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Catholicism

The poet who saved my life never existed for me in his native language. He died fifteen years before I was born. His name is Miguel Hernandez, and he will never be as well known in English as Lorca, Jimenez, or Machado, but he is my poet, the one I would take with me into exile.

When I first met one of his poems I was a senior in high school and my mother had just died. She did not die prettily. I remember the good Catholic liberals in my school showed a film on how a good Catholic family should behave during a terminal illness. I sat in the class growing more and more enraged. I shouted at the teacher: “There’s no right way to behave fuck face,” and stormed out of the class. They wanted to suspend me. My father told them to go see my mother. I was let back into the school the next day, and I was not made to watch any more films on a “beautiful” death. The mouth cancer had eaten away half her face. She had a tumor in the middle of her forehead, and her lips, what was left of them, were swollen so that she could barely speak. She was not yet fifty one.

I did not know how to grieve. My aunts and uncles, who had grown up in a large Irish family, understood all the mechanics of grief. You made tea. You made funeral arrangements. You grew ever more tidy.You smoked and joked, and changed the curtains. On the first night of my mother’s wake, I refused to stay with the family at Aunt Elizabeth’s. I threw myself down on my parent’s bed, when no one was there, and wept the way you might if everything in your life has been dismantled. Sounds came out of me I did not know could exist. I buried my head in my mother’s pillow. I could smell her cancer everywhere in the house. It had become the incense of my life. I was about to turn 18.

Life is not merciful. It does not forgive a weakness in any structure, including that in the human soul, and it will tear, and peck, and hammer against this weakness until it is destroyed. I sometimes think African American “cool” and Irish humor developed out of an awareness of this truth. One must fool life into believing the structure is sound. One must put up a front against the hornets and rats who would build a nest in the flawed structure of the soul, but this “front” becomes a tomb, and I now realize most of the people who raised me, who looked after me, who hovered over my first sleep, were already buried under ten tons of well constructed shite. This is the experiential, non-verbal equivalent of form. All the formalities of our lives are meant to distance us from the merciless beak that seeks out the vulnerable, the visibly damaged. Life sends its chickens to peck the bleeding chicken to death. In a sense, literature, word, is the chief shaping ancient of what can not be shaped. And so on to Hernandez:

I was not allowed to grieve, except in private, and a part of me continued doing teen anger things: I drank, I smoked. Being a nerd, and not very good looking, I pined for a girl who had no interest in me at all. If a loss is big enough, all the little losses come through the hole, and they widen it, and in comes more big losses–an avalanche. My father developed throat cancer. He became a drunk. We lost our house and lived over a record store in Garwood, New Jersey. My family went from solidly working class and Catholic to dysfunctional mess. It was during this time, this time when I realized my Catholic faith had nothing to give me but Hallmark greeting card sentiments, when all the people we had known started to “unknow” us that I came upon the poems of Miguel Hernandez.

I still believed in the sacraments, and in Christ, but I no longer believed in his followers. They made me want to puke. Christ spoke the truth about life hating any structural weakness when he said: “To those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” I told a priest about this, how this statement comforted me because I knew, by my experience, that it was true. The priest, being a snob ass, told me Jesus was speaking about faith. I said: “bullshit. He told us you only need the faith of a mustard seed. He was talking about the law of life. Strength seeks strength. The healthy seeks the healthy, and the week are ransacked for what ever material is left. He didn’t say it was good or bad. He just said it was true.” Nothing in my experience has changed my mind on this. In life, poetry has been the one mercy I know–poetry and music. Everything else has been a bust.

So I purchased the Hernandez book because it was bright orange on the cover, and I liked that. I didn’t know a damned thing about Spanish poetry, or most poetry for that matter. I wrote songs then, very good melodies, and terrible lyrics. As is my habit, I opened the book to a random page. It had been two months since my mother’s death. There were more deaths and losses to come and I knew it because I am intuitive, and can grasp the basic structure of things with the smallest bit of information. I am not extra sensory. Forget that. I have a brain wired to leap. This is intuition–an ability to jump to conclusions that are often absolutely true (And sometimes utterly false). I opened the book to his poem “Me Sobra El Corazon”:

Today I am. I don’t know how,
today all I am ready for is suffering,
today I have no friends,
today the only things I have is the desire
to rip out my heart by the roots
and stick it underneath a shoe.

