fat hot ropes of his intestines.
I had not known the stuff that made a man:
here was the form of my friend who’d sat by fires
with me, eaten, laughed—died? Yet, not him
at all: I pulled my hand out, terrified,
tried to hide my blush, my fingers still sticky
with that other, inner world. I think he blushed
as well—though for himself inside that flesh
or me inside my doubt, I couldn’t tell.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Henri Cole: "Oil & Steel" & Subtlety

Henri Cole's 2008 book Blackbird and Wolf has won numerous awards now, and highlighting a poem from the book seems a little like telling people about how computers will soon be changing society. But every time I read this poem I'm struck by it, especially because Cole said in an interview that, aside from free verse, there's nothing particularly American about American poetry. To me, "Oil & Steel" seems very American, though I can't quite say why ... something about the seriocomic tone of the line about the schnauzers and the way the capitalization of "Modern Fiction" implies a slight sneer, as though the father's contempt for the idea has been at least partially passed to his son.

Oil & Steel

My father lived in a dirty dish mausoleum,
watching a portable black-and-white television,
reading the Encyclopedia Britannica,
which he preferred to Modern Fiction.
One by one, his schnauzers died of liver disease,
except the one that guarded his corpse
found holding a tumbler of Bushmills.
"Dead is dead," he would say, an anti-preacher.
I took a plaid shirt from the bedroom closet
and some motor oil—my inheritance.
Once, I saw him weep in a courtroom—
neglected, needing nursing—this man who never showed
me much affection but gave me a knack
for solitude, which has been mostly useful.


I love how concise this poem is, how much it tells about the relationship in so few words. I love the way the peculiar alliteration (it comes nowhere else in the poem, and so is startling when it appears) of "neglected, needing nursing" manages to deflate the anguished image of the weeping father and keep the poem from swerving into sentiment.

I love the multiple schnauzers (how many? We never find out), and how they help flesh out the image of the home this man lives in and of his consistency of habit.

I love how the simple, direct voice and absence of rhyme disguises the fact that the poem is essentially a sonnet, complete with the classic turn, in the 9th line, toward resolution of a presented problem. And dark as the memory is, the narrator's recollection of seeing his father weeping and neglected is part of his own resolution, and what seems to allow him to give the man some small (if partly ironic) credit.

More than anything, though, I love the word "mostly" in the final line. Whole worlds of regret and anguish and a wry, pained acknowledgment of inherited graces (and wounds) lie in that one little "mostly."

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Little More on Orr

Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.”

-- David Orr, "The Great(ness) Game," The New York Times Book Review, Feb. 22 2009

As soon as I read the part above, I thought, a) So the poems we think of as great are more likely to contain sweeping abstractions rather than concrete images? Whatev, and b) Someone must write that sestina.

I tried. It didn't quite want to be a sestina, though. Still, what the hell—it's a draft. I stole a line from Engman's "Another Word for Blue" in the 4th stanza.

Orr Not

There is a canary singing at the head of this poem.
It’s a minor app, a blaring yellow widget to catch
your eye, let language work its wiles on the soul, or brain,
or whatever we can call the locus in the meat
that feels, now that the idea of souls, of gods, of nations
are dying, or at least suffering severe sniffles.

This poem planned to be a sestina, but its soul
resisted. It suspects that greatness—at least in language—
lies now in prose, or in pieces. It has heard the canaries
singing in the coal mines, proclaiming the nation
immune to meter and rhyme, obsessed with widgets,
cell phones, reality TV—trends that make MFAs sniffle

as their wrists go carpal from repeating those six
words over and over. Sestinas? Villanelles? What
greatness of soul is possible, making language macramé
in a world of hi-res pixels? You want some sniffling words
to be universal in a nation made of one-way streets,
trains gang-tagged silver and canary yellow, widgets

that work on one brand of PDA and make
the other sniffle, freeze, crash? “Greatness”? What
does it even mean? It’s a mutant canary dyed pink,
singing in a baroquely shit-caked cage.
There’s a place a block
from here where they never heard of free verse.
A place?
Try every bar across the nation. And the girl at the till

at the hot dog stand at Whitman’s rest stop on the Turnpike
thinks he's a chocolate maker. Where is she in “Greatness”?
It’s a widget that will be outdated by next week; she’ll still
be grilling franks. Time doesn’t move the way it did for Frost.
I trust "canary" more than I trust "nation." What soul left
is broken into pieces. Greatness needs a hardwood floor to settle,

and this nation’s potholes and steel plates shift.
Give me your tired of language, your poor snifflers
off the boat, the manuscripts and machetes in their gym bags
the widgets of dreaming. Give me your Twittering canaries,
their ADD effusions on the blogs. Pile it up; sweat it in a pan.
See what comes out. That laurel crown crumbled years ago.