Poetry in the hands of a saint. And mine.

st-denis-holding-his-head-e1419180195836

“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.)

And then.

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

Beauty, Writing. Illusioning and Disillusioning

“Untitled,” Zdislav Beksinski

Once I burned every story I had ever written. Literally. Then deleted the files. Or, I suppose I should begin in another place: I used to write stories. Then I burned them all. The act was at least partially inspired by G.M. Hopkins, who had burned his early poems on entering the Jesuit novitiate, and that was probably the only thing I liked about Hopkins at the time. What Hopkins and I shared – and I was much angrier about it than he – was a keen sense of beauty’s power to deceive. I had become aware, painfully aware, that my stories had become crutches, escapes – illusions. So I burned them away.

I also really enjoyed burning things and I was twenty-one or something, so I don’t put that past me as additional motivation. I wouldn’t even put that past me now.

Not a single copy of any of my stories exists. I think. Maybe a cousin has a copy of one, I don’t know. I like to think in epic terms, so I imagine that they’re all entirely lost and this delights me simply because it’s severe. Though I hated, hated the arts and literature – and took none of them seriously – I had a fondness for writing. As a very sickly adolescent, I had but few things to keep me occupied: reading, make-up homework, video games, writing. I retreated often to my intellect, which was the safest place I knew how to be. Writing became a way to play for once, to simply see what I could do, and it became a way to work through emotions that felt largely unavailable to me. Which was any emotion. At all. I had a strong affection for Spock.

The irony is that my career today is built on my knowledge of and sensitivity to the arts, especially poetry. The truth is that I love poetry, literature, the arts. But I didn’t know that. I was young and an idiot and really hurting.

I hated beauty because I perceived its strong relation to feeling. To desire, to willing. The Ancient Greeks and Medievals thought that beauty was simply an aspect of what they called the Good, which was the “highest” goodness, or goodness “itself.” For them, the Good was especially associated with the will. In other words, we want good things. Want and will match together. Beauty was woven with wanting. I knew something of this, though I knew nothing of philosophy. Feeling and desiring flared unstable and horrific in my young mind, twisted all together on tenterhooks. I could not bear to want or to feel. My secret life of trauma and abuse – I told no one, after all – left me wracked by profound distrust and confusion over nearly any feeling at all, especially desire. Especially that.

Once I failed a moral theology test because I couldn’t make myself read any of the questions on sex. I circled whatever. I literally couldn’t read the words. I never failed anything in theology. I have a fucking doctorate in theology. It’s funny. Kind of.

So by the time I reached college, there was a way in which storytelling – especially writing – remained with me as this single, unanticipated avenue to yearn and to feel. And that I did. I wasn’t all that great at it, the feeling or the writing, but I worked hard at both – and only together.

One central character was a young woman with four vicious scars across half her face. She herself was vicious, angry and half-feral. Dangerous with knives. Always taciturn, never cautious, never soft. She was an unsubtle figure of my own inexplicable feelings, the ones so haunted by violence and that singular rage that comes from violence. May no one ever have to know it. That peculiar, suffocating self-hating fire.

It would have fit nicely with one of those young adult series about horrible worlds that are so popular these days, the ones starring young women who are heroic and beautiful. Only my creation was much, much more brutal and physically marred. She grew up among demons. (So had I.) And it could’ve fit for a movie so long as I was never in charge of it. All of my stories ended with everyone dying.

I can see it so clearly, looking back. The young mind struggling so hard to understand violence.

I wasn’t that great at writing stories. My temperament left me far too impatient for a story arc, and I hated dialogue with absurd passion (so no one freaking talked). For reasons entirely lost on me, I had a strange talent for writing romances (and battles). More than one friend told me so. I’d blush and write more battles. (Desire was not okay. It wasn’t. Not when it hurt so much. When others made it hurt.) I much preferred building to some kind of harrowing image played out in intense engagement with my reader. My imaginary reader. The one I was trying so very hard to convince something was wrong, very wrong. Imaginary, since I didn’t think I lived in a world that could be convinced by anything I said.

Why would I let myself feel, really feel, in a world like that?

Still, I became aware of just how imaginary the infinite display of personalities, places, and scenes could be. They increasingly drew me away from the world, the real one, and I felt breathlessly afraid of the feelings I could not escape – and felt suffocated by a weakness for illusion that seemed especially serious in me. It’s not real, you know. The stories. They’re not real like that. They’re just stories. And no one turns out okay, and isn’t so wrong to think that anyway? I shouldn’t even symbolize it.

