Wednesday, February 9


I am cautious about explaining poetry, even my own, but I'll give you at least a bit of a clue here: the italicized portions are in part adapted from a sequentia of St. Hildegard in which she describes a vision she had of St. Maximinus celebrating mass. The rest is a mixture of reading Dante in class and Hildegard on my own and putting them, perhaps somewhat superficially, in dialogue, as well as noticing a plainly-dressed, striking, though not conventionally beautiful, middle-aged woman wandering the halls of the Chicago Art Institute during a visit last summer. I find it helpful to be on the lookout for unusual faces when I am out and about--often one can invent a whole fictional family that way. You may also find references to St. Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermons on the Song of Songs, which I was also (somewhat unsuccessfully) trying to tackle at the time. I started it then, finished it later, and have only gotten around to posting it just now.

The Dove Looked In

by Matthew Alderman

Vita Nuova, xxvi

I saw faded beauty once
Pass me by in a gallery of stippled Seurats:
Maybe she was an English teacher,
A soccer mom in homely new white sneakers,
A nurse in jade-green scrubs.
You would have never called her pretty,
Nor stopped, admiringly at a distance,
Draping a chaste lechery in classical garb with the wan
Affectations of swooning lovers,
And bothered to notice her.

The dove looked in
Through the latticed grate:
And behold:
There sweetest balm rained down on her face,
Sweated from the bright priest-bridegroom.

I might have noticed her on purpose
Rather than accidentally
Had I been an artist: a painter, a Giotto di Bondone,
An Angelico in fluttering fluted black and white,
If I had been searching not for perfection,
But for the subtle twist,
Wrong going right,
Right going wrong,
That felix culpa, that perfect flaw,
Armless de Milo,
That makes a masterpiece.

It was a face made for halos and heavens,
The face of the dove.

The heat of the sun blazed out
And gilded the dark around him at his Mass:
A bud split open, jewel-like,
In the temple of his heart:
Most pure and kind his heart
As he cried out from the altar,
O Beatrice!

Maybe, just maybe, as a girl
The luminous plainness of her features might
Have been transformed by the glow
Of dewy Youth, giving bloom to the endless
Fascination of her visage,
As satisfyingly sharp-cut as a Shaker chair
With that one humble sharp cut that made it imperfect
That one sharp rent that made her human, like the rent
In the gaudy golden curtain that hid the Ark.

A high tower of cypress is he,
Dark turret to her purest white,
Counterweight and mirror
To the Tower of David.
O thou who mirrorest the Great High Priest:
O thou who mirrorest God to my Church,
O thou,
O thou who are callèd to be the ikon
Of Ageless Wisdom,
And yet like I am not worthy of it:
The ikon
Of the Key of David,
Of the Son of Mary,
O thou,
Wrought of Lebanon's cedars—
Sardis and hyacinth stones frame your turrets--
And thou, vicar of the king of heaven,
Art a city surpassing the arts
Of all other artisans.

And I looked upon this Tabernacle,
This still-slim Mater Dolorosa on vacation
In Nikes and a clean sweatshirt,
This woman who issuèd forth from the wound in
Adam’s side, drawn out
By the supreme command of the Architect
Of the Universe.

And I
Looked at her bobbed inky hair just starting to
Streak silver,
Looked at her straight, plain Roman nose,
Looked at her straight, plain Roman mouth,
Looked at the upward, tragicomic slant of
Her slender black brows
Perpetually knit into a question of humility
Or doubt.

Among ye this builder shines,
A rampart of the temple,
He who longed for the wings of an eagle
As he kissed—

Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth
Let me kiss him on foot, hand, and upon
The mouth, for I, Beatrice, I glow with
The crackle of lighting and my womb is a chamber of thunder,
And I, I am terrible
As an army with banners—

As he kissed
His wet-nurse Wisdom
In the glorious gardens of Mother Church.

O ikon of the bridegroom:
On Thy towering height
The mountain goat leapt
With the oliphaunt,
And Wisdom (
O Sapientia!) was in rapture.

