Poem Written at the Christ in the Desert Monastery
It’s my daughter’s seventeenth birthday,
and she’s far away from her Mom and me today.
For seventeen years, we’ve kept night vigils
to keep her safe, but now, when the moon rises,
Lotti’s bed is bare, our work is done and we—
her Mom and me—can be lovers again.
Right now I sit where Merton looked out at cedars
of Lebanon, chamisa at the Chama River, eagerly
trying to conjure the faces of Apostles in the yellow-
green striations of the hills, eagerly mistaking the
craints of flickers and piñon jays for voices of
shadows of the unknown, the mysteries of Christ
unfolding as the ninth hour comes, the sun still high,
the river waters muddied by each pilgrim that
arrives, leaving rucksack and Hummer behind,
to feel cool, sage-green waters massage her feet.
O Alma Redemptoris is the cry I hear inside
the ageless silence of the painted desert: a pony bray,
a wounded jackalope, a Psalmist with a
snakebit arm who gesticulates to God, sucks
and spits venom on a deer-track path behind
the priory. It’s a lament we know from all the scourges
of our time—the greed of oil-for-bread, thousands dead
on roads to Baghdad, the petty lust of teenage angst
and corporate buy-out, while downcity, the poor still
cup the swill of bureaucrats, drinking to assuage
a thirst that comes from being blind, from too much
treasuring of momentary pleasures over saving grace.
Clock-time has melted away with the high-desert heat.
The miracles of St. Bridget, fresh in my mind
from lunch with the monks—one smiled at me
like the heavenly bridegroom when I entered
the refectory—I looked up to see the red-clay,
gypsum hills that loom above the Porterbell,
a most natural altarpiece—her miracles
are fresh in my heart, testament to a world where
poets, goatherds, Navajo traders, and clowns abound.
The illuminationists are gone; such as Bartleby
and Fra Angelico—only anchorites, cenobites,
sarabaites, and gyrovagues are at tea, drifting
from region to region, no rules to try them as
gold is tried in a furnace, wandering the hills,
wondering if radiocarbon dating can help us
see if Clovis Man or early Tarahumaras
knew what knowing is, or whether there was
thought without speech, speech without sagacity.
I dream away the hours with Hannah Arendt,
the ways of the cross of John of the Cross,
with a mildly pornographic Grimaldi Manuscript
where each desert father or maid of Christ—
amazingly—sits before the very rocks
my mother paints outside her cell,
the room right next to mine she’s visited
now for twenty years, to paint this very butte
and its sulfurous river, layering gouache
and ink like Li Po, where the only white
that’s left—quintessence of cliff-side or
chimney swift is the white of the aquarelle.
What I am trying to do with this poem, Love:
to leave the white of Casa Bianca, stars over
Laguna Mesa, as surroundings to the saying.
But probably not praying. Was it a cardinal sin
to use the church to socialize our child, when the
world at large had failed? Her service at Urban Arts,
taking food trays to men with AIDS, a trip to Juarez
to make shelters for los olvidados—was it a sin
to give her that and not give back? For today
my church is canyon, the Echo Amphitheater,
just kilometers from O’Keeffe—church at home
a lousy surrogate for the burning yaw of this arroyo.
She can look to the church fathers (the Bishop of
Rhode Island: Jewish, female, artist,) or desert
mystics on her own, to gather the sense
of what the world might be beyond this pale.
I’m left to my love poetry, a Psalmist’s last
lament, a Song of Solomon, to sing the praises
of the soul I’ve got to share my pilgrim’s staff with.
No heavenly bride – a martyr and a saint who
seeks her mirror image in St. Barbara (and Andy
Warhol), patron of those who covet ziggurats,
as she towers over me in love, spirit, and
mindfulness she shares with almost everyone
she meets. She’s my muse, a dove, my Barbara.
The well is dry—I need a dowsing rod to scale
the cliffs, through cholla, juniper, to find the source.
So close to the Continental Divide—a mule ride
over the Pedernal and I am there! But I need
my love with me, if I want to find clear water.
Enemies called boredom and depression, Anthony’s
alter egos, follow us like pipers through the towns.
Outside my cell, a blackened, charred St. Francis
holds out a palm to the wind, a backhand to a shrike.
The hour is None and falling fast to vespers.
A rush of memories—a boy of seven looking to
the stars and seeing only science, a boy of nine
with a counting crow, a bottle of Madeira—
floods by as bells toll twelfth-hour twilight.
Goethe, Schiller, Milton Avery intrude
like shadows in a puppet play, to say that Art is not
as long as life, a life without the fight to speak out
syllables is as dust or fallow field. I fill up
breviaries to pass the time, to feel the rhythm
of the river—but doubts crowd in: a surge
of imagery clots the channels of my brain:
Rik-Rok, Rik-Rok, Rik-Rok, the only song
I want to sing to cheer my baby nephews with!
