I did not wipe my feet dear parson of the midway when
I entered your holy sanctuary
for there was nothing I could place
in your offering places except tears and blood
borrowed from some other ancient astronaut
that lent them to me when it snowed in the desert
and rained in the sunlight
yes I could not wipe my feet dear deacon
for they were tied down with barbed wire and railroad
nails those giant steel points that kept my feet crossed
at the ankles
and your church members silent
hiding behind that false certainty that i was not welcome
in your holy place
because i was naked
around the waist
and my intestines
were showing at the benediction
and I smelled of burnt flesh burnt
by clansmen on a joy ride with the other deacons
gone to barbecue
only the poor could see me there
only the unsaved wept for me there
only the lost could find my way home there
and my head was beaten a thousand million times
blunt and sharpness it did not matter to them
for no one of influence came to my rescue
when i entered your sanctuary today
hoping for some chicken soup and wine
and a sponge to stop the bleeding
nary a shroud to cover my corpse
dripping sadness and outcast
on your expensive carpet i ruined
on your empty cross so sad
this was the perfect place for me perhaps
but I could not audition
for i was in the wrong place at the wrong
deacon could you spare me a dime?
Copyright 2007 by William "Wild Bill" Taylor
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "Corpus Christi" by William "Wild Bill" Taylor, follows the prophetic tradition of scathing critique from within. In the words of Jeremiah, or Jesus, we can find a more searing indictment of religious hypocrisy than anything from the pen of Richard Dawkins. The reformers' anger burns brightest because they love the spiritual truths that their leaders are perverting, and the people who are being led astray.
The sins that Taylor's poem addresses have not changed much from Biblical times: greed, prejudice, unkindness, pride. Elements of dark humor and absurdity mostly rescue the poem from becoming maudlin, though there are some moments of overstatement. This Passion play is littered with prosaic modern inventions (barbed wire, chicken soup, astronauts) that make it uncomfortably real. Christ has been plucked out of his safe stained-glass window. Now he's that strange-smelling guy staggering down the aisle, asking you for a handout. What are you going to do?
The many allusions contained in the title "Corpus Christi" gives us clues to the poem's layers of meaning. In literal terms, it's Latin for "the body of Christ". And it's the body that the Christians in this poem have the most trouble accepting. They can't handle the grossness of the speaker's real wounds. They refuse to see his material needs for food, shelter and medical care. Perhaps he belongs to a different ethnic group (as the reference to "clansmen" would suggest). They may consider him unchaste ("naked/ around the waist") or disapprove of his sexual orientation. Whatever the reasons for their disdain, the central failing of religious community in Taylor's poem is that they don't embody their faith; they treat it like a pretty ritual that sets them apart from the world they should be serving.
In medieval Europe, Corpus Christi was the feast day on which the churches would put on plays re-enacting Biblical scenes. This was the beginning of modern drama. Taylor's poem stages a present-day Passion play, where Christ (concealed in the person of this social outcast) is again persecuted by the Pharisees of our day. Taylor depicts a crucifixion with railroad spikes and barbed wire—a populist image worthy of William Jennings Bryan—and continues the theme with references to the sponge, the wine and the shroud.
That barbed wire, and the line "my head was beaten a thousand million times", reminded me of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay youth who was beaten and tied to a barbed-wire fence and left to die. Later that same year, playwright Terrence McNally premiered his controversial play "Corpus Christi", recasting Christ and his disciples as homosexuals confronting bigotry. I don't know if Taylor intended these references, but nonetheless the poem may resonate in a special way with those whose churches are struggling with this issue.
Taylor makes effective use of sarcasm and exaggeration to help his narrator retain his prophetic edge, instead of becoming merely a sentimental victim. The opening mock-salutation, "dear parson of the midway", conjures up the familiar figure of the huckster-evangelist, the Elmer Gantry, whose preaching is mere carnival patter. The "deacons gone to barbecue" reinforce the same folklore depiction of the greedy, ridiculous preacher. The churchgoers are fussy and snobbish, primarily concerned with their clean carpets and conducting the service in an orderly, tasteful way ("my intestines were showing/at the benediction/song"—what a faux pas).
The incongruous image of the astronaut functions as a messenger from another realm who has come to turn the congregation's assumptions upside-down. The place where "it snowed in the desert/and rained in the sunlight" may be a place where miracles are real, or it may stand for the inversion of the moral order that he perceives in his listeners. Either way, he is coming from a place where all sorts of things happen that don't fit their tidy theories about how the world works.
Because the poem's message, however creatively presented, is not new (more shame to us!), I felt it could have been a little shorter without losing its impact. I might cut the lines from "this was the perfect place" to "wrong time" towards the end of the poem, and possibly the stanza before that ("dripping sadness and outcast"), though I do like its repetitive rhythm. Overall, Taylor has contributed a worthy addition to the literature of protest.
Where could a poem like "Corpus Christi" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards
Postmark Deadline: Feb 1
Competitive award from the prestigious Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College offers $2,000 and a reading in Paterson Historic District in NJ; judges say, "Please do not submit poems that imitate Allen Ginsberg's work"
Dylan Days Writing Contest
Entries must be received by April 23
Free contest from singer-songwriter Bob Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, MN offers prizes up to $100 for poems and short stories in both open and student categories; enter by email only
Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry
Postmark Deadline: April 30
Highly competitive award of $2,000 from the journal Nimrod
This poem and critique appeared in the March 2007 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques