Photo by Marco Muñoz.
I often call myself a Catholic poet. I was raised Irish Catholic working class in a mixed neighborhood where almost everybody was Catholic, including the African American families who came from the Bayou. Henry Rountree was Catholic. The Sampsons were Catholic. I didn’t know anything else except for Jewish people who I liked because, like us, they walked to church. A child gets some strange notions–at least I had some strange notions. I thought the best job you could have was as a garbage man because it gave you muscles and you could sing and throw cans around while you followed a truck. As a little kid I would follow the garbage men and sing with them. They tolerated me. Occasionally, they even let me “help” them throw a can or two into the maw of the truck.
There was still a rag man in those days, a grumpy old guy in a horse drawn buggy who would come down the street crying: “Rags! Rags!” His horse would shit all the way down the street, and the garbage men had their own way of saying “Shit” which I emulated. At six o’clock at night the Angelus bells would ring from all the churches of Elizabeth. I would stop whatever I was doing and listen. Sometimes the bells would ring through my belly. Sometimes, the moon was caught in the branches of the silver maple outside our house. The first star rose. In winter, the starlings would make little fart noises and wolf whistles as they perched in the trees and on the telephone wires. Somehow this all seemed tied to God for me, and I would get strange feelings of ecstasy–as if I were at the center of something swirling around and around in the eye of God. I would spin until I was too dizzy to keep standing–fall under the trees under the telephone wires, under the starlings with their fart noises, my eyes on the moon and my belly full of bells.
Years later, when I read William Carlos Willliams’ “The Catholic Bells” I was impressed that this far from Catholic man had it down pat–the essential brokenness of the world which was holy–not the pontificating, perfect, morality of doctrine, but the holiness of the imperfect yet ever swirling consciousness of God in the parrot jealous of the new baby, and the young lame man going to mass, and the bells calling forth the whole life of the city. This was the risen Lord, and every day in this context was the rising from the dead. But it was not victory, anymore than it was defeat. It was something beyond those two whores–something that cheated them both–a life that could not pinned down to the tawdry forms of the conditional. I never laughed at old ladies who kept funeral cards in their pocket books. I never laughed at their statues of the Virgin or thought them close minded or naive, though they were often close minded and naive. They were many other things. They raised me. They gave me gum. They called out my name in the streets at dusk. They had suffered all sorts of losses they seldom mentioned. Their hands were always doing. When I received the Eucharist I thought of them–all who did not count in the so called “important” scheme of things. I never liked priests. I was not raised to worship priests. I respected them, but kept my distance. Priests were like those rare and odd great aunts who came into your life once in a blue moon and, if you were nice, they gave you a piece of hard candy.
My Catholicism did not center around priesthood. My faith centered around a very pagan concept of seasons and liturgical movements around the year. During Lent, the statues were covered in purple. I wanted the priests to mark me deep with the sign of my mortality–the ashes. I liked Father Furlong because he’d press the ashes deep into your skull. He never let you go out of the Ash Wednesday service without looking like you’d been working in the coal mines. I liked the High Masses because I was vain and had a beautiful boy’s soprano and I sounded wonderful when I’d sing: “Sprinkle me, Oh Lord with your sign, wash me and I shall be purer than snow.”
Catholic to me did not mean priests: it meant the old ladies who went to six o’clock mass every morning to pray for their dead. It meant my brain damaged brother Peter who I was taught was not culpable for any sin and was therefore a saint. I was taught that my brother’s broken body, his paralyzed body, his inability to speak, his brain damage was a sign of holiness. I was taught to value what the world believes is worthless. I still believe that–and not out of any sentimental distance from the broken. I have experienced the kind of poverty and failure many Americans never face. I do not like failure or sadness or suffering. I do my best not to contribute to them, but I also do not feel an aversion to these blights because something in my soul, something in the deepest part of my being is awakened to these things as signs, as more than what the world would call social ills or tragedies, or failures. To me the only true failure, and it is an aesthetic failure more than a moral failure, is to be blind to the beauty that lies embedded in the ferocity, and merciless vitality of life itself–the risen Lord in the daily and lowly and broken sprawl of things.
I am a Catholic poet because I embrace this world of the broken as a series of signs. These signs deconstruct what the world calls “happiness” or the good life. These signs are the folly of joy, a far greater aesthetic–one which will always outlast our utopias and conditional forms of perfection. I believe in Eucharistic reality–in the bread that is broken and from which grace is made possible.
This aesthetic of the Eucharist informs most of my poems. It makes me out of step with much contemporary writing. I use the tropes of post modernism, and even surrealism and dada when I feel I need them for spice, but I see them as being dangerously close to the heartlessness of rich Republicans. From the standpoint of my upbringing, a conservative Republican and new lifestyle leftist looks pretty much about the same. Neither gets the old ladies at six o’clock mass. Neither understands the baffling endurance of the poor. Neither understands the lowliness of things that go beyond the conditions of failure and success. The Republicans manipulate these old ladies (and very nicely) to bad ends, and the Blue State opposition disdains them, and to me, the grandmother–the old lady is the chief sign of God on earth, and I think this is true for millions of poor people. And it is exactly this lowliness which is being forgotten, and to forget this is to become a sociopath, a bum, a person not fit to live. It was the women to which Christ addressed his most human message against how we judge, and it was to these women he first appeared upon rising, and who washed his body when he was taken down from the cross. It was to the lowly and forgotten that my Lord appeared. Their mercy and love in a world without much mercy and even less love is what makes me still go to mass long after there is anyone left alive from my family who would chide me for staying home. We have forgotten the broken of this world–not so much as sociological excuses for charity, but as real signs of God–as the miracle of love for the enemy. Our nation will be destroyed because we have turned away from the truly risen and glorified body of Christ: not one of his wounds is removed. In that risen body, each nail hole, and the crown of thorns, and the spear thrust into the side is still evident–because my Lord Jesus is to be touched, is fully human, does not turn away from the broken, and does not buy into the shame and disgust we too often feel for them.
Life is not to be “solved.” It is not a problem or a solution. It invites us to spin under the trees until we cannot stand. It sings with the garbage men. It cries rags in the streets. It can teach a stupid little boy that his brain damaged brother is a saint before the throne of God. It can hope in the foolishness of the Gospel. It does not arrest homeless women who want their children to attend a better school. It does not build walls at its borders to keep out the “illegal” poor. It does not waste its intelligence on a vapid cult of celebrity. The Lord I know is risen from the tomb and is spinning under the starlings. I believe in him. I have no other God.
- What do I mean when I call myself a Catholic poet?
- A Catholic Poet, Part II: Reversal of Values