The Triangular Current of Desire: My Assisi
for Parker Palmer
I arrive in St. Francis’ city by train, accompanied by a league of buses, pilgrims, schoolchildren, lovers, nuns, city of the robed in sackcloth habits, white cords around their waists. My room is in a boarding house near Porta Perlici. An old man in the foyer holds the keys.
I'll live for two months in this room. With these voices climbing through the opened shutters. With these houses of heated talk, and their laughter. It is the talk I seem to hear them in every city. It is the voices of the women on their stoops or through the windows of the kitchens. The women’s voices. Sometimes threatening, suddenly quieting. Glasses and cups and spoons ringing softly as they clink one against the other.
I have come to Assisi to charge my spiritual wonder again. Not to write, necessarily, not to "do" anything. The anonymous author of Cloud of Unknowing, the 14th century instruction manual on contemplation written from a senior monk in England to a junior one, spoke of an initiate’s naked intent toward God. I have come to the medieval city open to a strange intent, naked of expectation.William James writes, in Varieties of Religious Experience: “’That art Thou!’ say the Upanishads, and the Vedantists add, ‘Not a part, not a mode of That, but identically That, that absolute spirit of the world.’”
The voices, clinking glasses, the sense of the sacred in everything. That is my intent. Just to say so now, I have begun.
apocalypse: the end of self protection
One of the tenets of the story of Francis is that he heard voices. Or rather, he heard a voice just once, saying, "Repair my church." This experience alone did not make him a mystic, but it made him an outcast, and put his perspective onto the rim of life, so he could let go of certain things, certain desires to be liked or to fit in or to say or do the right thing. Ultimately the voice Francis heard (and his assent of its message) put him in a dangerous position where he had less and less to lose.
We hear of William James’ definitions of mysticism and religious experience often because, for one, they provide a safe academic haven in which to talk about these mysterious events. Psychiatrists might call a mystical experience a psychotic episode: voices are heard, etc. But James seems to treat them as life-changing phenomena. In many cases, the voices are particularized to a certain moment in time and do not come back. This makes the message of the voice more poignant, for sure, but it’s a mystery: where on earth does that voice come from?
James lists the four criteria for such an experience, and I think it is worth our while to discuss them here. Each experience (and he cites many accounts in Varieties of Religious Experience; there is a chapter called “Mysticism”) is marked first by its ineffability. There is no way to properly describe what has happened. When Dante emerges from Paradise, called to write down his journey, his first response is wordlessness. The ineffability of the mystical experience recalls its directness: such an experience is just that; it can’t be taught.
James says, secondly, that each experience carries with it a noetic quality. There is some illumination that comes of it; some learning takes place. When Francis hears the voice (of Jesus) demand, “Repair my church,” he first takes that literally and steals some expensive tapestries from his father’s home and sets out to reconstruct San Damiano. But it is a metaphorical message, more. Still, it is a message, the transmission of knowledge from some outside source. The third characteristic is transiency. These experiences do not last very long. They cannot; for in them the connectivity that exists between all things, we are told, appears to the visionary in luminous clarity. It’s like staring into the sun.
And finally, James tells us that passivity seems a shared quality among these visionaries. We may manipulate our bodies to get there, with drugs or breathing exercises or starvation in some cases, but once inside the experience it would seem that a power greater than ourselves is in control.
We think immediately of visionaries like Blake or Dante, who claimed such experiences as elemental to the writing process. The body becomes a vehicle for that higher power. For Blake, who, by all accounts, was a pretty regular guy (Eliot writes, “There was nothing of the superior person about him. This makes him terrifying.”), these visionary experiences happened all the time. Thomas Stearns seems a bit jealous in his essay on Blake. He writes, “Blake’s poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry.” And, in a famous passage from Eliot:
What his genius required, and what it sadly lacked, was a framework of accepted and traditional ideas which would have prevented him from indulging in a philosophy of his own, and concentrated his attention upon the problems of the poet…[and this is] one of the reasons why Dante is a classic, and Blake only a poet of genius.
To Eliot, Blake’s lack of “accepted” frameworks makes him a failure. Blake’s unique philosophy is not an indulgence, I would argue. It is the result of James’ third criterion, that noetic quality of mystical vision. The framework emerges from a higher power (call it Imagination or God), which, though unique to Blake, was not personal. All religions began, Christ’s included, as heretical philosophies. That Blake’s philosophy is original and heretical makes it more believable to me.
So too was the case with Francis of Assisi. His two famous texts, “The Book of Life,” a series of prayers, and “Canticle of the Creatures,” remain staple literature within the Catholic library today. You may have remembered a few lines from Francis without knowing you did. “Make me an instrument of your peace,” he pleads to God. “Where there is darkness let me be the light…For it is in forgiving that we are forgiven, and in dying that we receive eternal life.” Francis’ aim was to completely dissolve into God. He wanted no credit for any of his acts, but only to be the channel for right action. By the time he had reached his twenties, he abandoned all, to his parents’ dismay and horror, for the life of a pauper, donned a brown sackcloth and tied to his waist with a piece of rope. His father had been a rich textile merchant! But this is the image we have associated with him, and his plea for asceticism, for 800 years.
Francis is perhaps the first eco-saint. A poet, he wrote Canticle of the Creatures at the Santuario di San Damiano, where he first heard the voice of Jesus, about a mile south of the city.
For Brother Wind
For air and clouds, clear sky
And every sort of weather…
This anthropomorphism of the wind and weather are sooner to be found in Native American drumming ceremonies than they are in a tradition like Catholicism, which passes over the natural, fallen world for the divine. Francis’ confidence and knowledge came out of his deep vision. And, while his poem is pretty darn good on its own, it carries the authority of one who has experienced the world in this familial way. He is not writing, as Eliot would suggest he do, from a framework of previously accepted beliefs. It’s the uniqueness of his vision that characterizes its authenticity.
Though Eliot has heaped Dante into the “classical” section, there is something anti-classical about Dante’s visionary system, too. For Dante, vision’s noetic quality had to do with love; a physical love that deepened into something spiritual. First he sees the other; then he sees that the love he experiences is the true reality of his existence, and, folding back towards himself, he falls in love with his own life. In his great La Vita Nuova, a book to which I owe a large portion of my education as a poet, he recounts his childhood vision of Beatrice:
As I thought of her I fell asleep and a marvelous vision appeared to me. In my room I seemed to see a cloud the color of fire, and in the cloud a lordly figure, frightening to behold, yet in himself, it seemed to me, he was filled with marvelous joy. He said many things, of which I understood only a few; among them were these words: Ego dominus tuus [I am your master]. In his arms I seemed to see a naked figure, sleeping, wrapped lightly in a crimson cloth. Gazing intently I saw it was she who had bestowed her greeting on me earlier that day. In one hand the standing figure held a fiery object, and he seemed to say, Vide cor tuum [Behold your heart.
