The Real Thing
The Book of Exits, miraculously copied
Here in this convent by an angel’s hand,
Stands open on a lectern, grooved
Like the breast of a martyred deacon.
The bishop has ordered the windows bricked up on this side
Facing the fields beyond the city.
Lit by the glow from the cloister yard at noon
On Palm Sunday, Sister Custos
Exposes her major relic, the longest
Known fragment of the Brazen Serpent.
True stories wind and hang like this
Shuddering loop wreathed on a lapis lazuli
Frame. She says, this is the real thing.
She veils it again and locks up.
On the shelves behind her the treasures are lined.
The episcopal seal repeats every coil,
Stamped on all closures of each reliquary
Where the labels read: Bones
Of Different Saints. Unknown.
Her history is a blank sheet,
Her vows a folded paper locked like a well.
The torn end of the serpent
Tilts the lace edge of the veil.
The real thing, the one foot kicking
Under the white sheet of history.
– Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
This poem came to me in meditation this morning, but since I am not yet willing to credit my mediative state with the power to attract wisdom from sources greater than myself, I assume it has been rattling around in my head due to a series of more earthly conversations. My post about an identity crisis in a Dublin lecture hall leads me to contrast a graduate student seeking only the subversive bits of Irish poetry that declared a native feminist spirit deeper than any imported religion with a more mature seeker who has redefined the “subversive.” Because I was constantly seeking the Goddess in verse, I paid little attention to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s work. A few volumes are full of notes and comments, but most of them are tinged with irony as I marveled at such an obsession with the Church; clearly she was occupied with the spirit of the sacred feminine, why did she have to veil it in a habit? Now, as my definition of the sacred moves beyond such gender discrimination (to both rather than either/or) and I have a broader sense of history and context, I read her work with fresh eyes, wondering what that thesis of mine would have looked like if I had not limited to such a specific view of the divine.
Another reason I believe I was drawn back to this poem is a half-baked online chat session with a friend who knew me in my professionally irreverent pagan days in Ireland. To him, my new investigations of Catholicism are akin to asking politely to don the moral straight jacket and requesting a steady stream of lies at the hands of patriarchal victors. In the twisted medium that is “talking” online (I am sure enough people have pontificated quite enough on how such interactions contribute to our chronically fragmented personalities and our pervading sense of isolation even as we drown in “communication”), I tried to express something about babies and bathwater and waste. Luckily we have poets to save us from clichés!
I wonder at my former ability to write literary criticism even when a poem shook me to the core. Was I like a surgeon of words, hiding behind an impersonal mask that refused to become emotionally invested in the subject (or was it the object)? Or if I was affected, was I resigned that an English class could not always fulfill my needs? I suppose that I decided against the PhD path because, in the end, the classroom is not a cathedral.