Excavations and Exhumations

by Paul Hooker

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The makers rage to order words of the sea
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

– “The Idea of Order at Key West”
Wallace Stevens
Selected Poems (2009, p. 74).

I. The Charnel House, St. Catherine’s Monastery (i)
A thousand skulls. Two thousand sockets
keep eternal watch as aimless dust
settles to its rest for a millennium,
or for the twinkling of an eye—does it matter?
They observe all, these vacant sentinels,
miss nothing, make no comment.
The jaws of monks that once gave voice
to liturgy and psalm now fall agape,
sing monotonic praise of none, or else of all.
The song they sing is the silence of angels.

Above, in Trypho’s chapel, impious feet
grind smooth the ancient doorway sill
that leads to sunlit sacred precincts.
Icons commend with pious gesture
axioms of order and orthodoxy,
censers exhale holiness in swaths,
and incanted chants are unguents for the chafe
of doubt’s ubiquitous anxiety.
A sideshow. The true penitent
treads the garden path to see the bones.

In these chambers darkness is the Truth.
Here silence is the single testimony,
and generations of the dead enforce
without a word the piety of patience.
Here among these skulls intrudes no doubt,
for death is past and pain is ended,
and faith dissipates into the acrid dust.
Brothers who once struggled to believe
are here beyond belief’s combative grasp.
Here at the end of things is the beginning.

II. The Thirty-Two-Foot Principal
When called for, or at the organist’s discretion,
at the end of lines, or when otherwise the melody
pauses, as though gathering itself before
plunging on to whatever denouement awaits—
in those moments of blessed silence there lingers
a shaking in the rafters, a rattling in panes.
Foundations quake, assumptions rearrange.
The thirty-two-foot principal, low C.(ii)

Neither note nor sound, but wave, a cosmic rumble,
as if the bowels of earth are in distress,
as if somewhere not all that far away
a newborn thunderstorm is forming,
as if it has just occurred to the Eternal
that one could draw a breath to speak a word
that might become the jussive of creation’s grammar
and separate the darkness and the light.

Low frequency high amplitude vibrations
seem to the ear like mountains made of air;
we rise and fall on surging tidal swells
of sound that is not sound but something more.
Between compression and rarefaction
lies the Truth, and in the Truth, the Trust
that sunk below the deep abysses of the sea
are the footings of the pillars of the world.

III. The Cry of Merlin (iii)
The oldest stories say he was a Druid,
last of his pagan race, murderous and wild;
no cuddly muddle-headed magic-maker,
tamely Christian, caster of the silly spells
of fairy tales—No, he was primordial,
thane of storm and thunder in dark forests,
of ancient oaks and rocks belched up from deeps,
a soul expressed in acorn and in lightning.
He traveled by an older way, a way obscured
lest it confound, confuse, or contradict
accepted truth. It was a way that made a world.

Walk in the wood—if you can find one—and listen
to the voice of oaks and rocks and wind;
tune your ear—do you hear it?—to a cry
that rises from below the vaults of time.
Imprisoned in a castle made of air, he cries
a cry still heard but never understood;
and tears of trees and ache of stone and poetry
of breeze and gale all bear the cry away
beyond the far horizon until it reach our shore.
Not all things are known, not all stories told.
Not every path abandoned is forgot.

IV. Kidney Stone
Long past midnight my belly fire burns hot,
and I believe in no one, not even God.
There is just the stone, and the stone is all that matters.
It aches and pulses deep, is its own universe
where no ministration salves or soothes or settles.
It moves, and bends my being to its will;
it rests, and I breathe gratitude for its mercy.
It is small, I am told, will likely pass;
here is medication to dull the pain and ease
the passage from hard-edged night to softer day.
But it is mine, this stony burden; I made it
in dark recesses I choose not to see,
and I have borne it, though unwittingly,
preparing for an anguish of my own creation.
Should not its passing be my doing, too,
unaided, unanesthetized, and alone?