The Master of the vision is the alchemist, so to speak. He holds this fiery object (the heart) that will bind Dante to his Other. The heart, in alchemical terms, is the philosopher’s stone, required for the transformation of lead into gold. Love is the fire that surrounds the heart. Only love of this reality, on its terms, makes it possible to put ourselves in the place of another person. Without it, we’re alone with the fact: the brain is enclosed in this body.
When you or some outside force lift the veil of self-protection, you gain vision. The visionary is changed for life. Dante, after his exile, with less to risk and everything to gain, was changed. Francis was changed. They had a confidence they lacked before. We all know how it feels to be on the fringes of love. Am I really in love with this person? We ask ourselves over and over. But another time a certainty comes over you, as Kabir once wrote, and it makes you a servant for life. We know what it is like to have an experience that pushes us into a corner—a near death experience, say—and we come away from it with the sense that our priorities are more clear. We either end or stay with the relationship, and we commit to either one with confidence. That’s the power of vision. There’s no waffling. It pushes one forward. Surely vision is what Hamlet lacks (though Hamlet is having visions of his father all the time). “I lack advancement,” he tells Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.
In James’ words,
The keynote of it is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into a unity.
This melting James describes, melding, is sublime. For those who are ready, vision is amply available in that space. It is hard wired into the architecture of the cathedral, all the ingredients set into the crucible. I have heard rabbis speak this way of the Torah or the Kabala; and I have heard poets speak this way of The Divine Comedy. At Saint Francis’ cathedral, the effect is extraordinary. There is a palpable rhythm. The lower church is designed as a tomb, the ceiling lower—“crushed” architecturally— as though the upper church were collapsing into it. It’s a mortar with the pestle pressing down, and you are the powdery substance it’s crushing. It offers an unconscious illusion of weight, of the sky falling.
Immediately you feel claustrophobic, like being buried alive. The most famous fresco down below is Lorenzetti’s “Madonna Who Celebrates Francis.” It’s really rather small compared to some of the other works by the Giotto School and Cimabue and Martini. In it, Mary is holding Jesus and points towards Francis. She is pointing with her thumb; almost casually, or secretly. To her right is St. John looking shocked. Mary is endorsing Francis over John. John is holding his bible and looking left out. Francis is pointing to himself, shocked too, a “Who, me?” expression crossing his face. Near the right transept is Cimabue’s “Madonna in Majesty,” significant because in it is a portrait of Francis that is said to be the most accurate we have; the details of his likeness had come from Francis’ own nephews. He is hunched and his ears stick out at right angles; his eyes are droopy and huge. He bears the look of someone who, like Blake seemed to Eliot, is downright ordinary.
The place on which the cathedral stands is called “Paradise Hill,” though it had once been called “Hell Hill,” Colle d’Inferno, legend claims. People were executed there in the years before Francis’ birth. Pervading planting cultures the world over is an image of life emerging from a dead thing. From the dead tree new shoots appear. It is an observation gleaned from nature, but applied to spiritual life. Jesus is crucified on the “place of skull” where Adam was said to be buried. From the fallen comes the risen.
Below the cathedral is the unearthed tomb of the man himself. Crowds of people, mysteriously, do not interrupt the aura of sanctity in this place. Arranged directly in front of the tomb are about five or six rows of pews, where sit nuns and priests and pilgrims from every world view and culture. Something about the place frightens me. Think of the first time you saw a real corpse. Smaller tombs surround him, friar-friends of the saint. I can only stand it for ten minutes, no more, and by then I feel suffocated. I leave by the basement door, which leads into an open courtyard overlooking the olive fields of Umbria. It is bright and I hike my way back up to the street.
joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy
I live near Piazza del Commune, a square where the old Roman Temple of Minerva, its façade nearly fully preserved, has stood for two millennia. Now it houses a chapel, its six, three-storey Corinthian columns, dated back to the first century BCE, notched by ruts and collusions, leading in to a circular drum with only five pews on each side, and a statue of Mary above the altar lit electrically by stars. On the ceiling is a fresco depicting, among other scenes, Justice in the 18th century style, those soft proto-Romantic brushstrokes like at Versailles, looking down with an optimistic smile, but not blindfolded. She holds the scales. There is a kind of lightness and optimism here. That smile has a tinge of encouragement in it. I like the juxtaposition of Mary and Justice; one connoting the Madonna’s choicelessness and grace (she is looking up); the other the grace that comes of living life responsibly, by one’s volition (Justice is looking down). The latter is certainly an 18th century notion. We make grace for ourselves here on earth. In the natural universe little is fair; the strong survive; but we can manipulate the system with our logic.
The language of cathedrals is the tongue of Meister Eckhart, of Rumi and Kabir, of the countless other mystics whose subject is the silence of God. The negative road is captured in the empty space within a cathedral. In the round dome of a basilica, an altar takes up such a small portion. Surrounding us are the stories we need to know, stories written for the poor along the ornamented windows, biblae pauperum. For an illiterate but faithful public, these scenes, found in every great cathedral across Europe, tell the story. But beneath the story is pure silence. We find it again in Dickinson:
There’s a certain slant of light
That oppresses—like the Heft—
Of Cathedral tunes—
The alternating lightness and heaviness (“light” and “heft”; the oppression of a “tune”), and the image of the light captured in the peculiar combination of colloquial and formal language (“slant” and “heft” and “tune” vs. “oppresses” and “cathedral”) even in a four line stanza begin to embody the problem of art. The cathedral, like Dickinson’s poem, is an expression of the human situation: a place between being and non-being, between death and resurrection, it is neither of this world nor beyond it. It is a story, and it is silence.
