Sometimes the allusions were obvious, as in these opening lines from “The Calling” by
Denise Preston: “Those hands, they make me shy/cupping the chalice, aloft/in the
stained-glass air./Does he know their beauty, or were they his crosses—/too calm for
stickball, marbles, war?” Or the lines might be more subtle like this section from Deirdre
Hare Jacobson’s “Other Woods”: “I breathe in leaf rot and snowmelt,/savor it as I will the
air liquored/with hyacinth, the lilac and peony;/the rose, blooded or pale,/scented with
citrus or redolent of wine.” And this troubling, provocative conclusion of “Root and
Peril” by Gina Pulciani: “Drought-weary, I’ll scrape from my skin/a raw beige for her
bone, and I’ll bleed her;/you will meet with our marrow right here/on this plain, lengthen
in shame along the earth’s/mad girth, our common root and peril.”
Whether these three poets, or the hundred or more others I published in Spoon River
mystery so many of them share, I’ll bet they did. Could it be then that the muse isn’t
Greek after all? That Mt. Parnassus is really St. Peter’s?
My earliest memories have to do with the rituals of a Sunday morning, the first of
which was getting dressed up to go to Church: shoes shined and slacks or dresses ironed,
all laid out the night before so we six kids could be ready for the 8 o’clock Mass, a “low”
Mass compared to the baroque but lengthy “high” one of 9:30 with its organ music,
incense, and the priest’s procession down the nave in his golden robe.
Low Mass was shorter and simpler but still replete with mystery. Where else could an
ordinary American kid go and hear a foreign language spoken at least once a week, and a
dead language at that? Years later in college I chose to spend my junior year in Italy
which made no sense because I had studied French since seventh grade. I realize now,
chanted as I kneeled in prayer those Sunday mornings and every Holy Day.
But Sundays really began on Saturdays, in the haze of late afternoon. At seven years
old, the age of reason according to the Church, I would be called in from playing catch
with my Protestant friends on the block to go to Confession. From being actually outside,
I not only came into the house but had to turn inward as well, to search my soul for my
transgressions which weren’t that many, at that age anyway. Mostly I made stuff
up—saying I’d stolen a water pistol perhaps, or had used a bad word—but I was careful
to mention “lying” at the end of my list, figuring that was going to clear my record and
make me pure enough for Communion the next morning.
I got quite creative with my sins as I got a little older and started growing hair in odd
places. By ten or so, I had myself making out with Patricia Biggins who was the most
popular girl in our class, but who, of course, had no interest in me. She was also a foot
taller, but that didn’t stop me from putting my imaginary lips to hers, though I would
have needed a box to stand on to do it. By ending with lying as the last of my sins, I
could get away with anything, the way I can with the poems I write.
With their content, at least. I can be most anybody in a poem, the way Robert
Browning became a dying Bishop or the murderous Duke of Ferrara in “My Last
Duchess.” But the patterning and shaping, the writing in syllables, in sounds—these I
can’t get away from. The rise and fall of the priest’s chanting, the repetitions of prayer,
the standing, the kneeling, the sitting down: going to Church was a physical experience,
visceral and enduring.
It was also scary. I feigned a kind of smart-aleck way of going to Confession because
it scared the crap out of me. Waiting there in the pew for others ahead of me, I could feel
my pulse in my throat, pounding away. What’s taking her so long, my grandmother, a
pious old Catholic woman who’d take me with her those Saturdays once in a while.
She’d be in there forever, it seemed, though I couldn’t imagine what she was confessing.
What had she done that week anyway except finish all the ice cream, scoop after scoop of
it? I’d close my eyes and try to pray but saw her spooning away instead, creamy with joy,
indulgently fat, asking God for forgiveness.
Then it would be my turn and all sugar-plumbs vanished as I’d draw back the velvety
curtain and, trembling, kneel in the purple light of my side of the confessional, alone now
but for the faint, whispering voice of someone else on the other side, a grown-up, no
doubt, unburdening genuine grown-up sins. How eternal it was, that wait for the sliding
sound of the little window opening and the shadowy profile of the priest muttering in
mysterious syllables, then suddenly silent.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” and so I began to recite the words I’d
memorized in Sunday school, words tap-tap-tapped into me by the nuns, those angels on
broom-sticks . . . “My last confession was a week ago,” its perfect iambic pentameter a
subtle mnemonic device, like a line from Shakespeare, the rise and fall of the beating
heart, mine then in my spondaic throat.