Alchemists once sought the Philosopher’s Stone,
the stuff of myth that, found and properly applied,
turned ordinary metal into gold or silver,
could make one wise, pry open Eden’s sword-stopped gate,
could limn the very path to God.
It is a lifelong quest, to pick the lock
that binds Pandora’s treasure chest and rifle
through her gems in search of hope.(iv)
A certain tilt of spirit is required—
a surrender of dignity and pride of place—
to bring the stone to life and then to light,
where its passing might yet work a transformation,
and change our baser mettle to rarer earth.

V. Church Basement
Children’s desks and chairs
not so much arranged as thrown together
and left to tumble down,
furniture in a wooden waterfall
pooling into dust. On either side
the hallway proffered rooms
stacked floor to ceiling with the stuff,
the detritus of bygone decades
rotting in the semi-darkness.
Above, in the sanctuary, good folk of faith
still walked the aisle and sidled into pews,
sang hymns, prayed prayers as liturgy instructed,
and gave their ears to preachers, more or less.
Not down here, though. Down here
the dust alone was witness, mute record
of memorized verse, recited psalm,
stories from Egermeier or Uniform Lesson.(v)
Once classrooms, they were now a mausoleum
unvisited, a grave untended, overgrown.

Even that is gone now. In its place
a fast-food joint catering to drive-in
impulse, the cravings of our day. Still,
I wonder if beneath the tire and tarmac
there might remain a teaspoon of the dust,
and in the long silence after-midnight,
and audible with more than just the ear
the witness of the dust might yet be spoken
below the words, in the basement of belief.


Author’s Note: I offer these five poems as a sort of informal cycle. Each of them stands on its own, I think, but taken together they suggest (I hope) something of my yearning to get beneath the noise and foolishness that seems to me to characterize life and language—both personal and (for me, at least) ecclesial. The title I have given to this cycle suggests that they are best described as an excavation—a “dig” in the archaeological sense of that word—and as an exhumation—a “digging up” of whatever may be buried and out of sight. I don’t think of these as finished reports of completed work, either of the archaeologist or the medical examiner; rather they are field journals and autopsy notes from ongoing labors. I do not yet know what I will find down there, wherever I seem to be going.


Notes on the text:

(i) St. Catherine’s Monastery is located in the Egyptian Sinai at the foot of Jebel Musa (reputedly Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments) where it has been an active community of the Eastern Orthodox tradition for nearly 1500 years. Because of both limited space and arid conditions, generations of deceased monks are encrypted until their flesh has desiccated, and then their bones are placed in the charnel house, a structure in the monastery garden devoted to preserving the remains of the faithful. The charnel house is situated beside and slightly downhill from St. Tryphon’s Chapel.

(ii) The 32’ Principal is the lowest stop on most pipe organs. The lowest note on the pedal board of most organs is a C.

(iii) According to most of the early Arthurian legends, Merlin’s death came as the result of a spell cast over him by his paramour, Nimue (or Niviene, in some versions). Merlin was eternally imprisoned in a castle made of air that no one could see (alternatively, the prison was an oak tree, a cave, or a large stone). Waking from the spell but unable to free himself, Merlin recognizes and accepts his fate, except that he utters a heartrending cry in a language no one understands. According to some versions of the story, the cry was so loud that it could be heard for two miles, and all who heard it were reduced to tears.

(iv) “Pandora’s Box” was actually more likely a pottery jar than a wooden box. Hesiod’s treatment of the Pandora myth in his poem “Works and Days” uses the term, pithos, “jar”, but Desiderius Erasmus elected to render the term into Latin as pyxis, “box,” giving rise in the West to the tradition of “Pandora’s Box.” In most versions of the story, Pandora releases a host of evils, afflictions, and catastrophes on humankind when she opens the box, but she manages to keep locked inside one thing: hope. Whether this is a tragic or a promising symbol remains a matter of interpretation.

(v) Egermeier’s Bible Story Book, by Elsie Egermeier and Arlene Hall (1955), was a staple in most Protestant children’s Sunday School rooms and in many family homes. Egermeier’s retold biblical stories from both testaments in ways deemed both understandable to children and palatable to the sensitivities of post-World War II American parents. The Uniform Lesson Series was a Sunday School publication of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition that featured (in its children’s leaflets) realistic art renderings of scenes from a particular text and a retelling of that text in—again—understandable and palatable language.