I step into the Temple of Minerva one night while a tiny mass was being held. There is the priest, two worshippers. The mass is in Latin. Anyway, the communication is above or before the words, first and foremost. I even find that the event is hindered by words. I haven’t attended mass in English in a year. (I still go to mass, though I consider myself a “lapsed” Catholic.) The mass in English alters my focus away from the silence and ritual. The Latin does not. In the Latin Mass the words are mood music, some chamber orchestra in the mind of God. The priest alone speaks them, but, as Richard Rodriguez recounts in his essay “Credo,” “Latin permitted escape from the prosaic world. Latin’s great theatrical charm, its sacred power, was that it could translate human aspiration to a holy tongue.” Shakespeare’s alliteration, assonance and consonance deal a visceral emotional punch when the words seem to sound out what they’re describing. When he tells, in Sonnet 116, of Time’s “bending sickle’s compass come,” I hear the sssk of the sickle in the grass. For a poet like Hart Crane, this sonic aspect was of most importance. He wrote,
As a poet I may possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness…than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid signification.
In Crane, the sounds of words and their potential to “impinge” when brought together prove more crucial to the poem than what the words actually signify. The application of sound, you might say, resurrects the word from the dead. It's common for Modernist writers like Crane to speak in terms of language and consciousness. Language maps a separation, a kind of wound. Anne Lamott tells us all writers suffer from separation; through writing they seek to feel “at home” again. Grief is hell; grief is hopeless separation. What I believe Robert Bly means by “adult grief”-- a term he associates with all good poetry -- is connected to this sense of universal separation. To feel adult grief is to apprehend that everyone, not just you, experiences great loss, and that through loss we have the opportunity to feel connected to others. Grief comes from the insight that death is final. Its adult counterpart has to do with ethics: how to learn kindness again, not despite, but because of death. Joseph Campbell called it this: “Joyful participation in the sorrows of the world, and sorrowful participation in the joys of the world.” We must participate in the sorrows joyfully, since they will pass. We must participate in the joys sorrowfully, since they will pass.
In the Catholic mass, there is calm in the reenactment of loss. An incubation becomes possible in the darkness, a sensation of enfoldment into something greater than oneself, one’s personal losses, which seems hard-wired into the architecture itself. The cathedral makes us feel small; it crushes the ego; but by our identification with a larger story and an extraordinary human being, we become large. (We’re human beings, too.) When Jesus’ body fails, the faithful fail with him. In the amphitheater when Oedipus’ worldly eyes fail, we become agony, too. And that is what must happen in ourselves when we confront the problem of our own death. Adult grief rises out of our connection to the rest of the world through suffering. It involves a kind of “faith,” faith that it’s possible to leap from this lonely body into the place of another lonely body. Adult grief is a triumph of our genius, the imagination.
Adult grief suggests a “growing up.” It means I have to shift from one station of life into another. In the Jungian alchemical language there is a term that’s used, “the container” for the transformation. As the alchemists used a container to mix lead and the philosopher’s stone to make gold, the Jungians call the conference room their container. That’s where the interior “self” and the exterior “world” are “cooked” to join these fields of opposites into unified, new perspective. This transformational episode is not merely talked about like in psychoanalysis but experienced in a blast of insight. It draws a line in the sand. Old patterns disappear.
keep going up
Mid-July, every night, the neighbors gather on their stoops. I go down around 10 one evening. There, four women and a man, all in the sixties and seventies, sit in a little circle on directors’ chairs. “How long,” I ask, “are you here?” My neighbor’s answer: Due ori. Two hours. I meant to ask: How long have you gathered this way? We have a little conversation. “Questa mi piace,” This I like, I say. They nod like they know. They sit out from sunset at nine until eleven, enduring the mosquitoes, which have gotten so bad my arms and legs are covered with welts.
Still, they sit in the insect infested night and talk and talk. A wave of laughter rises toward my room on the second floor. People in their seventies and eighties, who remember the worst of times. A young woman stops an old woman with a cane, both on their way up the hill. The young woman touches the old woman’s shoulder. They laugh. The old woman is carrying a bag of groceries. The old woman has been a young woman. The young woman will be old. Together these two walk slowly up the steps, sometimes a half mile straight to the top. The slowness here is almost brash.
Maybe what I feel is vitality. I’m walking miles a day, up and down hill. One morning I walk to the top of the mountain overlooking Assisi. Two miles and there’s the Hermitage of St. Francis. At the gates of Assisi, I ask someone the way. “Just keep going up,” she says, “and don’t go down!” On the road a sports car stops and asks if I am going towards the Hermitage. The cave in which the Franciscans lived are called carceri. Prisons. Crucibles set into the stone. “Is this the way?” Says the man at the wheel. “I think so!” I answer. About a mile uphill I realize I’ve only got twenty bucks. No credit cards. I left my passport, ATM card, all my cash back at the room. I don’t feel desperate, but lighter, without my life savings and twenty grand in credit available at any moment. No one wants my credit at the top. There are no restaurants but a failing bar along the road. In my notebook I have scrawled a page of little thoughts. I wrote the outline of the paragraphs above:
where am I from?
The notebook open, a small black butterfly has landed on the page. Its wings are blue. The thorax is fat and striped yellow, like a negative bee. just keep going up – don’t go down; and the negative bee refused let go. I take pictures of the negative bee. I stop, aim my camera, snap, and the negative bee remains. A half hour up the hill it stays with me. At the hermitage it starts to move again; it rustles and flutters away.
“The first line is a transition out of silence,” Stuart Dybeck once wrote. A word insists upon an Aristotelian distinction based on usage and value. A word says, this is a chair, not a table. A word says, this is an animal, not a block of wood. A word says, this is black, this is not white. Words remind us what things are not. They rarely tell us what something is. Words push separation. Words draw attention to the spaces between the words. The name of things is is, you’re here to tell. There is a secret isness things share. Solids have their dharma. Liquids have theirs. Falling objects have theirs. Helium, its. If anything about ourselves is real (is there anything? Physicists wonder), it lies in the fact of this isness all things have agreed upon. Sadly, we only first awaken to that fact when, as in the metrical departure of a sonnet, the rhythm breaks. You feel the twang of dissonant notes; you feel the burn of two perfectly good, distant binaries—right and wrong, for example—rub up too close to one another. Bone against bone. And we wake among all this is-ness.
the poem is the flute
Later that day I discover a hidden museum directly under the Temple of Minerva. About a block past the square, a few steps led down into a stone chamber, where one could buy tickets to the old Roman square. Beyond the antechamber, a piazza, street level two millennium ago, have been excavated and reconstructed. When Rome fell, the square had been gutted, so the present piazza stands about one storey higher than its predecessor. Remaining below is the old entrance to the temple, as well as a central public altar. Alone in that grand place, an artificial ceiling above me (I am walking directly beneath the basilica now), I climb the staircases, which, were it not for an ancient wall, would rise directly into the Temple of Minerva, a secret place of worship for the spiritually elect. On the eastern portion of the underground square, there are relics of columns and even what are believed to be old taburnae, small shops. People thrived here and worried over money and their children. They placed votives here for Minerva. They prayed for wisdom. They wanted to do well. They are all forgotten, except for a few names on broken funerary urns, ornately drawn, with gorgon’s heads and enormous stone phallic symbols. There was self importance and greed and avarice and all the rest. My own apartment, I learn, was standing on the old grounds of the Roman Circus, and the circular avenue I walk every day had been the Amphitheater. So much striving and desiring, just like mine. It doesn't fail to haunt me for hours after I leave this place.
