“You’re not a monster,” the song in my headphones said. And I cried, strangely heartbroken by happiness, because for once the words seemed true.
Why does happiness do that?
I covered my face with my hands, hands that I’d used to cut the scars on my arm and across my neck. Hands that had just finished a poem instead. A real poem. Vivid with everything unsaid, everything fully mine. I have not written a real poem since before the scars, and however much I healed it has seemed that poetry left my voice. That all of it was register I could no longer reach. And my own book, published with poems of mine in each chapter, stared at me like a mirror with eyes I no longer knew.
I felt like I’d been in a horrible car wreck – a car wreck called life – and I could still walk but I’d been badly disfigured.
I had the good grace to whine about it a lot.
So I occasionally tried a poem. Really the only one that worked was a bilingual mimic of and response to Charles Baudelaire. (Because why be normal, I guess? Shut up, I love French poetry in French.) Clever, sure, but mostly carried by Baudelaire. It wasn’t quite a poem, not really, though it was closer. I could perhaps continue on as a translator. (Which I also love. Shut up.)
I was playing a video game. (Shut up.) It is called Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and I played it because I got it for free and because I really like its historical settings. My little guy and I ran around 18th century revolutionary Paris – recreated at a massive 1:1 ratio! – and I was enamored of reading about each landmark and then looking up more. F*ck the plot; it’s Assassin’s Creed, so it’ll just be weird and confusing anyway. I won and I assassinated a lot of people. The end.
My little guy and I also ran around Saint-Denis, Paris. It is a real town, and I was struck by its devastated basilica. The tombs and the rumors about the ghosts of kings. So I read about it: the basilica was where the French kings had been buried, extending as far back as the 6th century. It was a famous church, renovated as it was by Abbot Suger (of the attached monastery), and it is considered the first gothic church.
I couldn’t stop imagining it. This resplendent church with centuries of kings underneath, wrecked during the French Revolution. At two different points in 1793, the kings and their families were dug out of their tombs and thrown into a mass grave. They were covered with quicklime to secure and speed their disintegration, and their riches were robbed and sold. What survives now does so because of an insightful museum curator. The French call these events La profanation des tombes royales de la basilique Saint-Denis.
The profanation. The desecration.
Emptying the very earth of history, unburying the dead: what anger that took, and what agony. So much destroyed forever. As if being rid of the bones would somehow rid France of its royal past. As if time itself could be dug up from its roots.
Is this how tradition dies? Is it murdered? Is this what I watch, helpless, on my own campus?
Then I read about Saint Denis himself, whose relics are still there. He is the patron of Paris, and he was bishop there in the third century, when all was still under the Roman Empire. Denis was beheaded during a persecution of Christians, and it is said that his body took his head and carried it all the way to where Saint-Denis is now, preaching repentance the whole way before he came to die.
My first reaction to the hagiography was, “That. Happened.” Something child-like and defiant in me somehow refuses to die. I frequently sass students about these miracles by saying, “Prove it didn’t happen.” Just to push. Twist my arm and I’d say it’s more likely that an alternate tradition claiming Denis was thrown in the Seine is probably more accurate. Probably. But hagiography isn’t history, and there is something in them that needs to be trusted or else the saint vanishes away. Denis carried his damn head because that’s important somehow.
All these bones and decapitations looked like a poem to me. I don’t know why. They just did: a poem was in there if I could manage to put it together. I was so excited. I had found a poem.
So then. I won’t explain the poem, which is below. I also won’t describe the drastic editing. I think both destroy the chance to be a reader. But I’ll list a couple of details:
- I liked making Saint Denis’s head on fire.
- I read that Saint Denis was confused with Dionysius the Areopagite (aka “Pseudo-Dionysius”) in the Middle Ages. They were considered the same person – both Denis! So I deliberately borrowed images from Dionysius.
- I directly quote GM Hopkins somewhere in there, if you can find it.
I wrote a f*cking poem. A real one. I don’t know everything it means, but I don’t have to know. I could cry, because I at least know it means that I am not only scars. And dying doesn’t mean staying dead.
Saint Denis, 1793
Saint Paul died like this, head cut clean off.
But he didn’t get up and walk as I do,
rising over the bloody sword at my feet,
head held in my hands as I move through
the brilliant dark. My eyes burn with holy fire,
and I am living and I am dead, head held
at my heart. I am both and I am neither,
body of a church that bears the head
leading on. I am dusk and I am dawn;
like a lantern I see on to where
God bids me to live and to die. I am drawn
where God bids my bones be crucified.
The church grows around me like a stone tree,
and in her cool shadows she collects
the royal dead. She gathers gold and silver
and with them she bends herself to elegance.
Everything pulls the eyes upward,
all glittering. Archways twine together
in the warm blood of the setting sun.
As under the carved limbs all gazes are set down
to the stone and marble that stares back at them.
The sightless eyes of the semblanced dead
that watch as they are all unhoused
of the figures they were shaped to vigil over.
There will be no kings for the people now.
There will be no bones. Throw them down
together to the dark. They with their empty eyes
and silent jaws, unable to object as they are buried
in a shower of powdered fire.
They lived once and they died,
and now their likenesses are the choir
present for a second death, which is to forget.
Now there is nothing behind these gathered stone eyes.
And my hollow gaze is fiery dark,
solitary witness to death and to life,
likeness of living one as slain.
God bids me up; Lord of living and dead.
God who makes from chaos and void.
And God bids me rise again in death,
for he has made even an empty tomb his sign.
(c) Anne M. Carpenter