≡ Menu

isaiah

I misremember the words of the Shakespeare Sonnet because my book is back at the office: “Those who have power to hurt and yet do none….” It’s something very much like that, and this is the gist of what I want to speak of in terms of mercy.

The power to hurt
It is said blessed are the merciful, they shall receive mercy and so mercy is a force that can only be matched by its return–which should tip us off that it is tied to highest powers. It is both a giving and a withholding. We give love and we withhold judgment. We also withhold pity, sentimentality, and, most especially, the sense of our own superiority. Then: it is the state of love opposite of courtship. In courtship we plight our troth. We adore. In the state of mercy, we do not bend to serve, nor rise to condescend, but find the exact height at which relationship is eye to eye. So to have mercy on another is to level with him or her–to see them face to face. This is why I always thought of Chekhov as the great writer of mercy–because he did not distort, yet he had the power if he wished to fully destroy the other. So mercy is strength that is dispensed in “seeing” the other. “You have seen me brother, you have not turned away.” Thus mercy is deep and abiding witness wrought not of weakness, nor servility, but of a sort of leveling Isaiah implies when he says, “the mountains shall be laid low and the valleys raised.” It is a leveling that is based on power and yet does not seek to defend, attack, or defeat the other. In mercy, seeing, witnessing is everything. And so this is the ground of mercy. And so I know that at the heart of mercy lies a contradiction: power, enormous power that seeks with its whole heart, and mind and soul the equanimity of witness. And there are other qualities:

Charity
Charity is that love mercy carries as its chief defining action. The action of mercy is charitas–which, unlike many gifts, is just the right gift at the right moment. This means it is grace derived good works–not merely good works. It is the work of the Holy Spirit inside someone who has power to hurt and yet chooses, instead to bear witness to the other– to truly “see” them. Again, it has ties to the highest form of what the Greeks call Xenia–the right treatment of the other, the stranger, the recognition of the other’s hidden majesty. This gift raises both the giver and receiver to an almost divine height. It elevates the relational scope of all being. Nabakov speaks of such charity when he says that while he would commend a man who saved a child from a burning building, he would take off his hat and bow in great reverence to that man who went into the fire a second time to retrieve the child’s favorite doll. Why? Because that man is the poet inside us–the one who sees the true heart of the other, who does not merely attend to the material, but goes the extra mile that Jesus speaks of in his preaching. I encountered an example of this aspect of mercy in an essay by the writer, Natalie Kusz. In her essay “Vital Signs” which details a long stay in the hospital, she gives a brief account of a nurse who “sees” an injured child in just the way I am speaking of. Consider this the example of mercy and its action:

And overseeing us all was janine, a pink woman, young even to seven year old eyes, with yellow, cloudy hair that I touched when I could. She kept it long, parted in the middle, or pulled back in a ponytail like mine before the accident. My hair had been blond then and I felt sensitive now about the course brown stubble under my bandages. Once, on a thinking day, I told janine that if I had hair like hers, I would braid it and loop the pigtails around my ears. She wore it like that the next day and every day after for a month.

Janine truly “sees” the little girl who has been in a devastating accident. She instinctively knows the little girl’s crush on her, and she has power to ignore or hurt the girl, yet, not only is she responsive, but, as if with the supernatural eye of a divine being, she sees that her cloudy yellow hair is also the little girl’s–that they share this between them. Her act is the charitas of true mercy–which is power to hurt converted into powerful witness, and an act of love beyond the call of duty. it is the right gift at the right time, with the effortless gesture of grace.

