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starlings

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.

When I was ten or so, a large flock of starlings, and assorted brown-headed cowbirds used to come visit a deserted lot near my house every fall. I liked nothing better than to run among them, and listen to the collective soughing swoop of their wings as they lit out for the trees. It was best if the sky was full of brooding cumuli. It was best if the wind was trying to rip the brown leaves from the pin oaks.

I don’t know why this made me feel so happy. When those birds no longer showed up the next year, it was a short but real grief that overcame me, and I would go to the lot in order to feel my grief more keenly. Since the birds were no longer present, my grief over their absence sufficed.

Wildness–to spin, to run amuck, to go shouting into the sea…all this unbridled sense of motion–has something to do with obedience. In the world beyond mere social order, obedience takes the place of conformity. There is a cycle of seasons, a rising and ooze of sap, a motion of tides, a curl of carrot leaf and wave, and all this grand motion obeys. It is not disobedient. Disobedience only exists where the laws have already built the scaffold of conformity from which preachers admonish and on which sinners hang.

A year or two later, I had found an old, slightly water logged copy of King Lear, and I read it with much confusion but with far more delight in its loud cacophony of sounds. I liked saying the words aloud in a very pretentious voice:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!

The birds came back, and instead of running among them, I shouted this speech of mad Lear as loudly as I could. They scattered! The second time I did it, they scattered less. On the third try, they just kept grazing on the seeds and grasses and ignored me. The birds understood the first and second delivery as a threat not much different than running among them. But, by my third performance, they knew it was no real threat–just some crazy kid in a field shouting. Still, I realized the sounds in this language obeyed some real violence–the violence of wind, and storm, and anger. The words were not imitating nature They were not mimicking a large mammal rushing at a flock, but they contained some of the same energy and violence as that force. Rather than holding the mirror up to nature, they were using some of the mechanisms the dynamics of cacophony. If I had delivered them in a whisper, not one bird would have flown away.

As far as the difference between conformity and obedience goes, we can submit that Cordelia obeys, whereas the Regan and Goneril conform. Obedience in the realm of the social construct can cause us to be misunderstood, even censored. To obey the organic truth underlying principles is much more dangerous than conforming to their outward resemblance. Many great writers pay a price, not for being disobedient, but for being obedient to some necessity beyond mere conforming. To be a non-conformist in this sense means to obey the deeper truth and risk being mistaken as a rebel. Nothing is more perverse to the status quo than true obedience. Goodness does not need the status quo. Evil and mediocrity insist upon it.

Some of the worst conformists I know practice a sort of intentional disobedience. They have no more idea of the underlying principles of the laws they break than the conformist who never thinks of going against the status quo. They break laws for the sake of breaking laws. They, too, like the conformists, are incapable of knowing anything but the letter of the law. In their case, they hate the letter, but do not know the spirit. A saint is always a scandal, always a destructive force in relation to the status quo because a saint obeys in such a true sense that he or she is liberated from the status quo. The saint cannot be tamed by law. Law exists because saints are in short supply.

Rather than telling students not to rhyme or have meter, rather than telling students to write free verse, ask them: what do you think are some of the reasons people rhyme and employ meter. If you work hard at this, you might get:

1. Because it’s fun, and like magic–like a spell (spells, nursery rhyme, any manner of conjuring)
2. Because rhyme and meter takes human speech out of its ordinary ruts (ceremony, or the love of pattern)
3. Because it is a great device for remembering (the reason for rhymed adages and proverbs)
4. Because it can order strong emotions and passions so that they are portable and inversal (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”).

Then you can ask what might be some of the reasons a poem does not rhyme or have a regular meter:

1. Because the poet wishes to explore subjects beyond the mere sonic semblance of rhyme and meter–in their organic movements so to speak from one thought to another, without struggling to shape thought to a regular pattern.
2. Because the poet wishes to explore the very “normality, and strangeness” of regular speech patterns, of people just thinking or speaking. In short, not a lack of pattern, not randomness, but the complexity of irregular rhythm.
3. Because the printing press was invented, and prose became the dominant force, and the mimetic need for rhyme and regular meter was no longer so urgent.
4. Because free verse can step outside prevailing patterns and enter the stream of consciousness in which the writing is seemingly of the moment, without poetic conceits of rhyme and meter.

All these are legitimate reasons why one might choose either to write in rhyme and meter or free verse. You can also mention other mimetic devices beyond rhyme and meter that free verse has maintained, but in lesser volume: alliteration, anaphora, rhythmic listing, enumeration, hyperbole, metaphor, understatement, over statement. Once you parse out why one might choose one over the other, you can eliminate conventions and get at underlying principles.

Both metered/ rhymed verse and free verse must have a sense of rhythm yet an occasional relief from pattern in order to be effective. Variety is intrinsic to free verse. In rhymed and metered verse, variety is the exception to the rule that keeps the rule honest. In free verse, any prolonged pattern is the exception that keeps the free verse honest (or endangers it). But both conventions rely on variety and pattern. It’s a matter of emphasis (one places pattern above variety, the other variety over pattern), but both variety and pattern show up. Bad rhyme sounds sing-songy. Bad free verse seems to have no real pulse or sense of ceremony. It may as well be prose (and not very good prose). This does not rule out the flat as a value. Intentional flatness, maintained as the law of a poem, is a rhythm of sorts. If it is intentional, then you ask: what is the purpose of the flatness? Some poets are masters of flatness–of that which is so seemingly mundane that its whole poetic effect relies on denying the usual “poetic” effects of poetry: haiku, imagism, objectivism, deadpan, all rely on not seeming to try at too hard to be poetic. But this is not a universal law. It is a convention. It as much a convention as rhyme and meter. It is not the spirit; it is the letter of a certain convention.

So a teacher must avoid teaching conventions as universal laws. If not, the student will become as blind as the teacher and adhere to a rule without ever considering why it is a rule. By the same token, a teacher who insists the students experiment and go hog-wild is also in danger of limiting the student to the letter, and not the spirit. Novelty for its own sake does not an original poem make. It might provide temporary relief from convention, but, when it is made a convention in its own right, it ceases to have value as anything more than a convention: “Hello, I am rebel. I do nothing conventional, and I don’t like anyone who does things conventionally. That, my dear, is my convention. Love me!” God, help us.

All conventions must be tested. All diversions must be tested. If I ran after those birds a hundred times, they would have scattered on the next run. Why? Because a large body moving at them with arms waving is certainly a threat. If they ignore me, they will run the risk of ignoring the dog or cat who comes and eats them. But a boy yelling King Lear is absent some of the exact mechanisms of a predator. We must teach our students to reinvent the wheel over and over again, to go back to origins and test them. Most importantly, a teacher must question his or herself. Do I like this poem because it is good, or because it affirms my ideas? Do I dislike this poem because it is bad, or because it is not my kind of good? Ethics in this sense are much more rare than rules of thumb. Rules of thumb were invented for those who have no intrinsic sense of ethics.

I want students to be obedient–fiercely obedient. I don’t want them to conform. When a true Cordelia enters my classroom, I know because, initially, I am annoyed. Such a creature refutes my laziness. When a conformist enters my class room either as a kiss-ass or as a professional nay-sayer I feel sad. How can I teach someone who conforms, but who can never obey? It is like a child who sees a field of birds, and does not run among them or even feel tempted. Someone has taught that child not to be a child. Someone has killed King Lear.