He hung there,
an object lesson in desire

and its aftermath. I listened.
Christ said, put your hand here.

— Nancy Reddy, ‘Lent’

 

It was the Church that taught me first about the body. When to sit, when to stand, when to kneel. When to cross yourself and how. (My favourite, for their elegance, were the three tiny crosses with the thumb across the forehead, lips, and heart before the reading of the Gospel.) And of course, the lesson of Christ’s body, which, in the churches of my childhood was always muscular, exposed.

The Church is full of directives for the body – when to eat fish, when to fast. These directives were reinforced by my Irish Catholic grandmother’s many proscriptions, written and unwritten, intended to manage the unwieldy female body, to render it contained and appropriate – cross at the ankles, wear a slip, keep your left hand in your lap at dinner. Despite, or perhaps because of these constraints, Catholicism is a deeply sexy religion. It’s a faith in which the workings of the body matter very much and so are carefully ordered by ritual, rite, prohibition, and permission. It was religion and the body that I was thinking of when I wrote ‘Lent’, reprinted in Going Down Swinging No. 33 after first being published in the American literary magazine Memorious.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about what the Church taught me about language, its mystery and its force. It is through words, after all, that the priest turns Communion wafers into Christ’s body and wine into His blood. This refusal of metaphor, the insistence that the host becomes the body of Christ, not a symbol of it, is one of the hallmarks of the Catholic Church. And so transubstantiation was, for me, a remarkable introduction to the power of language – that words can transform, that two entirely unlike things can stand in for one another. And isn’t that how you feel when you read or write a really apt metaphor – the sheer delight of seeing how two dissimilar things, aligned, illuminate each other? I think, for example, of Matthea Harvey’s ‘Implications for Modern Life’, the little ham flowers, an image that has left me unable to see either ham or petals the same way since. (The poem’s from her stunning book Modern Life; there’s an excerpt of it in this review.)

Catholicism, as I was raised, also has a lot to do with faith and silence. Whatever you might feel at Mass, whatever you might pray for in the fleeting moments of grace after Communion, that was your business. When the priest declared Mass ended, families filed out to their cars and went home to cook scrambled eggs and bacon. My family, at least, never spoke about the readings or the homily. I think we were each meant to have a personal relationship with God (as I’ve since heard evangelical and non-denominational Christians call it), but that relationship was decidedly private. I felt the same way when I began writing poetry. In the silence of a notebook, much like in the silence of the pews, I could speak in ways I never would aloud.

Despite, or perhaps because of these constraints, Catholicism is a deeply sexy religion. It’s a faith in which the workings of the body matter very much and so are carefully ordered by ritual, rite, prohibition, and permission.

At the same time as the Church taught me about silence, it also taught me about the power of the voice: ritual words spoken in the Confessional, the incantatory power of the congregation’s responses to the priest. Much as the rituals of the body – kneeling, sitting, standing – are marks of membership and belonging, so too are these ritual words. They bind the disparate members of the parish together. I’ve found that really good poetry readings evoke a similar feeling of shared holiness – the sense that everyone is held in the same spell together, but experiencing the moment separately. Though I’m no longer a practising Catholic, I still find comfort in many of the rituals of the Church. Without these rituals – without the Church’s insistence on the force of language, on the power of what is unseen, as well as what is seen – I’m not sure I would have become a poet.

Lent

On Saturdays I drank pilfered liquor,
kissed boys in backseats, in basements

where the parents were always
out of town. Spent Sundays

penitent at mass. The slender
marble aisle. The cracked leather kneeler.

The congregation sitting and standing,
kneeling and sitting in a stuttering unison

as I replayed the rhythm
of hand on – , tongue on – ,

my prayer-bent body arched
with aimless lust. I knew.

I had learned in church: to be bodied
was to be sinful. I gave up milk,

gave up spoons, shaved the thumbnail
down to meet its fleshy bed.

Gave up chicken and carved each night
the pan-fried meat from thigh-bone,

fork-stabbed the knobby joints. Wished myself
up out of my limbs and aches.

Watched my hipbones rising
like the crescent moon. But if this

was wrong, why had they made
Christ’s body so beautiful?

He hung there
an object lesson in desire

and its aftermath. I listened.
Christ said, put your hand here.

from Going Down Swinging No. 33 (first published in Memorious)


Nancy Reddy’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Smartish Pace, Linebreak, Anti-, Best New Poets 2011, Best of the Net 2011, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is currently a doctoral student in composition and rhetoric.

Painting by Louis Janmot (1814–1892), Première Communion