I had found one voice that did not seem to be lying to me, and I had a meltdown in the middle of that book store, a used book store half English, half Spanish. I was fifty cents short, and when the person at the desk would not trust my promise to return with the fifty cents, I broke down in tears, and begged. An old Cuban lady gave me the fifty cents, and I bolted from the store, and sat in the park. I did not read any of the other poems for about a week. I clung to this poem because this voice was not lying to me. It was giving me back what I knew. It was not making tea, or hanging curtains, or saying “shut up.” It was telling me my wanting to die, my sadness was now my wealth, that everything else could be taken away from me, would be taken from me, but this suffering was mine:

The more I look inward the more I mourn!
Cut off this pain?–who has the scissors?

I eventually read the book, and read it a hundred times. This Spanish poet, this shepherd, this Hernandez tossed into a prison, freed, and stupid enough (wonderful enough) to go back to where he would surely be re-captured out of compassion for his family, this man who died in filth, in one of Franco’s many prisons, had spoken to me in a way only Christ had: “to those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” Christ also said: “Anyone who is brought to nothing for my sake will discover who he is.”

My grief was not merely private. The cancer of my mother and father, the loss of our house, the descent of my family went along with what happened to the working class culture I grew up in: good factory jobs went belly up. Skilled men and women were told they were worthless. Unions were destroyed. America went from a country that actually made something to a land of “professionals.” Vague, silly people who, like all vague silly people, create great destruction from their privilege, and are, themselves, eventually, destroyed. Before they are destroyed, they will swell like supernovas, embrace health foods, and spirituality, and a cult of professionalism (they will affirm the very thing that destroys them) and they will turn mean and blame the weak. They are soft spoken, politically correct, and the deadliest people who ever walked the face of this earth, and as a poet, I look forward to their destruction because they have no equipment for suffering (which is the same as living) and, therefore, no true compassion.

A country can not sustain an entire population of Daisy and Tom Buchanans, but that’s what we’ve been doing for the last thirty years. Hernandez shaped my suffering. He also taught me that it exists on a scale beyond me, or anyone I love–that this loss is in, not of, a loss in things. In a time of great suffering, a human being might have only the consolation of his or her sentences. So be it. This is why it is important for poetry to exist: because it is beside the point, and, being beside the point, it cannot be impaled. It shapes what can never be shaped, carries what can not be carried, speaks to the dead, gives courage to those who have little else to go on. The “professionals” rule poetry militant. Jobs are gained and lost. Someone like me who has never been outside the coil of suffering will, no doubt, get clobbered. So what? I have known the impersonal machinery of management as a factory worker. I know the decorum of professionalism for what it is: a brand of benign contempt for life, and an ongoing death wish. Poetry, this scribbling, this jotting down, is no remedy, but it may shape the sickness just enough to make it portable.

There is an inwardness so vast, so total, that it has a true integrity—not the pretentiousness of artistic temper, not the vanity of professional mysticism, not the neurosis of social anxiety disorder, but a forthrightness, an honorable, hourly withdrawal from the world that seems, for lack of a better word—ecstatic. Emily Dickinson’s passes this test fro me so that, beyond her artistic temper, and beyond her neurotic social anxiety, and beyond her “Bride of calvary” routine, her retreat seems legitimate, necessary, vital. It shames me. It makes me want to be a better man, though not enough to change my life.

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins. Her poems have the same effect upon me as the transports of saints. Before them I want to droop my head, and surrender like the unicorn, and let the little tough guys from the middle ages sink their spears into me. I sense the true virgin—not the prude, not the sexless, shrill old maid of 19th century households (though she wears those uniforms), but the true virgin—intense, blessed with a mystical and erotic chastity.

Poem 258 by Emily Dickinson stirs this sense in me, but not as an isolated particular. I do not read poems in isolation. They leap their borders, and commune with other acts of language, with other slants of light. My favorite poems do not exist as singular deeds.. This is not my absolute favorite by Emily, but it comes close (My favorite begins “I dreaded that first robin so”). 258 is one of her more canonical poems, and Harold Bloom has explicated it well. I do not compete with Harold, but I am taking it from a different angle.