There is a great tombstone set to the side of the passageway, with a funerary inscription: CALVENTIA POLLA, a girl who died when she was 19. The tablet was dedicated by her parents, I'm told. The triangular tympanum above is a small relief of a young woman staring straight at us, and on her left a bird in profile, and on her right a pine cone. Her eyes are huge, almost half the size of her entire head, and expressionless. Her hair, braided in pigtails and falls just below the shoulder.
The rendering so strangely realistic and modern, aside from the eyes, I have to shudder. Her face is captured in a bilateral asymmetry that pervaded Roman art before Pope Gregory the Great declared in 6th century C.E. that “painting can do for the illiterate what writing can do for those who can read.” After that, the visual arts became iconic and infused with universal symbolism. They became instructional and symbolic. But here, in this tomb, in the 2000 year old elegiac image of a beloved daughter, the grief for a single loss, a particular life, demands faithful representation. It came to be known as “Verism,” the capturing of an individual personality within a realistic portrait.
The stone in the Roman Forum is thousands of years old; perhaps this added to it an air of mystery and detachment on my part. Adult grief has clarity: things are the way they are; not the way they were or the way they should be. But nothing you can “say” will make a grieving parent feel better about their loss. Language is powerless. The compulsion to hold things is the road to death. The poem is a kind of flute, the vehicle through which what has passed and passing is shakily sustained, embodied: but you can’t hold a musical note indefinitely. It is sweet, because it is ineffable. To look directly into contradiction involves a certain amount of maturity, bravery. In grief that is “immature,” what is immature is merely the way we circumvent the problem at hand: we replace What do I see? with How could this happen? How do I fix this? We get caught up in our writing with questions of what should or shouldn’t be. We take sides, we talk about how things should not be, or we want to imagine some ideal world where all the shattered parts are reassembled. But there's a thin place where the real art—in my case, the poem—lives. It is an attempt to hold things the way they are. The more seemingly estranged the opposites, the braver the writer must be in bearing the account of what is visible. Tim O’Brien, talking about his own war experience, writes in “How to Tell a True War Story,”
To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness…All around you things are purely living, and you among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble…There is a kind of largeness to it, a kind of godliness. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead.
no indicating gestures
What lends Assisi its compelling energy is exactly what it hides from me. The sun has begun to set; and, standing at one of the hairpin curves where the trucks (nun driven) come streaming, I looked up. Within a grayish alcove I see a small painting of Mary holding an infant sized Christ. It has been painted directly onto the façade of my apartment house. There is a tarnished bronze placard the size of my hand. This painting, the plaque indicated, was completed with gratitude when a prayer had been answered in the XVII century. The bottom half is blackened from the smoke of votive candles.
Art and daily life seem not to be divided. In the first in the Giotto series of 27 frescos depicting the life of Francis, Francis stands before a Roman façade and a tower in the square at Piazza del Commune. A poor man lays down his cloak for the 24 year old Francis, who wears fine clothes and enjoys a pre-saintly life of privilege. The façade and the tower in the Piazza del Commune still stand; I ate my dinner underneath them last night. The present piazza is, in that frame of space, identical to this 700 year-old fresco. The façade stood there for 1300 years before Francis—it marked the Temple of Minerva of the previous chapter, its Augustan, classical design no different now than in 1206 when the event was said to occur.
History lurks beneath the random stone in Assisi. It startles me. It reminds me of something about writing. What I hide from the reader engages them, gets them questioning. In The Cloud of Unknowing the anonymous 14th century author calls it “hiding your heart’s desire from God” during prayerful contemplation. He’s using religious language, but essentially the reasoning is the same:
One reason I have for advising you to hide your heart’s desire from God is because when you hide it I think he actually sees it more clearly. By hiding it you will actually achieve your purpose and see your desire fulfilled sooner than by any means you could devise to attract God’s attention…God is all-knowing and nothing material or spiritual can actually be concealed from him, but since he is spirit, something thrust deep into the spirit is more clearly evident to him than something alloyed with emotions.
What is the difference between thrusting the poem “deep into the spirit” and alloying your poems with emotions? Two things happen when a writer tries to tell their first stories. They try to tell all stories in one fell swoop, and worse, they feel responsible to explain the stories. This micromanagement of the poem, the desire to make all things known, to imperiously control the outcome in the reader’s head, is actually counter productive. With my students I have found that otherwise remarkable poems lie buried in what actors might call “indicating” gestures. In acting, to “indicate” means that, when talking about someone standing behind you, you point with your thumb to the person behind you. The indicating actor wraps his arms around himself and gives a little shiver when he delivers the line, “I’m cold!” Years ago my acting coach said this: “The last thing a drunk wants you to know is that he’s drunk. To act drunk you have to act like a drunk (badly) concealing his drunkenness.”
What wisdom that is for poets as well. I apply it in the following exercise. My students give their poems to a partner. Together they read the poem aloud and their partner decides which two lines are the best and second best in the piece. I instruct them—we’re having fun; we’re drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa—to take the best line (as their reader has ranked it) and write it, unquestioningly, at the bottom of a blank page. They write the second best at the top of the page.
Almost never are the original first and last lines chosen. (We’re most liable to explain ourselves at the end of the poem.) There are wonderful consequences to this exercise: the poet, now given a “bar” to which the poem has been raised in the first line, and a “destination” in the last line, will sometimes see a new poem emerge. What was hidden to her will immediately become apparent, and a fresh, new draft, sometimes a new poem, will rise from the ash of the previous one. The point is to let go. Let go. Dissolve into the process. Let go of your fear that the poem will not be “understood.” Let go of your need to tell all your stories. If you keep writing for the rest of your life, you still won’t have told them all. A poem should be like a city whose treasures appear at the subtle glance upwards. Even you can’t catalogue all of them. That poem is a city of mysteries we’ll want to visit again and again.