A lot of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon folktales involve fairies, often women, and many of them reside around water. (Thus King Arthur’s “Lady of the Lake.”) They weren’t always nice, either. These fairies. This definitely isn’t Disney, though there might be singing. These creatures were rather dangerous. Like those sirens that had Odysseus going mad, the fairies would lure men away with their beauty and lead them to their death. It’s a fairytale-truth about something we all know: beauty tells the best lies. Why else are perfect people in advertisements telling me to buy things I don’t need?

Beauty unhinged of truth isn’t good anymore.

So I burned all my lies and with them the truths I otherwise desperately hid. I gave up on the last bit of art in me. Still, I fiddled with words. Couldn’t seem to help it. I met a friend who saw in me a certain talent, and he carefully tricked me into reading poems. At first only the very Catholic ones. The Catholic poems about Catholic things. Anything Catholic meant I’d read it for sure. Then my friend offered me Catholic poets who stretched up and away from explicitly religious topics. Then non-Catholics, atheists, anyone. By then he had worn me away into the sincerity of my love for real beauty. I started learning foreign languages and he started handing me poems in those languages. God, I loved beauty. And yearned for it.

Like some immense experiment, I absorbed everything I read. I mean the technique of it, often quite unconscious. In stories I had started to mess with the rhythms of words, and now I accidentally wrote in meter with no story at all. I made games of collapsing images together. Playing. Imitating clever little things on purpose, and many others with no awareness at all. So eventually I began writing poetry. And, to be honest, I was far better at it than I ever had been at anything else with words.

And Hopkins is the best.

My mentors in graduate school knew. I’d reference poems in class – if I spoke at all. They knew I had a certain talent, and that I tried at poetry, though I wouldn’t show anyone my poems save my friend. Maybe two other souls. With immense fear and conviction, I protected my small corner of art. Of feelings and desire. I didn’t want poetry taken from me, as if that old fire sought to consume my work again. Besides, I didn’t want to be considered strange or insane. I could do theology, dammit, and I was very logical and compelling. I wasn’t a sentimental idiot. I just wrote poems sometimes, is all, and fuck you for asking.

I loved Hans Urs von Balthasar endlessly. That unusual and brilliant theologian of beauty. I was such a hopeless contradiction, stubbornly against even a hug but enamored of theological aesthetics. What can I say? Scars do strange things to people.

My mentors eventually wanted me to combine the poetry and the theology, since Balthasar did something like this and since my double talent allowed me to understand it. I fought them the whole way. Partly I’m just crazy stubborn. Partly I resisted out of extreme (and misplaced) anxiety over whether doing this would make me “weird” to other scholars. D. Stephen Long said, “You know, it’s good to be different.” And finally, out of a very real awareness that this effort, this theological poetic, would force me to unite intellect and will – knowing and desiring – and these two I had fought very hard not to unite for most of my life. I knew, keenly, that this union would hurt.

It was agony. The words emerged elegant and calm, but the struggle to unite what even the Academy refuses to unite (intellect and emotion) left me ragged. I was fiercely determined to be clear, logical. Almost cold. Carefully, deliberately, cooly – I tried. And then I’d break in with yearning, bittersweet pain, beautiful hope. It was a kind of cunning, the writing. Ever so clear and aching. My every power bent to keep them – clarity, aching – close.

And through it I reached those things in me that hurt the most. The terrible, breathless losses. Everything true and real in me broke open and broke apart. That’s what it felt like, anyway. Honestly, I was also exhausted by far too many years of silence. Trauma doesn’t exactly go away. It hides right in your skin, lights up nerves. Still, I’m not sure I’d have really seen that in myself so vividly if I hadn’t been encouraged to draw together the two things I loved. Beauty and truth.

It cost not less than everything.

And finally, finally I could learn to stop lying. It has been a long road since, but good.

A short lesson in poetry.

Sainte Jeanne d'Arc

Poetry returns to me in small pieces. I miss it. My last good poem was dark with fury, so I’m not sure how many poetical words I have in me right now. In any case, my most recent poem is a short and simple and I thought I’d use it to point out something in poetry that is also simple, but very important. The key is a kind of “not-saying.” A silence with the purpose of saying something.

So then. Here’s the poem, a brief stanza:

I lay silently in the grass.
Arms stretched out.
All angled like a compass rose.
I closed my eyes.
The sun burned bright.
Hot all along my skin.
And I remembered another fire.
And Joan’s final word.