Mercy is always Unprecedented
Because mercy is always particular to an act of witness it can not have precedent, What constitutes mercy at one moment, constitutes mere good manners, or formality at another. mercy is in the moment, of the moment, for the moment, and without a future so to speak. there is a reason for this: acts of mercy are forms of prophecy; they teach us what true justice could be, what true equality, and love, and witness could be. Mercy is both mystery and pedagogy: a mitzvah that creates mitzvah consciousness. Empathy must be taught through stories of mercy. As a child, going to mass, I heard about the woman taken in adultery, the prodigal son, the woman at the well, the good thief recognizing Jesus on the cross, the love of the enemy–over and over and over again. Because stories were always beautiful to me, I took them to heart, saw them as real events. Mercy was everywhere, waiting to be enacted. It ennobled my being, made me want to be someone on the right side of an issue. I was also wild, intense, easily hurt, and I hoped with my whole heart God would forgive me my wildness if I showed mercy to others. I figured that was my only chance. My heart is a wildheart and I cannot do the yoga, serenity, soft-voiced thing people seem to do so well these days. I suspect this niceness has more to do with middle class manners than mercy. I have seen vegetarians show little or no mercy to anyone who does not share their life style. Perhaps I am a strange man, but I feel just as endangered among nice academics as I do among street kids. In point of fact, I always felt more at home with street kids. There, in a world where nothing is polite or well structured or “nice,” mercy visits on a regular basis. I think of Fariha, the kid from Bangladesh who befriended Kajah Jackson, a tough, black girl from the projects who had her mother’s brains splattered on her clothes by her father. He murdered her mother in front of her. Kajah was more than depressed; she was destroyed–talked to no one, played with no one, did the one thing in the ghetto you can’t do: dressed poorly and did not “wash yo ass.” She had “stank” as one kid called it. Farihah was impeccably dressed, brilliant, popular, and had two loving parents, and yet she risked her popularity,her reputation, everything to befriend Kajah. She helped me reach Kajah when I worked with children who had lost their lives–their childhoods. When I asked Farihah why, she said, “I was not always popular, Mr. Joe. Like when 9/11 happened, I was not in the Arab section of town and the kids threw stones at me. They called me names. I was in fifth grade, and I tried to kill myself. My mom cried, and I remembered I didn’t just belong to myself. I belonged to her, too, and I would break her heart. When I saw Kajah, I just knew I should be her friend, and that I was just like her under everything. I took her to my house and my mother called her a dirty little project girl. ‘Why do you hang with such people?’ My mother said. I told her, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself mommy. Kaja is just like me.” It took a long time to see it, but now my mother wants to do Kaja’s hair, and buy her clothes. She wants her to be her daughter.’

This leads me to my final observation on mercy: Mercy, unlike good manners or social nicety, can exist in hell. It can exist in the worst situations. it goes deeper than all wounds. It retrieves the dead from Hades. It barters for our souls when we would sell them out. It is violent in the best sense. It sees and refuses to be blind, Without it, all the welfare programs, and systems, and reforms are useless. Mercy is the majesty of vision, and it is the only true power we have, the one we seem all too often unwilling to exercise.

A prayer to be merciful

Remove the scales from my eyes, oh Lord,
and the scales from my hands.
Replace them with the ferocity of sight,
with the hands by which I wield
no weapon and all grace. Have mercy
on me who is so unmerciful. Give me your love
your eyes, your hands, so that I might see
the stranger, and know you–at once
forever, without hesitation,
in all places high and low.

In the past I’ve discussed what I mean when I call myself a “Catholic Poet”, and I want to expand on that. This is an excerpt of a review that appeared in New Pages of my book, The Plumber’s Apprentice.

Joe Weil looks at beauty and sees the bloated underside where ugly makes a home; tells beauty to take a walk and falls in love with ugly. He examines his faith and everyone else’s to see it fail; tells faith to take a walk and revels in small depravities. He stares loss in its face and spits whatever was retained; Tells loss to take a walk and carry all the rest with it. Despite the darkness, Weil leaves us a kind of determined strength. In “Clap Out Love’s Syllables,” he writes, “Stocks fall, leaves fall, we fall, yet, falling, praise / the fields of lust on which our bodies graze.”

This is a book that invites bereavement to sit down, then fleeces it by cheating at poker. All the rules we thought written on stone have faded; the stone was wax. We were mistaken. I will surely wear this book out.

The review, like its claims for my work, is hard to cipher as positive or negative, though the end is an affirmation: “I will surely wear this book out.”

What the critic got at here is the chief thematic aspect of my work based on the Sermon on the Mount and Isaiah, the ontological source of all my poetry: reversal of values. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, the mountains shall be leveled and the valleys raised, fair is foul and foul is fair, the transubstantiation of shit into God, and God’s saving power in shit, not the reality of semiotics or of success/failure, but that deeper reality of Eucharist which can only be gotten at when we have stripped ourselves of every piety and stand naked before the covenant—halt, lame, bawdy, incapable of redemption save through the violence of ontological grace—grace within mere being—being as the ferocity of value, the smallest, most discounted thing on earth as manifest in the creative force of God.

This is at the center of all my poems, even the dirty raunchy ones, even the poems in which I am cursing God, in which the voice of the poem is a scoundrel, even in those poems where I seem merely to be shouting blasphemies. I did not decide to have this as my theme. It had me. All my life I have been haunted by the dialectical reversal of values in Isaiah and in the words of Christ. Rank, privilege, even the rank of what is beautiful and what is ugly have always seemed to me the most suspect of human cognitions. How do we judge? How can fleabane–if seen at an odd hour and known at just the right moment and under certain situational coordinates–not outdo, not awe us as much as an alp? If this is not possible, then there is neither alp nor fleabane, but only our petty and smug constructs of values that go with them and we are imprisoned in a series of judgments which are final because they are without mercy. It is the lack of mercy and possibility in judgment, not judgment itself which I deplore. Always judgment is a necessary angel that is a good angel only if it carries in its arms the book of “but perhaps.”