She had kind, ordinary eyes,
(I forget their color: gray or green?
A color to pierce the sky in any other face)
In sockets just beginning to gather
A pocket of pale wrinkles like
The trickling capillaries of a river:
And they looked up from her
Strange and tragically equivocal
Eyebrows with oblivion as she chatted
With someone on her left:
Her husband, her daughter,
Her sorority pal from college
On some mundane errand of joy.
They blended back into the pixilated
Background as static as post-Impressionist
Sculpture, like the ethereal crudities of Duccio,
Netted over with gilt linear shadows,
Or like the Egyptian mummies
That range over the noonday grass of
La Grand Jatte.

I took her from that realm,
Sent her to college: sent her to a lecture hall
(Ekklesia: assembly)
And imagined her a great and aging scholar of letters,
Putting Dante’s world behind her eyes:
I saw her pacing the floor in a vast tiered
Acoustic-tile arena with precise, cocked steps,
One foot behind the other, weight shifting,
Weight shifting, balletic, animal, graceful,
Deliberate, and yet unknowing.
She sketched great arcs and tiny circles
With her hands, clasped into fists
Or open, fingertip to thumb
Like a priest at mass
(like Christ the priest at mass,
Who I am a mere copy,
Weighed down with the
Dignity and burden
Of God’s image),
Cosmologies and symbols I thought she might decode
By her very existence: my agèd Muse.

And I heard her cry aloud
(Or imagined I did, I’m not sure)
That she had lost her soul in the dark, dark wood
Under the dying orange sun of Hell
Until I had found it for her,
(And she mine)
Until together we
Had chased, like Christina the Astonishing, through
The wheelwork of the Universe,
On a cosmic road-trip with some dead Mantuan dude
To find it, to behold
The multifoliate rose of Dante and Prufrock
Perhaps strained through the fine scientific sieve
Of fish-eyed pointillism: or
Watching Satan æviternally munch Judas
Like guacamole-flavored tortilla chips.

But she slipped from my sight, my middle-aged muse:
For she had another master, another purpose,
This dripping honeycomb
Longing for a Lamb,
Longing for milk and honey beneath her tongue,
And she flew skywards to home.

And I sang to her, now invisible, from the back row
Of ugly plastic chairs,
As if on the step of the altar,
Mode Five, with melismatic drama:

Thy flowering
God forsaw on the first Day of creation:
O golden matrix of the Word,
Miracle of God’s hand,
O laudable Virgin, He made Thee thus!

O how great is Man’s side, how strong,
From which Woman didst God draw forth
And who He made the mirror of all His ornament,
The embrace of all creation,
The door from which came forth
The light and glory of the whole world’s frame.

But I saw her not, and she was taken
Into the desert, and given the wings of an eagle,
And, for all her homely beauty,
Her unexceptional face
And sweet greying eyes
She was set in the heavens as a crown of twelve stars,
And without losing her
Sweet tired face
Became incomparably beautiful,
White-hot as the sun and wreathed
Round with sweetest roses:
This blessed damozel,
And she sang aloud to me, and me alone—

Strong and sweet
In the sacred rites and
In the shimmer
Of the altar, where
Thou dost rise like incense
To the pillar of praise—
Pleading for Thy people,
Who strive toward Light’s mirror
To that goodly Light be praise and glory in the highest!

Gloria. Sicut.

And I, a man like any other, could have seen this all
In any face,
In any curl of lip,
In eyes blue and green and grey and brownest hazel,
In gleaming locks of black and golden brown,
Or dullest grey, or purest white,
In the polished calypygian gleam of a Canova Venus
Or a wizened Bosch bacchante:
In any blessed damozel,
All who are called Beatrice, the image of Mary,
All who, like sweetest Ekklesia, came forth from the darkness
Of Christ’s heart on Calvary
As water and blood,
Passing in the squalor of the bus station,
Pregnant in the produce aisle,
Or amid the elegance of forgotten masters and musæums.
Blessed art they amongst all women for their womanhood;
To all these maidens, O greenest branch, O most purple of crowns,
Be praise and glory in the highest.

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