Thought-trains trip, remain unfounded, unspoken,
unsayable: streams of consciousness our modern
art demands that manufacture prisons for those
not on the take, not able to trample human bodies
to receive the blessed spot, an anointed crown,
for the artist often fails to see his artistry resides
in blood, bread, plainchant, and charity of those
who cannot read or write. Reinhard, friend,
brother-in-law, now fifty-five, still drums
his heart out on a high hat on a barge, cymbals
clashing down a Berlin channel like the Spree.
The mystery of writing: the single act of word-
by-word to formulate a thought, a tract, a fight
or fury inside. I feel John’s ecstasy: the clouds
carry grace as far as I can convey it. I swoon—
maybe now at five p.m. it’s just my head and not
some blot out of heaven, but in this place,
I’m ten again, the day I gave over games in
the name of listening to the earth’s rotation,
the gears of time all locked by sleeplessness,
by this glass of Scotch and praying mantis,
keeper of the night a beast I finally fathom.
Shale, limestone, soda ash, mica, I can
finally feel my place in the world, as a keeper
of the lists, secrets of the sea, the surreptitious
paths to love and learning, all girls a mystery
beyond me, but reachable when I can kiss,
complement, brush and touch a slender arm.
Will poetry die out? Will script—English and
Arabic—be replaced by Blackberry text & pics?
Reverberating in my mind, because of the
otherworldly quiet of this place, invective of
the Paraclete, with his mother Elisabeth, down
by the Chama River with a host of penitents
from Pocatello. The sounds of a car crash brazen
metal crunch and people talking nonsense on
their phones, the quick pick-ups, flash mobs,
the bottom line, the prize of the Black Star Line.
Not that I’m any different, mind you, except
that I hate reality TV and language poetry.
I love the sound-maker gourds of old Shanghai,
the Turkish ud, rustling of yen on kitchen tables.
I love the miracles of St. Joan, and waterfire.
No neo-Luddite, I see the intricate circuitry
of the Internet as interesting to endure,
like being inside the brain of Coleridge—
but I’m bored sitting before a screen, melding
my consciousness into a box, while cousin Sarah,
who I adore, is cooking fritters in a Navy quad
in Thule, and running up an iceberg to explore.
As keeper of the lists—a Bartholomew Oobleck
of the art world, I’ve late in life (having had
enough of analogy and alliteration) begun
to paint the signs that advertising overlooks:
good-looking, funny catalogs of words that
don’t belong to dentures, hemorrhoids, cataracts
or second homes in Rockville, Illinois. To pick up
where Auden left off, to beam good thoughts
to roadside America, benevolent Siam, the
Germany that hasn’t yet emerged from WWII.
Just to see my daughter’s grin, my brazen, artist-
partner’s risky machinations (she calls one “Corner-
Destroyer, “ don’t you love that?) makes me grin.
But the twelve-year old twins of God’s Army—
Luther and Johnny Htoo still smoke cigarettes
and Bush’s smirking has become a second sense.
Remember he said “every lie… life.. is precious”?
That’s the world that’s mine now, because I didn’t
nurture it enough. And this long, meandering
epistle won’t help. Or maybe somehow
can it? I already feel the gaze of the burrowing
owl who’s trapped a lizard just outside the terrace
by my cell. At midnight, some lumbering
mammal walked the patio, confused and
hungry like Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Now
hummingbirds flitter in and out between the
nozzle-tips of fire extinguishers as if they were
throne and seat to Kamasutra trumpet vines
with blooms. Sell love of language to the
terrorists (both those in power and those who
find no truck in the Western world of panties,
canteen tips, and our beloved ‘survival
of the fittest.’)? Fit out our youth to be
truthful—get each them to tell the truth.
Fall out of business—take seriously
the pitfalls of the Pope—the monks here say
that Ratzinger (a Benedictine like themselves)
calls secular relativism our greatest Sodom.
Feed the hungry— but with tropes and
highway traffic signs. Bike paths for
the proletariat! For I’ll ply my trade
of ecstasy among the living! Dream to be State
Poet of Rhode Island! React to delirium tremens
with presents of books to all first graders! Honey
instead of beer! Lemons instead of ribbon candy!
Heartfelt boos, not Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind!
I sleep fitfully through matins at four a.m. though
a near-full moon has brightened the valley,
the sense of metanoia Merton wrote about when
he was here is but a dream of New York City,
lovers from when I was twenty, somehow TV
stars, a giant, plasma flat screen on the wall,
my Russian-Polish software engineers, slumped
in the dark with black-and-tans, watching Renoir
or Kurosawa. Magpies interrupt the narrative, as
I wake to a crack of dawn along the Eastern hills.
Fifteen of them have descended on the trash from
Saigon Jesuits—they are way too loud at five a.m.,
pantomiming Ho Chi Minh’s trek across their land.