Tonight while watching the sun set from the terrace of the Hotel Giotto, on via Giotto, two Americans sat at the table beside me. They are musicians on the way to a concert. The concert is free; so I accompany them to the 1000 year-old basilica where, within minutes, bassoons and oboes, violins, French horns, in arrangements spanning four centuries, took the stage. The event completes with a spiritual, “Give me Jesus,” sung by a bass with a voice as rich and melodious as Johnny Hartman’s. “Give me Jesus,” he intones, “when my time has come.” I sit in the front row. But even so his voice feels distant, as if it floats from in front of this man’s face—a suffering face—into the high ceiling of the basilica. His voice commands the room, but it's also muffled, soft or ungraspable or, you might say, still hidden, and I find myself leaning, to drink in what I can.
we are painting god’s face
One of the best failed projects of the Upper Church is an image that’s now widely published on postcards and other artistic reproductions throughout the city. It’s a sketch called “Face of God the Creator” attributed to the late 13th century Roman painter Jacobo Torriti. The sketch looks more like one of those old Roman portraits that were found on sarcophagi dating around 100 C.E., just before Gregory declared that “pictures do for the illiterate what words do for those who can read.” Torriti’s sketch (of God!) is disproportionate, applying “bilateral asymmetry,” the beard of God slightly bushier on one side, and one eye cocked as it always was in the Roman style, to create the illusion of seeing the subject from an angle. God’s eyes are looking off to the right. He resembles the popularized depictions of Jesus, with long hair, and his bright halo much larger than that of any of the saints, almost identical in color to the backdrop.
I have to say, God looks a little disappointed. The face is not angry, or fierce; it is not the “dread Lord” of the protestant Calvinists; further the face of God is neither imbued with great wisdom, nor particularly old like Michelangelo’s, floating in the clouds of the Sistine Chapel. Rather, this God seems indistinguishable from Jesus in a moment of, what seems to be, attentiveness to someone else. He seems to be listening. What he’s listening to doesn’t seem to move him much in one way or another. Just a little disappointment. The drawing was rendered in red chalk and found underneath the fresco The Creation in the Upper Church. It had been scrapped and, plastered over, remained beneath the finished work The Creation for centuries.
I have written many scrapped poems that, in one way or another, became the groundwork for other, better poems. We keep drawing God’s face on layer after layer of plaster, and, while we can never, of course, get it right, each time we bring a touch of perspective that edges us closer. The perspective comes from the failure. What do I mean by God’s face? Roethke describes a bud appearing from a dead cutting, and he’s describing what can’t-be-known with what-is-known. Then he spreads the plaster and he tries again.
I confess my favorite frescos in the Lower Church of the Basilica of St. Francis aren’t those of Giotto or Cimabue but of Pietro Lorenzetti, who came here from Siena in the early 14th century to decorate the now famous left transept. In the Lower Church the only natural light is filtered through thick and rich-colored stained-glass windows, designed by Simone Martini seven hundred years ago. There’s also plenty of spooky candlelight. When the sun is out, it sprays through the red and blue windows and the church absolutely glows with dreamy impressionism. The haloes on the figures on the frescos are not painted by gold structures that extend in relief form from the heads. They have been plastered on at angles coordinated with the stained glass, so as to catch like a mirror and hold light in radiance, which they do.
Lorenzetti’s work is well known among art historians, but for poets like me who only have a peripheral knowledge of the visual arts, he was a new discovery. What’s more, when I imagine the first insinuations of everyday life into European art, my mind wanders back to Breughel, those images of peasant weddings and “The Kermess,” the drunken village dance which William Carlos Williams wrote of. In Breughel I loved the sloppiness of life, waiters about to fall over, children licking pie plates, trees uprooted and people falling over on a messy, frozen river. So when I saw to the left in Lorenzetti’s Last Supper—a gazebo scene in which Jesus and the disciples sit in a ring—the kitchen where a waiter and a dishwasher share a quick word, I was shocked. The kitchen, though merely the depth and width of a closet, takes up one third of the fresco. In it, a man squats casually and wipes a plate; another man bends behind him, his hand on the squatting man’s shoulder, and points towards the strange party of guests outside. At the dishwasher’s feet are two animals: a dog licking a plate with wide, hungry eyes, a little gold collar on its neck, and a cat sleeping calmly, its ears pulled back and a striped tail wrapped around its form.
The kitchen significantly augments the known tale. While Leonardo’s Last Supper focuses only on the origin of the story, Lorenzetti’s asks us to consider what else was going on that evening. Two hundred years before Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus, in which the fall occurs amid countless other everyday acts, Lorenzetti was setting those dualities—the mythical and the ordinary—side by side for the same effect. In 1315 Lorenzetti’s painting intended no political agenda, aimed to raise our consciousness about dishwashers. The painting maintains the status quo, well enough. It depicts Judas, for example, without a halo. Jesus and his followers sit in a ring, but each face is appropriately turned so we can make out the identities. The Last Supper is among the best known stories of the Christian tradition. So why devote one third of the screen to the waiter and the dishwasher, the dog and the sleeping cat?
Lorenzetti’s painting was completed at a time when, thanks to the School of Giotto and others, the iconoclastic insistence on symbolic representation was fading from popularity. Simply, the wonder conferred by the stories was quite strong, but in order to infuse more life—to “repair” the church—the memorable had to be set against a backdrop of the forgettable, the tiny acts that take place between the great ones. By doing so, we see it new. Lorenzetti wants to get across to us: this happened.
Our time offers a different challenge. Charles Simic cites this line from Salvatore Quasimoto: “The howl of the mother whose son is crucified on the telephone pole.” The line communicates astonishing pathos because the everyday (the telephone pole) nudges up against the mythical (the image of the Madonna at the cross). As moderns who view the world through a television screen, it’s the “horror of the immediately given” (also Quasimoto) that is the challenge for us to see. This postmodern predicament remains the dialectic of our prosperity. Could millions—billions!—be suffering right now as I write this? Quasimoto uses the myth to take us there. He asks we see “the news” as something that has happened. The smallness of one anonymous execution is afforded the importance of Jesus Christ’s.
the triangular current of desire
Giotto’s frescos in the upper church of the Basilica of Saint Francis are treasures. Giotto was a contemporary of Dante. His early masterpieces, the 27 frescos of the nave, depict the life of the saint. Christ’s life is superimposed against Francis’, and the whole thing comes to a climax when on one end, Francis is lifted into heaven by Christ, and Christ’s apocalypse, the piece by Cimbaue, in the apse, whisks up everybody else.