Poem 258

There’s a certain slant of light,
Winter afternoons—
that oppresses, like the heft
of Cathedral tunes—

Heavenly hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the meanings, are—

None may teach it—any—
“tis the Seal Despair—
An Imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air—

When it comes, the landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, “tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—

When I first read this poem, I was fifteen, and reading Saint Theresa of Avila’s account of her vision:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful – his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim…I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

The imagery in Dickinson’s poem seemed familiar to me— the certain slant of light I had experienced in countless works of art from the high masters. A “certain slant of light” does not have to be the product of knowing the New England Winter. It can as readily come from having read deeply and looked at reproductions of the Florentine Masters (especially when one considers how much Emily loved the Brownings, and their Roman retreat, and that her father’s amazing library no doubt contained such picture books). Her comparing this slant to the heft of cathedral tunes, making this light as heavy as the bar of a cross, and creating one of the most wonderful examples of synesthesia in American poetry… well, I took all that for granted.

Being a Catholic, it did not seem complex or baffling to me—but wonderfully accurate. Light when it is slanted is always certain, and seems to have mass—like a board of wood, and, given the imperial despair in the later part of the poem, and given my own inundation in both the mystical and erotic agony of the Catholic Church, I had no trouble with this. I found it remarkable because it seemed so precise—as true and as ordinary as Theresa seeing angels, and yet it was coming from a woman in the heart of the Puritan tradition— a tradition that did its best to tame all such erotic/mystical transports. I remember sitting there and thinking: “Wow, I love this poem. She must have read Theresa of Avila, too.”
This sort of reading is heretical, as heretical as Emily. The mind selects its own anthology, paring off poets who no self respecting scholar would place in the same room, but I think it not an unlikely pairing. Both Theresa and Emily were practical women. Though Emily reduced her world to her house, she was convivial, even wickedly funny within its protective borders, and St. Theresa had just as wicked and satirical a sense of humor as she rode about Spain, founding convents and reforming the church. Both had the gift of mystics: to normalize the extraordinary, and to make extraordinary the common, the lowly:

“heavenly hurt it gives us—
we can find no scar,”

“the pain is not bodily but spiritual”

“None may teach it—any
’tis the Seal despair—
An imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air”

“The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

The imperial seal of despair, Dickinson’s whole take on despair is not far removed from St. John’s Dark night of the Soul, or Theresa’s sense of a pain so excessive yet more desirable than any earthly pleasure. Mystics slaughter the dialectical oppositions by investing the “value” of one extreme of the dialectic with the qualities of the other. Despair is, in Emily’s mystical realm, a sort of ultimate triumph. The first is last and the last first, not to reverse priority, but to re-invest the dialectical oppositions with their original spiritual freshness and force.

We should not be surprised by the eroticism of Dickinson or Theresa, and just as I know my imposition of my Catholic upbringing upon this poem is not one of scholarly argument, but of a chance leap in my mind between these great woman figures, so, too, the imposition of contemporary ideas of sexuality, Emily’s lesbianism, is a limited reading of her work. To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus. It somewhat misses the mark. Emily’s eroticism, and much of it could be interpreted as towards the female, is ordinary and even defining as part of the mystical tradition. Her love of Keats would make her prone to such mystical oxymorons. In such a realm, the pure music becomes the spiritual ditties of no tone. In Dickinson, chastity, virginity becomes the purest form of eroticism. It makes sense within the verbal construct of mystical oxymoron. In this realm, it is most divine horse sense.

I am not through with this poem. In a 2nd post I hope to write, I’ll remember how I came to know that Elizabeth Barrett Browning (more so than even Robert) was of great importance to Emily, as was Keats, and that the famous couple’s abiding interest in the Franciscan heretics of the mystical persuasion may have had as much to do with her refusal to officially surrender to faith as any other reason proffered.

My overall point is that the leaps and landscapes we enter through reading are every bit as real as actual locales and travels.