A wren in a sage bush delivers the morning lauds.
Years of my life are broken out before me in two
or three books of unpublished poems that catch
moods and attitudes of twenty years, fathering,
working, teaching, trying to imbibe, embody
what a model life might be, as in Hamlet’s
What is a man? through history, the occult,
a music of the planet of three suns, sheer bliss
of waking with a toddler, six-year old, swimming
to the farthest point in Mashpee when she’s ten,
at thirteen, singing rave songs from Green Day
and suddenly she’s gone, a writer who exudes
complete ease and curiosity in every cherished
letter. I stretch, shower, walk the thirteen-mile
rutted road towards Route 84, looking for Tres Ojos,
emptying the chambers of both my brains, by simply
singing Cielito Lindo. A sign says El Duende
so I know that Lorca is near by, and El Greco,
St. John of the Cross, his “ Verses written after
an ecstasy of high exaltation” (alta contemplación)
and suddenly ghosts of the dead crowd in;
shadowless, one after the next: grandfathers,
lovers, the bouncer at Studio 54 I slept with,
my Norwegian boy friend whose afterlife is
carved in mahogany detail; the road narrows
to a dusty irrigation ditch at the Chama River,
where the dead insist I sit, then curl into a ball
like the day I was born, to last out the devil’s
three temptations. I open my eyes when the bell
tolls Terce, the Espíritu Santo descends, a cross
at Calvary is readied for its erl-king. No alarum,
sirens, catcalls, ogre-cries or exegesis interrupts
this fleck in time: forms of pictured sacrifice
can capture crows in mid-air, and astound me.
But magpies, still in full, fierce force, like giant
dragonflies on fire, scour the lowland scrub
for brown-bread crumbs, fish bones from the river.
At my writing desk, the soil I troweled at Santuario
de Chimayo in its dime-bag sheath is suddenly lit up,
first glimpses of day through the window of my cell.
The story of the brazen serpent is inside me, but I resist
its telling, as I push back any narrative at all, to say:
of peace and piety interwound
this perfect silence had been wrought,
with the solitude profound
a straight and narrow path it taught,
such secret wisdom there I found
that there I stammered, saying naught,
but topped all knowledge with my thought.
I stammer, too, take figs and water, my headache grows
as three suns bake the top of the hill. Passion, sexuality,
good zeal of monks, the wicked zeal of bitterness,
magpies’ rooks and rookeries, the Nakashima chapel
blazing like the brazen serpent of the cross. Beautiful
hands, beautiful feet; each of his bones is numbered.
The Bull of Alamagordo, the Very Large Array,
and Smithson’s Spiral Jetty are images from a dream
of the woman I love. So strange! Confluence of river-
mind-and heart! The illustrations I brought with me,
from the Grimaldi Manuscript, all depict the saints
(I’ve just painted Bush’s Cabinet as deadly sins)
are in foreground doing things: walking, praying,
speaking, reading, watching, writing, marveling).
But in all seven images, the background is the same,
a rocky crag as if the artists’ seeing saw this very
Chama Valley. And I am that Magdalene at vigils,
barefoot, my breasts exposed and cold at dawn,
wrapped loosely in a full-length, articulated robe,
reading Boethius, his Consolation of Philosophy.
A tiny heron wades, a chalice holds chalcedony,
surrounded by those fifteen squalling magpies.
Sweet alyssum trembles between my toes. By Lauds,
I’m St. Anthony, tempted by two-headed tigers,
with book, staff, and pot-bellied pig in tow as two
black Mesosaurs sword-fight in the swelling clouds.
At Terce I’m now St. Barbara, reading Psalms to
a green-eyed American kestrel, the rocky grotto now
a Roman bath. By Sext, ladder, nails, and hammer.
I’m St. Jerome with my glamorous poodle-lion,
the skull of Ham, reading out loud from the host’s
rebuke in The Canterbury Tales. At None, I speak
the seven words but end without “ I thirst.” And
the tomb is empty—in rich ceruleans, bodyguards
snooze as ice-throned angels bear blue moonlight.
The monks chant an antiphon of Psalm 23, the one
that rises in the air like smoke. All this happens
without a clock, no finger raised to seal a pair
of lips. Brothers clamber into their separate beds,
as grumbling, goods, and tools are put away for sleep.
A last light falls on coal-charred Francis and his shrike.
I close my book, and say a prayer to T.S. Eliot,
to love mankind and women, too, and shut my eyes
to too much seeing, saying, stammering—and
journey back to yesterday at Rancho de Chimayo,
where a calico cat crossed red-tiled roofs as if
she were a chimney sweep in Birmingham, one
of Blake’s quiet cries in “Nurses Song” for
lullabies, for milk and honey lands, where reason,
dream and sleep are one. Our daughter is grown,
so full of joy, her Mom and me are lovers once again.
written in a cell over three days here....