June 11, 2012

Mark Wunderlich: “A Servant’s Prayer”

Mark Wunderlich (2012)

This week we’re featuring a poem by Mark Wunderlich, runner-up from our latest Editor’s Prize issue. Wunderlich is the author of The Anchorage, which was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1999 and received the Lambda Literary Award, Voluntary Servitude, which was published in 2004 by Graywolf Press, and The Earth Avails, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2013.  He has received fellowships from the NEA, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Wallace Stegner Fellowship Program at Stanford, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Amy Lowell Trust.  His poems, interviews, reviews and translations have appeared in journals such as Slate, The Paris Review, Poetry, Yale Review, Fence and Tin House, and his poems are widely anthologized.  He has taught at Stanford and Barnard College and in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University, Ohio University, San Francisco State University and Sarah Lawrence.  He is a member of the Literature and Writing Seminars Faculty at Bennington College in Vermont and lives in the Hudson River Valley.

Author’s Note:

A couple years ago, while visiting my family in Wisconsin, I came across an old Lutheran prayer book, written in German and published in St. Louis in 1876.  The book was small, meant to be carried in a pocket or reticule, and consulted during times of need.  The prayers in it—set in the old German Fraktur-script and printed on cottony paper—are notably specific:  prayer to be said before setting off on a journey by sea, prayer to be said in the first hour of a deathbed watch, prayer for a birthday, prayer to be said during a time of drought, etc.  I found these pleas, addressing mostly harrowing circumstances to be moving and psychologically compelling.  By begging for the attention of an all-knowing distant father, the prayers seemed to me an interesting model for poems.  I set about writing my own versions loosely based on the prayers in this book, but quickly my own version took on new and contemporary contexts.

I began writing these poems some time ago, and resisted showing them to anyone or sending them out to journals.  I felt embarrassed to be writing poems with religious underpinnings, and as  queer agnostic, I felt exposed somehow—found out.  Of all the poems I have written, these—mostly devoid of autobiographical detail—are also the most personal poems I have ever written.

A Servant’s Prayer

Oh Tenderhearted, O Kindhearted,
you who have spared us from eternal servitude,

 

by torturing and killing your only child,
we know what you can do.

 

Only you can spare us
from a world in which the Creature

 

presses his stinking hoof to our neck,
the tyrant who supervises a petty bureaucracy

 

rich with oil and other filth, covers his sow-bride’s
fat Bahama-tanned paw with a crust of diamonds.

 

You have chosen to keep me in a state
of service, beholden to a mustachioed czarina

 

isolated and confused and grandiose,
which is, I confess, a trial.

 

I beg you, assuage my bitterness.
Help me to know that this is your will,

 

and help keep me from resenting
those, who despite their meager talents,

 

their pettiness and appetite for derision,
wield power over me.  My service here

 

though of this world, is not meant for this world
bent of uglification and strife.

 

Part the curtain and let me glimpse
your gleaming hem.

 

Remind me that behind this knotted tapestry
of tasks and humiliations

 

is a shining world that must remain hidden
so it may remain unspoiled.  When Misti

 

severed her thumb and wrapped it
is a swaddle of cloth, afraid to tell management

 

lest she lose her job, I glimpsed you,
there at the pearly bone flush with crimson,

 

beautiful and fragile and lit with the pain
of our kind.  At the hospital, she was made whole

 

again, though I’m certain she bears the scar to this day,
though you were secreted, once again,

 

beneath the surgeon’s arrogant work.
I am grateful for the power in my body;

 

help guard it from poisons, keep my sleeve
far from the spinning shaft, my skin free from

 

tick bites, stray dogs, the mule’s twisting
ivory teeth.  Help me keep my strength,

 

and practice diligence and mercy,
like your son, sawing and swinging his hammer,

 

walking home on dusty feet
to a meal someone worked all morning

 

to prepare.

 

About Austin Segrest

Austin Segrest’s poetry has appeared in TriQuarterly, The Threepenny Review, The Yale Review, Ploughshares, and New England Review. He is a PhD student in the creative writing program at the University of Missouri, and the poetry editor of The Missouri Review.

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