Poetry | December 01, 2001

Featuring the poems:

  • The Isenheim Resurrection
  • Cemetary By the Deer Blind
  • Richard Mather Aboard the James, 1635
  • Anatomy of Resurrection
  • Chrome Horse


The Isenheim Resurrection

Only Matthew’s gospel claims that soldiers

Were appointed by the Pharisees to watch

The tomb, yet here they are, as big as life,

Sporting anachronistic mail and swords

Too tall for them to wield. Their armor drags

Them groundward as Christ leaps away from Earth

As if on wires, Hollywood style. Effects

Burn state of the art in Grünewald’s altarpiece,

The Son pale as a ghost, yet flesh enough

To flash the glowing stigmata to a crowd

As yet imagined only, as the women–

Mary Magdalene, and the “Other Mary”

Not present in the painting, perhaps the point

Of view–bear witness to the hope on which

The Church is built: the triumph over Death.

The head of Christ shades into yellow fire,

The yellow into orange sun, then ether

Out of which sparks fly like Gnostic souls

Or bright stigmata mirrors into dark.

The cloak folds, angry iris, vaginal,

About the body now transfigured, folded

Out from blood and twisted into white wings,

The pride of wound and history winding off

The flesh, its dirty spool. The Concept wins

And flies the fingers, arms and liver, all

The filth, to meet the soul in the middle air.

We needed this, so we invented it,

The way we have, worm-like, excreted art

And architecture, books and economics

Onto the tunnel walls through which we crawl,

The way Christ emanates hard glory from

His blessèd tranquil head into the night,

A tunnel he can rise through to a throne.

This is my way of saying the story’s true:

Christ Jesus, crucified, rose from the dead

In all the different versions the gospels say–

The angels (one, or maybe two) announce

At the tomb (two, or maybe three women) he’s

Alive. He makes his brief appearances,

Eats fish or not, discourses or not, with Peter.

It doesn’t really matter, it’s all a lie

So true we had to tell it several ways

To get it right. The points at which the stories

Strike, the flame chips out like Gnostic sparks

Incapable of igniting contradiction,

And the body, spirit-like, learns to conspire

With fiery tongues. The story we believe

And tell is not, thank God, what happened to us,

It’s how we think it was inside the words

And symbols we allow ourselves: cut lamb,

Brown gospel tree, the empty tomb, tunnel

To heaven and the body transformed to life,

The losers and the lame caught up in the air

For the Resurrection, when dead things open their eyes

And follow Christ onto the stage just like

A talk show, everything exposed and squeezed

With all the compassion we–our God–can muster.

Only John contains the story of how Thomas

Demanded empirical proof, the finger in

The hole, the hand into the chest. What did

He feel that made him worship Jesus as

His God, so that Jesus said, “Blessèd are they

Who have not seen, and yet believe,” as if

Faith’s built on ignorance, the blind leading

The blind down a winding staircase to a hole

That sucks you through an orange light so vast

That everything, at once, is black and white.


Cemetery By the Deer Blind

So this is the cemetery, the sunken graves
And limestone from the nineteenth century.

Mesquite outlines the reach of skeleton,

Dead pioneers, who’ve nothing to do with me
Or you, except this walk through cactus groves
And cattle walls that no one minds anymore.

Huge spider webs, like old relationships,

Were promises through which we blindly tore
Right to the line, the barb and wire, the dead.
Right here, their chests collapsed beneath the dirt

As if the heart and history, too weak,

Could not support the burden, or the work.
Oh, Evelyn, for every change we make,
We make a grave. The past does not slide on

Like shoulders over twisted wire. You shrug

The skin off, diamondback, then snap the turn
The way trails take you back where you’d begun.
These ranchers ended up in this mosquito

Grove. It could be worse; this park surrounds

Their enterprise, the traces of water holes
And wagon wheels, wild birds, and rabbits built
To tear across the jack, the mesquite brush,

Persistent, armadillo-like, and slow.

Oh, Evelyn, for every skin you touch,
You risk the leprosy. I let you cut
The deltoid into target and the sign

Of alligator pigs gone wild, the feral

Byzantine, mosaic without design.
The dead are kicks inside the pricks, the tale
More interesting than ours, unreason in

The formula. Grasshoppers on the shirt.

Fat spiders over the only trail that seems
To take us out, if out is anywhere.
But we’re the lucky ones, the damaged ones,

The shallow sky, the clay of orange fire,

Deer shit like liver, the play of cactus tongue.
Eye peeling like the mesquite does its bark,
I know we’re in here somewhere, like that turtle,

Getting a little air, but just enough–

A mouthful bites off all the change that matters.