For penance, if I hadn’t been practicing hyperbole with my lies, I was usually given a
light sentence—a couple of “Our Fathers” and a “Hail Mary” which, after decades
without saying them, I can still recite without pause. Fear and trembling were part of my
motivation for memorizing, no doubt, but the syllables were crafted so you almost
couldn’t forget: “Our father who art in heaven/Hallowed be thy name./Thy kingdom
come/Thy will be done/On earth as it is in heaven.” With all that repetition, rhyme (both
exact and slant), plus a basic iambic pattern, the words of my penance were a lot easier to
memorize than any poem in today’s New Yorker which I defy anyone to do. Plus, the prayers came with pictures like those of the “Stations of the Cross.” Little did I know it at
the time, but I was learning to see in symbols, ones that would never leave me. In The Art of Memory, Frances Yates explains how classical orators could deliver
speeches hours long without any notes. They trained their minds to map ideas or facts
onto virtual loci they created as mnemonic devices. The artificial place—such as a room
in a house and the hall leading to it—became identified with the concept to be
remembered. The more “active” the scene, the more memorable it was. Thus, blood
stains, purple cloaks, and crowns helped the orator remember “by arousing emotional
effects,” as Yates put it.
When I first discovered this book in graduate school, I was flabbergasted. So the
Church fathers knew very well what they were doing when they created the “Stations”
with specific locations along the north and south walls leading to the altar in the east.
And as for blood stains and other emotional magnets, each loci was a sensual plethora of
spirit and flesh.
And as for purple, I not only saw it in the “Stations” and trembled in its failing light in
the Confessional, I lived it at Lent, that forty day period of Christ’s suffering when even
my grandmother tried to give up “her cream,” as she liked to call it. She went to
confession a lot, it seemed, during those days of sacrifice, a spooky time because all the
statues were cloaked in twilight—even my favorite, St. Francis, who looked like my
pious and gentle grandfather, though Grampy was the guy who smuggled in dear Nana’s
But on Easter morning, the place was ablaze with color, the altar festooned in flowers,
yellow, yellow, and the priest’s robe adazzle of gold—dark to light, mourning to joy: and the priest’s robe adazzle of gold—dark to light, mourning to joy:
symbols so simple and profound. My earliest memories are of these purposeful moments
that transcended language, whether living or dead.
And then to Holy Communion!—me with my slicked-down, schoolboy hair, all
dressed up and sinless, going down the aisle through the wafting smoke of the candles to
kneel at the altar: “Dominus vobiscum . . . In spirito tuo,” the priest coming near, cupping
the chalice, the bread now body, the wine its blood, that wafer on my tongue a holy
metaphor, the Son of God Himself.
Who wouldn’t write poems after all that!?
In his essay, “Milktongue, Goatfoot, Twinbird,” Donald Hall reminds us of the
primitive origins of poetry: the new-born’s babbling and kicking, and those two tiny
hands in flight. Anyone who has raised a child or has been around an infant knows this
world of the crib, an instinctual world where the primal elements of lyric poetry are
rediscovered by each of us. “Milktongue”: the play with sounds and succulent pleasure in
the mouth, the source of vowels and consonants; “Goatfoot”: the muscularity of fitful
legs always in motion, the genesis of rhythm; “Twinbird,” the two lonely hands seeking
each other, our bisymmetry the origin of pattern, of rhyme, of love.
Lying on his death-bed in St. Praxed’s Church, Browning’s old Bishop would seem a
long way from the crib, but not so. Describing the marble he wants for his tomb, the
tongue in his mouth is still lush with pleasure: “Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the
ripe/As fresh poured red wine of a mighty pulse.” His muscular energy, his “kicking” like
Hall’s “Goatfoot,” is transformed by age to a rant at his “sons”: “There, leave me!/For ye
have stabbed me with ingratitude/To death—ye wish it—God, ye wish it! Stone/—
Gritstone, a crumble!” And all the while, hypocrite though he is, the dying Bishop longs
to retrieve the part of him that’s missing, that “twinbird” hand of the infant, that longedfor
“other”: “Nephews—sons mine . . . ah God, I know not!/Well—She, men, would have
to be your mother once,/Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!”
No wonder Christmas and Easter are Catholicism’s greatest celebrations: from the
sky-blue of the Madonna’s robe and sun-gold of her halo, to the blood-stained garments
of Jesus and the purple shrouds on the saints at Lent, to the burst of silver and sunlight
forty day later, Easter Sunday. Buried below the troubled institution of the Church lie
archetypes as deeply human as those of the crib.
Although I haven’t been to Mass regularly in years, my senses remain tuned to its
sounds and symbols when I read a poem or when I try to write one. The altar was bare
back in the chapel of that Methodist college years ago, and its plaster statues prosaic,
without a trace of anguish or joy, or as I came to realize, of both. Both at once, that is—
the anguish, the joy, like the spirit and the flesh, inseparable—that profound truth made
memorable by the colors around me as a boy in that huge pew, by those stupefying smells
and that rhythmic chanting that haunt me still, and will forever, amen.