At 20, Francis of Assisi, son of a textile merchant named Pietro di Bernardone, was no saint. He dreamt of becoming a knight. He was highly social, a lover of banquets and parties. He was more than a little in love with his prestige and his father’s wealth. I think of that face in the famous Cimabau, the one we know is really him, those slumped shoulders, that impassive expression, the ears sticking out, his hair cropped. He’s wearing what looks to be a burlap sack. Psychotherapists might suggest the younger Francis was the healthier. A psychotherapist might try to coax him back to who he was. But the conversion of this man was the result – and true conversion only can be—of an experience of mystical nature.
After fighting against the Perugians in 1205, when he was held prisoner for a year and suffered a grave illness, the 20 year old man heard Christ talking from a crucifix, demanding he “repair my church.” He took that to mean the then dilapidated church at San Damiano, about a mile downhill from the city. Reading the instruction literally he stole some expensive tapestries from his father’s house to begin renovating the church. Later he began to see the message metaphorically. His special attunement to nature, I would argue, is the “reparation” these medieval followers of Francis saw necessary to the already highly removed, ivory towered Roman Catholic church. The message he had come to bring had to do with communication with one’s own heart, and you see it everywhere in depictions of him.
There are two frescoes in particular. In one, Francis has taken a vow of poverty. In the presence of a bishop, he disinherits himself and is in the act of giving his very clothes back to his father. He’s stripped and the bishop, looking away sternly, is covering him at the waist. The father (a textile merchant!), seems to me the most interesting character in this little drama. He’s being held back by someone’s hand. The look of anger in his face captures an astonishment about to transmute into great sadness. The precision of this image really rattles you.
God’s two fingers are all that appear, I can only guess, to bless and console Francis from the clouds. Down below, there is a shark-v.-jets brawl about to break out. On the right are gathered Francis’ posse: some official looking leaders in the church. On the left are children, townspeople, everyday, well meaning folks, all up in arms about this sudden craziness.
I can understand how shocked and concerned this Pietro must have been to learn that his son was hearing voices and talking with the animals. That image of the birds is perfect, though. A woman stands behind him. Birds are flying down treetops to gather and listen to him speak. (I have visited that very forest.) He’s crouched a little and looks to be clapping his hands, or gesticulating. He could be singing. There is no better metaphor for the authority that comes from inside, forcing us to abandon, sometimes, our faith in systems on the outside. But why is it still hard (for most of us) to go ahead and commit to writing, to follow our inner authority?
I keep thinking about those two fingers of God’s reaching down towards Francis as he relinquishes the last of his clothes to his father. It wasn’t God’s face, or Jesus’ body swooping down like an acrobat to give him a hand up into the clouds, like in the death image of a later Fresco, where Christ is Francis’ circus brother with outstretched hands, his trapeze just above and out of view, inside a cloud. In this representation there’s no such glee. Just those two fingers poking from the bright white of the heavens, no more. But then, these are God’s fingers, not Christ’s, and this god seems to stretch from the farthest reaches of the immutable.
Francis is looking up at the cloud—he’s got his hands in prayer pointed not quite skyward, maybe 45 degrees, like someone about to dive into a pool—but there’s no signal from his end that he sees. Again, he’s mostly naked, and a bishop simultaneously restrains him and covers his genitals. Dreamily he searches space for some framework of support. His father certainly isn’t going to give it. They’re holding him back—reaching towards Francis—like thugs in a barroom. The bishop holds Francis with his mantel, who is reaching towards God; and God is ever so subtly peeking his fingertips through clouds, reaching towards Francis. The electricity of the painting runs like a triangular current between those three points. God’s fingers and Francis’ hands are not touching like in Michelangelo. Their distance brings the painting much power. It’s the struggle for strength when turning away from others’ plans for you. That seems to be the message here. It’s not a child's tantrum. It's not an ignorant turning away. There is no word for loving resistance in my language.
Interlude: what if the work is for nothing?
I read of Jumping Mouse first in Jeffrey Raff’s and Linda Bonnington Vocatura’s Healing the Wounded God. It’s a story of patience, curiosity, and sacrifice. This Mouse offers everything of value in a moment of compassion, soon realizing he’s nothing left to protect himself. It’s a powerful tale from the Native American traditions (it was told by many tribes) with great relevance to our subject here. I find it so vital, I’d like to reproduce their version in its entirety. Raff and Bonnington are quoting it from Hyeneyohsts Storm’s Seven Arrows:
A very busy, small Mouse, with his whiskers to the ground, one day hears a very odd sound and lifts his head in wonder. He asks the other mice if they, too, hear a roaring in their ears. Being very busy with their mouse work they say, “We hear nothing,” and they scold small Mouse for his questions. Embarrassed, small Mouse returns to his work. However, the roaring in his ears continues to distract him, so small Mouse relents and goes to investigate.
With great fear, he leaves the mouse community and moves in the direction of the sound. Soon, someone shouts, “Hello!” Raccoon introduces himself and asks what Mouse is doing all alone. The small Mouse answers, “I keep hearing a roar in my ears and am following the sound.”
Raccoon identifies the roar as the sound of the River, and asks, “Do you want me to take you there?” Despite Mouse’s fear, he allows Raccoon to lead him to the River. Along the way, the small Mouse encounters several new smells that increase his fear, but he doesn’t turn back.
The River they reach is so huge that Mouse cannot see the other side. Raccoon now introduces Mouse to Frog and bids him farewell. Frog says to Mouse, “I am Keeper of the Water and I can offer you some medicine power. Are you interested?”
Very curious, Mouse responds, “Yes!”
So Frog whispers, “Crouch as low as you can and then jump as high as you are able. You will have your medicine.” The small Mouse does as instructed and at the height of his jump he sees the Sacred Mountains. He can hardly believe the sight. But then, the small Mouse falls and lands in the River. Wet and frightened, he scrambles up to shore. Frog gives Mouse a new name, proclaiming, “Your name is now Jumping Mouse.”
Jumping Mouse runs excitedly back to the community of mice and tells them of his vision of the Sacred Mountains. No one listens. In fact, they are afraid of the soaking wet Jumping Mouse, because there has been no rain, they know of no River and, therefore, they have no explanation for his wetness. Jumping Mouse attempts to return to the lofe of his mouse community, but he cannot forget his vision.
