Pushcart XL: Lisa Russ Spaar, “Temple Gaudete” (poem) from Image, #81


Is love the start of a journey back?
If so, back where, & make it holy.

Saint Cerulean Warbler, blue blur,
heart on the lam, courses arterial branches,

combing up & down, embolic,
while inside I punch down & fold a floe

of dough to make it later rise.

Sometimes the transition between pieces grabs my attention. Unlike BASS, where each story is set in alphabetical order by author’s last name, these pieces are arranged. I always wonder how that’s done. Sometimes themes develop and blend into each other, mutating over the course of the work. Sometimes I don’t see any connection. And sometimes, the connection between two works seems to say something. We just had an essay titled for a bird and a mixed-up pair of saints, which had nothing to do with birds, perhaps something to do with figuring out who’s a saint and who’s not, and a lot to do with the peripatetic wanderings of two friends. Here we have the quite deliberate, instinctual wandering of the cerulean warbler, who spends its summers in places like Ohio and Indiana and its winters in Ecuador and Colombia, blended with a hymn of joy and the overtones of Advent.

A gaudete is a Christmas carol aimed specifically at the third Sunday in Advent. Taking a pattern from Lent, the third Sunday allows worshipers to change gears from reflection and penitence to joy; in Latin, “Gaudete” means “Rejoice”. The purple candles and vestments are replaced with pink, or, more specifically, rose, adding the symbolism of Mary; as the poem says, “There is gash,/ then balm.” We repent to find joy. As amateur (and not-so-amateur) theologians have noted for centuries, the gash is necessary for the balm to have meaning; otherwise it’s just sticky smelly goo.

The poem dramatically physicalizes gash and balm, existence itself, by the dough punched down before rising, and also in the image of the “embolic” bird in the “arterial branches” of the tree. This rather terrifying image of a heart attack waiting to happen equates the bird with executioner. “There is gash, / then balm.” When I was introduced to Christian doctrine as a tween, I wondered why people wanted to stay alive so badly, if heaven was all that great. Now there are other questions: “Admit we love the abyss, / our mouths sipping it in one another.” I’ll admit it, sure. But why do we love it? Why do we do such damage to ourselves? Is it because it’s the path to the balm?

I’m on uncertain ground when it comes to the theological interpretations, of course. But Image has a unique mission statement among literary magazines:

Image was founded in 1989 to demonstrate the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engage with the religious traditions of Western culture…. We believe that the great art that has emerged from these faith traditions is dramatic, not didactic—incarnational, not abstract. And so our focus has been on works of imagination that embody a spiritual struggle…. In our pages the larger questions of existence intersect with what the poet Albert Goldbarth calls the “greasy doorknobs and salty tearducts” of our everyday lives.

And the punching down with the rise, the abyss with the cerulean warbler, just trying to stock up before the long flight south.

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