It’s neither the best nor the worst poem. I think it gets a bit choppy right about when the sun appears. Didn’t quite pull off the one sentence thing without sounding a bit like a robot. Simplicity is difficult, you know. Anyway: it’s a simple image. The speaker, or “me” – don’t confuse the actual me with the “I” in a poem (take that, Romanticism) – or whoever, lays down on the grass. It’s warm. Then the poet thinks about some Joan person who died saying something. End.

Nice, um… Well. Sorry about Grandma Joan who died in a fire? The sun sounds nice, at least.

What is all this?

If you’re familiar with any Joan associated a fire, it’s probably Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc). A saint of the Catholic Church, Joan was a young French peasant who kicked the asses of English armies in the 15th century, driving them backward across France and dragging that lazy punk Charles to Reims so he could be crowned king. This was during the famous Hundred Years’ War. She was captured by the English and tried for a number of things, mainly heresy, and they were very upset about her cross-dressing too. She wore armor, after all. This was seen as evidence of her heterodoxy for…reasons. Point is: they wanted her dead, and they searched for ways to make that happen. Then they made it happen. Let’s keep in mind that everyone is Catholic at this point. So Catholic France rallied behind Catholic Joan of Arc, and Catholic England captured her and condemned her. She was burned at the stake.

Now she’s a saint.

As G.K. Chesterton says of Joan, “The Canonisation of St. Joan came very slowly and very late. But the Rehabilitation of St. Joan came very promptly and very early. It is a very exceptional example of rapid reparation for a judicial crime or a miscarriage of justice. … [I]f we take the tale of St. Joan as a test, the really remarkable thing is not so much the slowness of the Church to appreciate her, as the slowness of everybody else” (from “The Early Bird in History”).

In any case, this is the Joan of the fire in the poem. The poem simply expects us to know that, and good luck making sense of the thing without knowing it. And what was Joan’s last word? It is said – with a fair chance at historical accuracy – that Joan’s last words as she died were, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” The poem elides this into one word, but all the same: it doesn’t say it. It expects us to supply the last word and, even, the real end of the poem itself. “Jesus.”

Fun fact: my own favorite words of Joan from her trial, other than these, involve her response to her captors as they continually pestered her about the saints she saw and spoke with. “Do they speak French?” they’d ask, mocking her. She’d never respond. Finally, they pushed her to the end of her patience. Again they asked of the saints, “Do they speak French?” Right there in the records of the trial, we can see her snap, “Better French than you!”

Haha. Teenagers.

So then, I need to know something already before the poem can be a poem to me. Almost all poems do this – all words do it, too – reaching out to what we already know in order to offer us meaning. Words speak through a shared world of understanding or “text” (Ricoeur), taking advantage of an “echo” (Hollander, Vanden Eykel), since words have metaphorical ranges mapped neurally in the brain (Masson), and we arrive at the meaning in words through their approximation to other words (Derrida). To shove aside the philosophers and theologians, I mean this: nothing speaks to us unless we speak back. We actually have to offer ourselves to what we read.

You’ve got to know, or figure out, who Joan of Arc is and what her last word is to understand the poem. Not because the poem fails, but because the poem is being a poem. Just saying it is philosophy; not saying it is poetry. Both are meaningful, but they mean differently.

Now, if I’ve solved the simple puzzle of the poem – a simplicity that presumes Christianity in order for it to actually be simple, a presumption that fascinates me even though I’m the one who wrote the damn thing – I’ve got at the basic meaning of the poem. If I go back and read again, as poems always demand, some new details come forward. For example, if I don’t know what a compass rose is, I can guess a bit even without looking it up: something cross-like, probably, or in any case the speaker is splayed out lazily on the ground. The image is sharper if I look back and I am able to supply some of the last words of the poem to the first words: something cruciform or Jesus-shaped is there. The explicit comparison of fires (sunlight and burning execution) stands out more clearly, if not rather more strangely. Why in the hell would this person be at peace imagining being on fire? Well.

Jesus.

And to get that, the poem seems to beg for a specific way of thinking about him.

Not that it says what that is. No: that’s ours to give.

Oh, and, uh… *cough* I kind of have a book coming out about this stuff. In case you wondered why I could list a bunch of thinkers on the same thing. And please click on that photo above! Father Lawrence is a Dominican who takes the greatest religious photos ever.