Poem Written at the Christ in the Desert Monastery

Christ in the Desert Monastery, 2005

for Barbara

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.

Abiquiu, NM

July 2005

written in a cell over three days here....