Richard Mather Aboard the James, 1635

Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will,
and whom he will he hardeneth.
Romans 9:18
Tyndale’s New Testament

Gray water, fortress waves: we feared God’s wrath,

But found the way most smooth, with porpoises

And dolphins sporting ’round the bowsprit’s haze

Escorting us like angels to the New

Jerusalem, the colonies, the Church
Where sheep are shepherded away from goats

By ministers distinct from wolves. The flock,

The Church Invisible, are dolphins arcing
Out of the profane, then back into the brine

Of gravity and flesh, the NO to grace

That drags saints to the city beneath the sea.
Jonah’s our curse: we preach to souls we hate.
The sea rises up as if to swallow us,

As if the boat, tossed like a false confession,

Spells driftwood, the lamb that wanders away: my soul…
I preach, but I don’t know if I am saved…

Some days, the sun burning especially bright

And true, the crew sharpens a small harpoon,

Takes a porpoise that frolics close to the bow.

Once opened upon the deck, the entrails spill,
The liver, lights, the heart and guts, the spirit

Of the thing, for all the world a swine,

As if we were back in sweet muddy Norwich,
The kingdom of the Beast. The countryside
We stumbled through, here present on the sea–

The Savior gutted out for us, a fish

Filleted and butchered like an English hog.
The stench of the Divine: the carnal mind

Like a squeamish vegetarian. We eat

The stuff of God, afraid justification
Attacks our sanctity, the gizzard walk

Of prayer and fasting, the frolicking of flesh.

These dolphins live their baptism, they arc

Into the rollers, glowing red and green,

They take their bitter diving like a grace,
A grace that breaks them down for sacrifice,

Then butchery, blood, and the wake of vicious God.

The Kingdom is a song you almost hear
Out of a sea confused with tearing fins

And rudders pointing nowhere. Salvation pokes

Like fingers slicing up to take a piece
Of what drains through the painful fist: the World,
The Flesh, The Devil. Heaven’s Ephemeral.

These dolphins prove that grace is subject to
The knife of lust, the history of kitchen.

These fallen angels point the way to Hell,

The Belly of the Beast, the Hogs of Earth,

The Porpoises of Gehenna. I took a knife

A crewman sharpened on his whetting stone

And I myself opened the chattering chest.
Like a heifer, red and perfect, it suffered God–

At sea! High priest of the Covenant Renewed,

I felt nothing. My congregation felt
Nothing but the sharpening of steel on stone,

The fear of promises forgotten, lost.

I’m afraid God’s changing his great Mind again.
And the blade’s held up to Isaac’s chest, and nothing
Arcs into the scene to tell me NO,

God’s razor shaving history right off
The farm while the Kingdom folds and turns away.


Anatomy of Resurrection

To bodies that had been laid in earth, in joyful
expectation of a far different awakening, there came
that hasty, lamplit, terror-haunted resurrection of the
spade and mattock.
R.L. Stevenson

To rise again: perhaps in body, at last

In breath, or maybe organs passed around

To doctors and the dying, going fast.

One moment in the coffin, riding down,

The next you’re spread on cold Victorian stone,

A victory of science and the frown

That runs through men whose brains curl into bone

Logic, so that resurrection of the flesh

Stands metaphor for dialectic’s hone …

The cleaver finds the joints. It takes a fresh

Dead living thing, and scalpels it to order?

No longer soul pitched hard to body’s ash,

You’re reinvented into cortex, bladder,

Hard stone of lymph, and Resurrection Men

Are midwives, since you’ve fallen down the ladder

Into this earth of poetry and sin

As an Example of a Principle,

The Vague Abstraction, Anatomy Human.

One body snatcher said to his young double:

“If you begin, you must keep on beginning;

And that’s the truth. There’s no rest for the evil.”

So if the body comes back with its grinning

Underneath the shining skin, or if its past

Is undisturbed in lands unknown, conniving

With Gods, best not, against surviving friends,

To rise, just sleep–since every story ends.


Chrome Horse

The tyranny of change will slap forgiveness

Onto every falling brick at the temple.

The more you try to prop it up, the less

True wall you find, the stronger gravity’s pull.

So I went to the lotus pond, the stress

Of flowers reaching to the light was all

Around, like elevator music, the press

Of Heaven’s spatula against the ball–

Our Earth. How odd, we think of it as ours,

Like some chrome horse we ride in empty dark

Through sunset, starset, the constellation’s bars…


This Buddhist temple, my prison; the car I park,

The horse that I rode in on, or grizzled guard

Who turns the key, one way, both ways, too hard…


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