One day, as Jumping Mouse looks across the land from the edge of his community, the urge to go to the Sacred Mountains wins out over his fear of being ridiculed. Jumping Mouse has something else to fear; the sky fills with the shadow of an eagle. He gathers up courage and, with a pounding heart, Jumping Mouse runs across the land. He scurries into a stand of sage, haven for mice and home of Old Mouse, who says that you can see all on the land and know their names. When Jumping Mouse asks him about the River and the Sacred Mountains, Old Mouse responds, “Yes, I know about the River, but the Sacred Mountains are only a myth. Forget about your vision and stay with me.” Jumping Mouse is horrified, as the vision of the Mountains cannot be forgotten. He continues his quest.
It is hard to leave; however, once again, Jumping Mouse musters up the determination and courage and runs across the land, feeling the shadow of an eagle on his back. He scurries into a stand of chokecherries where it is cool, spacious, full of water, and all things to eat. While investigating, Jumping Mouse hears the heavy breathing of Great Buffalo. Great Buffalo greets Jumping Mouse, who asks, “Why are you lying on the ground?”
Great Buffalo sighs, “I am dying and can only be healed by the eye of a mouse…”
Jumping Mouse sits fretting with this realization and soon decides that Great Buffalo must not die. He returns to Great Buffalo’s side, “I am a mouse and you may have my eye.” The eye flies out of Jumping Mouse and into Great Buffalo, who becomes whole. Great Buffalo thanks Jumping Mouse and, knowing of Jumping Mouse’s quest, offers him protection beneath his belly. In this way, they cross the land, easing Jumping Mouse’s fear of the shadow.
Great Buffalo takes Jumping Mouse to the base of the Sacred Mountains and bids him farewell. Jumping Mouse once again begins to explore, discovering more here and at any of the other places. He also discovers a quiet, gray wolf. Jumping Mouse approaches, saying, “Hello, Wolf.”
Wolf suddenly becomes alert and exclaims, “Wolf! That is what I am!” And then he is quiet again. Jumping Mouse has no memory and sits quietly with this knowledge. Finally, Jumping Mouse makes up his mind to help Wolf. “I know what you need,” he tells Wolf. “You may have my other eye.”
The eye flies out of Jumping Mouse, healing Wolf. Now, Wolf is whole, but Jumping Mouse is blind. Wolf reveals himself, “I am the guide into the Sacred Mountains, where there is a great Medicine Lake in which the entire world is reflected. I can take you there.” Wolf takes Jumping Mouse to the Lake on top of the Sacred Mountains and then returns to his post at the base.
Jumping Mouse trembles with fear at being left alone again, knowing the nearness of the eagle’s shadow. Feeling eagle’s closeness, he braces for its hit. Jumping Mouse falls unconscious. When he wakes, Jumping Mouse is not only alive, but he is able to see. As he jumps about in excitement, he hears a familiar voice, “Do you want some medicine? Crouch as low as you can and jump as high as you can see.”
Jumping Mouse does as told. The wind catches Jumping Mouse and carries him higher and higher. The voice calls, “Don’t be afraid, hang on to the wind and trust. You have a new name. You are Eagle.”
Certainly it is Mouse’s artistic curiosity that leads him finally to the edge of the known. It begins with the river, his rejection of the wisdom of Old Mouse, his acts of compassion without hope for reward, and finally his sacrifice of the second eye, which renders him more helpless than any of those he has healed.
William Blake writes, “The eye altering altars all” – but Jumping Mouse gouges out his eyes. He’s left with nothing for his trouble. The known passes through a frame of total darkness and vulnerability before he is changed into Eagle. He has no concept of the happy consequences, for if he did, his act would be meaningless. In James Wright’s poem, “Saint Judas,” a similar scene unfolds. Damned for his betrayal of Jesus, Judas sees a man beaten on the road and briefly holds him in an act of pure selflessness. Even Saints may aspire for God’s favor, but Judas had nothing to gain for his trouble. Still Judas is moved by compassion and acts from that certainty. Going against all logic, Judas says, “I held the man for nothing in my arms.” Only that act which is for nothing, Wright suggests, can have any value as kindness.
Jumping Mouse is not merely a story relegated to the tomes of myth or religion. When someone, in a split second, in an instant, puts their own life in danger for another, there is no time to consider the emotional gains of altruism. There is no time to consider rewards because such humans are only present in the here and now when they leap, presumably, toward death. Possible sainthood is not a consideration. Theirs is an act of sight because it seeks no payment. The stories reflect back on our subject because they embody the symptoms of our passage: curiosity, tension, indecision, doubt, stubbornness, exile, and breakthrough.
Of course, it doesn’t serve us at all to expect breakthrough. We have to be able to sit with the question: What if the work is for nothing? We might even enjoy success, publications, honors and awards, but is that the edge of the known we’ve been searching for? When Old Mouse says, “stay with me,” he might as well be saying, “Write these poems of the moment and you’ll have everything you need to survive.” Instead, the Mouse chooses death—which in his case is the bowing to his higher self. In Jungian terms death is ego death: individuation, transformation.
We don’t have to give up jobs or houses. We merely have to die to our embarrassment. Unless we’re skating on the edge of embarrassing ourselves, our work in the world will stay safe. James Wright, of working class background her became one of the great poets of his generations, defining the new sound of the post-World War II era, wrote the following he's become famous for: "Suddenly I realize/That if I stepped out of my body I would break/Into blossom." What is the blessing of James Wright's "The Blessing"? Crossing the boundary of the road, and then the fences, and then the boundary between two species (horse and human), the poem captures the longing—beyond language—to touch and communicate another presence with sensitivity and compassion. Just at the peak of the longing and tension, Wright brings us to that breakthrough moment: what could be, if he transcended the limitations of the body, as mythical a shift as a Mouse that turns into an Eagle.
on being water
There is a point where you are no longer the boat floating on the water, subject to its rising and falling, but you become the water. The dead part – the body in the crypt – was just a boat playfully bounding above the water. The immortal aspect is the water, swallowing and creating. “Make me a channel of your peace,” Saint Francis wrote. He too understood that energy, like water, is who we really are. A physicist might rewrite what I have said as “where you are no longer information written on energy.” But it’s the same idea. The part of ourselves we spend years preening—names and reputations, degrees and prizes—are not the stuff of the Self about which Whitman sings.
I don't know if writing has drawn me closer to that Self or hindered my approach. But I believe it's the former. How often I lost faith in this process. Even in graduate school I was ready to give up on writing and go back to Philadelphia, get a job in advertising, forget the whole thing. Poem after poem, workshop after workshop, I got crushed; pummeled; or worse, nicely placated. At a certain point I started to trust that workshop voice over my own intuition. I was sinking into a blob of contradictory ideas and tenets, some come from those whose work I didn’t particularly like, and about whose persons I wasn’t too crazy, either. That feeling, of the real you disappearing and the flooding everything, is preceded by a drowning. I didn’t want to drown. My father and mother were the ones who said, keep going. I was lucky. I listened to them, and I did keep this up.
