Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Wooden Doors

They're leaving the church. Sunday mass over
at Saint Sebastian's Roman Catholic Church.
The three wooden doors, through which they pour,
resemble the doors set in the Greek skene

where, for an audience, violence always happened
off-stage. They might see the empty elbows
or the swinging body, but they would not see
the eyeball greeting the pin of the brooch.

For the celebrants at mass, violence happens
elsewhere too. Images commemorate facts
and so are not the facts: nails are not
the nails and, even if they are, have stopped

their piercing realization; and the flesh
tastes so much like mercy on the tongue,
round, hard and bland until saliva salts
and softens it, the wafer always tastes of us.


Greg said...

Thank you for this poem Jee Leong. I found it a really interesting read. To me it seemed aptly to say two opposite things at once. (My mother grew up working-class-trying-to-be-middle-class Catholic in Bridgeport Connecticut, & if you're talking about the St. Sebastian's that's almost under the 7 subway line in Queens, which has a lot of working-class parishioners, then I think I have some sense of what that religiosity is like through my Mom.) The poem says that for the celebrants, "violence happens elsewhere," and yet they emerge from church through those 3 doors as if coming onstage from the backstage of a Greek stage. Coming from church is figured as coming from the space where violence happens (where Oedipus gouged out his eyes). It then blurs the idea that the crucifix's "nails are not nails" with "even if they are"; and ultimately and most crazily-aptly (I think Catholocism is psychopathology) first suggests the notion that, for the celebrants, there is some detachment from the flesh-eating significance of the Communion ritual, and then blurs that notion with a closing phrase that suggests communal self-cannibalizing ("the wafer always tastes of us"). I love the way (in my reading) in the poem a middle-class-aspiring love of safety (expressed in the idea that violence happens elsewhere) gets crowded against the always-present but unseen and uncriticized violence at the heart of that kind of religiosity.

(Crucifix trouble is alive for me just now. In August I got myself into controversey by successfully lobbying to have an offensive-to-me crucifix covered in the central meeting space at a week-long "nonviolent communication" workshop that I attended. Upon arriving at the workshop I was surprised to discover that its location (named in the registration materials as the "Passionist Center") was in fact a crucifix-infested Catholic retreat center dedicated to Saint John of the Cross. The ground of my objection was that the crucifix is a depiction of a man being slowly tortured to death that is, and long has been, authoritatively held up as a symbol for universal moral guidance; and that, as such, it should not be allowed to preside in a nonviolence workshop.)

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, Greg, for giving the poem such a close read. Your interpretation is very close to what I have in mind, minus the class dimension.

Jee leong