Poetry Friday: Good Friday Edition

I am sorry for having missed last Friday, where my intention to post a poem fell through a crack in a busy schedule—life does that to me at times, as happens to us all, I think.  Today is an important day for me, as always: a day of reflection and candor, a day of solemn hope.  I know it’s not a day that carries that weight for everyone—not even for everyone within my faith tradition (I know growing up the notion of “Good Friday” was a very dim and far-off thing), and certainly not for those without.  Last year my Good Friday poem was intentionally inclusive of other views…a take on spirituality by an author trying to see it from, if not quite outside, then certainly from the borderlands.  And that might have carried the day again this year too, out of my desire to get poetry into as many hands as possible, but then I read a friend’s poem about Good Friday and was really struck by it.  So I’m sharing it even though I’m not completely done processing it yet, and I don’t know how (or even if) it will touch all of you—it’s certainly written from inside the Christian experience, and honestly so.  I hope that it affects some of you as it does me—the language and the imagery are elemental and very powerful—and will say more, of course, after you’ve read it.  For now this is, with the kind permission of Randall Templin, a poem he called “a phenomenological Eucharist poem” and which appears to carry the title “fr.”:

fr.

circles circles round and round the altar and all their mouths wet and hot and
swollen with life and sins forgiven and bacteria

i touch their tongues with bready fingertips i feel the heat the wet take hold
of the bread and say words over and over

while i watch the bread soak through and be drawn into the wet hot dens of their
words i shape crosses in the air and blood trails behind me

i am a man of violence delivering violence to joyful creatures encircling the altar with their
several seedy tongues and practical knees

my clothing is all drapery and showy frugality very small children take only words
violence is the property of thinking people

it is a short sprint from the railings here to the carven oak doors don’t ask how i know
but there are mouths to feed

so let the blood wrap round and round in the blank noise of frenzied solemnity
wrap the altar in wine

wrap me in drapings and knees sickening tongues to the altar and sink to our knees
may we all sink down into the violence and the passion

I have to be up front: my first reaction to the poem was not verbal or reasoned at all. I felt the poem inwardly, a deep sense of resonance and gratitude, and not many words came with that feeling. Having reflected a bit, I have a few things to say, but this is a poem I’m still digesting and will for some time, I think. Randall fuses the intense physicality of taking communion—the tactile griminess of a gathered community of people, the rustle of priestly robes and the muttered prayers—with the obscure, foreign notion that underlies communion….that on some level blood and body are consumed in this seemingly simple action. That’s not the way American Christians like their faith. No matter what your theological stripe or denominational affiliation, we tend to keep faith pretty sanitized. Our crucifixes look very clean, almost happy. I grew up drinking grape juice out of an individual cup (no shared chalice for us Baptists). We see faith as a private thing, something an individual can sort out for themselves and, really, ought to. And we have a tendency to want to demystify the mysteries of our faith—either by explaining them away, as liberal theologians prefer, or by tacking down long chains of logic that tie together the whole faith with a neat little bow, as conservative theologians have a tendency to do. Walking this middle path—one open to community and mystery, one that acknowledges the humanness of faith, that is willing to remain tensed between paradoxes—is hard, almost too hard.

And there is paradox here, that I struggle with. I want to wrestle more with Randall’s use of the word “violence” and the shades of meaning it brings with it. I want to tease out the grammar that underlies the poem, to see how phrases are stacking on each other and what they mean. But more than that I like just being with the poem right now, and allowing it to show me a different side of a rite I participate in weekly—like looking at a Cubist portrait of your own mother, like seeing a landscape of your hometown painted by Hieronymous Bosch. I don’t have to get (or even “like”) all the pieces of the painting to know that it’s showing me a side of myself I had forgotten, a place from which I come without always knowing why. I hope it does that and more for some of you. Regardless of what you do or don’t celebrate this weekend, I hope you find peace.

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