Seven Penitential Psalms
Pain’s first casualty is proportion.
So my brother, juror in a child pornography trial,
Browses my shelves while the Easter lamb roasts
And, coming on Weston’s nudes of his son
Paired with a text describing how Neil at eight
Is “moulded with reedlike flow of unbroken line”
— The exposures framed so the torso, Pentelic marble,
Ends with arm buds and the stem of the penis —
Slams the book and storms out
Shaken that I own such things.
The damaged man licking sauce from his spoon–
Why do I feel stricken sitting in the same café,
Watching his unbridled relish in the mess?
He’s showing me a secret I don’t want to see.
The toughest shell conceals the tenderest meat.
My friend rejects aids to help him hear
Because they transmit chat he’s never
Learned to filter out. How do we bear
Any sense without muting its tone?
The cuff of meat around the marrow bone.
The clergy who rejected Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin”
For showing the bare soles of Mary’s feet
Could hardly conceive the Holy Mother
Straining like a ewe in labor with the Lamb of God.
Yet Luke writes that the inn was full and the birth outdoors.
A beast’s entry. No bed for Heaven’s Queen but a nest of straw;
The babe’s head haloed but, if we take the incarnation at its word,
Breaching the labial tissue crowned in beads of blood.
The first mystery is spirit housed in meat. And the miracle —
That you love the brutal creature eating from your breast.
“Nice day,” she remarks of the glacier-sharp noon beyond the window,
“A nice day, under glass.” Backhoeing a new well, her son’s
Unearthed a Venetian Whiteheart, the beads-for-beaver currency
Once swapped here by the river, six glass nubs per finished pelt.
Resembling a drop of arterial blood, it’s crossed three centuries
And countless palms to this snub of cotton in the vitrine by their TV.
He lets me hold it, and the red seed plunges me into a vitreous
Humor where we’re all flecks floating in the eye of God.
Then drafts whistle through their window’s glazing. Like glass,
My faith’s both brittle and liquid, ever shattered or shifting shape.
The devil, weeping for help, is plaintive.
He calls us by name and it’s unclear what we should do.
I say “should,” because if there really is a devil
Gulping in fevered sobs under the bed,
Mustn’t there be a God who shut him in our house?
Are we to show pity for the pitiless,
Prove his nature to bite won’t stifle our nature
To comfort his wounds? Or is giving the whimpering
Little fiend a blanket and cup of milk a sin?
Which hell do we want to burn in if we’re wrong?
There was a horse farm, long white paddocks, beside the railroad.
Can you see where this is going? Those horses were beautiful and —wet clover,
Loose fence posts— hard to keep safe. The day two mares and a gelding
Stopped an express (no humans hurt, train delayed while the track was cleared),
My brother slipped off to the scene. He craved blood, I think, because he’d
Reached the age that needs to feel beyond doubt that the world is real.
A boy, ten or twelve, on a bike; some horses; a train.
From the blue it comes back, and when I recall his crazy bravado, describing
What remained of the giants that once lipped apples from our palms, I’m surprised
At my rage: Who’d put horses there? Who a railroad? Who a boy?
Such frenzy! All this fluster, no stillness at the root.
Always weeping, raging, driving backhoes, giving birth….
You love illuminated books because they’re crammed, like your
Little verse, with busyness. You want the world’s
Shards on velvet, so you’ve built a reliquary out of words.
Ach, peddler, you’re no better than the friar
Hawking pig-knuckles as the bones of a saint.
You want a form that will hold the river’s water
So it glitters, miraculous as tears?
First, smash the vial. First, swallow the shards.
“Seven Penitential Psalms” first appeared in Poetry, Vol 187, no 2, November 2005.