Maybe I can get over myself, acknowledge (intellectually) that “nothing” is the ineluctable result of all this writing, all this work. To be like Francis is. Sometimes I feel like I’m carrying this terribly heavy coffin, the face of my worldly-self exposed in a small window. We carry our burden, toting around “what ifs.” What if no one cares? What if there’s no point? First we have to pluck out the eye of the ego, which for most of us is hard enough. But we have to kill our smartest self, too; we have to kill whatever separates us from disappearing, even if it is just a thin veneer of a vessel. “Only by shattering can the one unite with God,” the old Kabbalists said. They meant that we have to be willing to face oblivion completely, even give up the reward, the pleasure of uniting with God. You have to pluck the other eye.
In Assisi it comes to me forcefully the first night I entered the crypt. There was nothing aesthetically significant about the architecture down there. It was a box of bones, for all I could see, and the people who surround it seemed just as distant to me as I to Francis. He wanted to disappear and, so he did, his dust an ordinary earth. Writers fight faithlessness in their project, from day one to the final day. The poet William Stafford was still writing poems about this battle until the last day of his life. In his Selected, The Way It Is, we find a picture of a page from his notebook. The entry is the day that he died. It was a poem about seeing clearly. It was a poem about struggling to see the world the way it is. He writes:
Well, it was easy.
The sun moved with my hand.
And it came, why, it came.
the arrow of ego death
I remember one night almost thirty years ago. My mother suffered from colitis for many years, and just shy of her fiftieth birthday, she had begun to develop ulcerous sores on her legs. She was given heavy doses of medication that changed her appearance, and she felt terrified and disappointed in her body and ashamed that her disease, which she had been able to conceal to almost everyone, had now taken on a new, perverse quality. One night, when I came into the kitchen and the house was asleep, I caught her with her pant leg raised, observing scientifically one of the wounds. She was looking at it in all seriousness, and with no tenderness, but without grief, either. She was inspecting it; it had blackened and was clearly worse than it had been. When she saw me watching her—the whole thing lasted seconds—she burst out crying. She was crying before she could lower her pant leg, and said plainly, “I don’t know what is happening to me.”
At San Damiano when I saw that image of St. Rocco, holding up his pant leg to the loin, showing me his secret wound, the look on his face was the same. Under our clothes we carry this wound. We can keep it from the world. We can hide it under the bed if we want. No one is going to stop us. People live pretty comfortable and satisfying lives and never lift that garment to show what’s underneath. In fact, the world is begging us to not let on. Letting on would mean that something has to change. Letting on means things are not the way they seem. In The Waste Land everyone is anxious about the coming of spring. April is cruel. In the pub, the women speak with anxiousness about the soldiers coming home. When we let on about our wound, there is a reckoning, not just for you, but for the world.
I trust that look in Rocco’s face. Lifting his worldly clothes and showing us the wound (in his creative center, the loins), he’s letting on. He’s sad and relieved at once. It was exactly the same as Sebastian’s face. In fact, they shared the same face. On the left of the triptych, Sebastian was naked, tied to a post, covered with arrows; they were protruding from every part of the body. On the right, Rocco only had that one wound—that we could see—and he had daintily undone his trousers to expose it. He looked straight into my eyes. It was a look I can’t forget. It was the look my mother gave me. It was the look of my father in the dream. It was the look on the face inside the coffin. It was recognition of the sad truth; all of us are wounded. We don’t know what is happening to us.
The wound is right there under our clothes. We go through the day in our clothes of responsibility and obligation, and it’s right there with us. Also, the wound of this god is in the loins, not the heart. We say we’re broken-hearted, but the loins are the place of creative spontaneity. The loins are the seat of the god in you; it’s from them that new things are born, it seems to me. That wound on Rocco was very, very high up on the leg. A wound like that can separate you from the world for good; turn you off not only to writing but to living.
On the same day as I see those powerful frescos, I return one last time to the cathedral of St. Francis and walk right down into the tomb. What do you get for living this world? The politicians slowly begin to resemble the devils we read about in John of Patmos. That’s how it feels this evening, no matter the year you are reading this. Why be creative? Why bring a child into the world? Why bother with the lives of saints, when the clear message is: stay safe, buy duct tape?
The room is dark except for the candles. There are six or seven pews lined up on both sides. I am in a line of tourists, waiting patiently to file up towards the tomb. The tomb is elevated 10 feet off the ground; you can barely see the sepulcher, which, it’s said, contains the bodily remains of Francis which were unearthed here in 1845. That’s when this bottom tomb was built. The sepulcher was surrounded by baskets of candles that guests were bringing and presenting to the man who wrote 800 years ago: "Grant that I may not so much seek/To be consoled as to console;/To be understood as to understand;/To be loved, as to love."
I learned these words as a young Catholic boy in Philadelphia and they still hold much power. To disappear completely. What if there’s nothing left? Who do you become? Or is there, simply, nothing? It goes against every writerly instinct I have. We write things down to be remembered. We write to be right. We write to be liked. Writers have this ravenous need to be liked. To be seen. To be celebrated.
Another part of me apprehends the sense in all of it. If you hang on to your wish to play Oedipus, you’ve got to play Agony, too. It was all streaming through my head. Jumping Mouse plucking out his second eye. Sinking in that bed, in Norristown, as a boy. The hands of the dead floating over me. The room getting darker, the tighter I shut up my eyes. The fear, and the comfort that came from those voices on the street. In the pews surrounding the crypt arises some soft weeping; nuns and priests from everywhere I could name—the Philippines, African states, India, the United States, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, all the people I had met this summer—were fragments of memories in my head. To my right is a basket of candles and a coffer, and I drop some money in. I remember those faces on Ash Wednesday; everyone already dead. My mother’s face in the kitchen. My father feeling old and worn out. I'm walking and I'm trying to think of Francis, but the questions keep returning to myself. What am I doing here? I hold the candle with both hands, like I could snap it in two. People are nudging up close, and I feel the sweat start to bead on my lips. There is a basket for the candles; others are kneeling and placing them in. There are hundreds of candles. So many people; they have problems of their own, and who am I to ask for anything? What do I want? I answer out loud (I know what I want, translucent as water); and with something like a lover’s tenderness I place the candle in.