In my poem Dandelions, the narrator kicks the old ladies at six o’clock mass who are compared to dandelions when they go to seed. He kicks them, lifts them up on his boot. He does so gleefully, and the old ladies do not protest but beg to be kicked, because, contrary to the violence of the act, it is the intimacy of celebration and love—the violence of all true contact.The poem ends

The things of this world

cry touch me. The things
of this world cry
dandelion.

The poem is meant both to exalt the reality and blaspheme against the pieties surrounding the value of the old, of the discounted, of those things we deem weeds. It insists on exalting, but at the same time, deconstructing and degrading, making a farce out of the cheap epiphanies and gentle smugness of sentimental attachment to the old. They have value not as sentimental tropes, but as the sacred and fierce text of mere being—that text Wallace Stevens insisted we approach. For in that text, fleabane is as likely beautiful and wonderous as a Swiss alp.

In another “review” I discovered on the internet, a student at Lafayette College wrote of my visit and reading at that school:

Weil believes we live in a world devoid of positives and negatives, a concept that often leaks out in his poetry, which can be simultaneously funny, depressing, sardonic, profound and “irrepressible” (to quote one of the event organizers, professor Lee Upton). One poem he read, entitled “Ethics for Huey O’Donnell,” was about a young friend of Weil’s whom everybody considered beautiful and charming before he died in his twenties of cancer. It is a deep and complex conflation of emotions that express the multiple layers of man.

Another poem he recited, “I Am What I Remember,” talks about personal identity and turtles before becoming a tiny treatise on life. Weil writes, “I am only what I remember: / the brief, peripheral touch / of a woman’s hand / on my lower back / as she squeezed past me / in seventh grade.” But truly most astonishing was the way he read, or perhaps more appropriately, performed. The man sung with outstretched arms and played piano while singing a song about virgins, a bright smile across his face while the crowd laughed at the undeniable humor.

Again, at the center of my work is contradiction, or rather I wish to reconcile contradiction if only for that moment, for, like all people with a high functioning case of Asperger’s, I do not get contradiction, am not gifted at nuance, and must take both sides of any issue with absolute conviction (sometimes all at once) in order to approximate nuance. Contradiction does not come from God claimed Thomas Aquinas, and I agree with the good saint. But the world, while God-created (parent), God redeemed (child), and God haunted/inspired (Holy Spirit), is certainly not God oriented: it is motley, hidden away from God behind a thousand conflicting tropes of willfulness and streben. The answer to this on the part of postmodernity is a rather too tepid, and, at the same time, too strident and absolutist embrace of uncertainty and the hyper-qualified, or, worse, the yawn of the fop, the grade z dadaist, the yawn that is thrice borrowed from Rimbaud via the French surrealists as sponsored by a hipster beer commercial in Brooklyn. No thanks.

I am a narrative poet, but my narratives go about sniffing the world. Dogs meander and crisscross on their path because they are keeping the scent of things at the center of their wandering. This is the large part of their reality, roughly in the center of a cone–a sort of core and focus by way of digression. Me and the dogs have a lot in common.

If I look at my poems, with the exception of a few that are merely for fun (well, a lot), I can see the theme of reversal of values, or confusion of values in all of them.

“Ode To Elizabeth” (see page 23): The poet speaks of “grimey Elizabeth,” goes to great lengths to depict a town where people keep plastic on the furniture and watch double features of Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal And yet it is a poem of praise)

“Elegy for Sue Rapeezi”: Poem in which an ugly, girl considered a whore, a dyke, and a dick tease teaches the snob narrator the first things he learns about love

“Morning at The Elizabeth Arch”: “The winos rise as beautiful as deer.” Enough said.

“Fists”: Poem in which the broken and gnarled fists of a factory working father are given mythological value.

“Ethics for Huey O’Donnell”: A poem that tries to deal honestly with the contradictions at the heart of friendship and how one can be both true and false at once.

I can go on. My language is also motley and contradictory insofar as I move sometimes wildly between lyrical moments and blunt, even flat sentences, move between romantic imagery and cuss words. I believe in liveliness and exuberance as beauty. I believe the false gentleness and political correctness of our current progressives is as likely to get us killed as the pompous vulgarity and bloated bravado of our reactionaries because both are incapable of the true ferocity of which Christ and Isaiah before him spoke: the ferocity of love, the heaven that is taken by storm, by complete and ferocious belief in the value of all life. This is what is meant by Blake and by Jesus when he says “the violent bear it away.” Heaven is taken by storm. I am not interested in a new wrinkle on the early 20th century “Tango face.” I am not interested in the cult of the cool and the detached. If I want to kill someone, I’d prefer to feel my hands around his neck, not send a drone to do my dirty work. I can respect the hot and the cold. The lukewarm makes me vomit.