Gaelan Gilbert is the author of One is Found First (2018) and a contributor to Clearing Paths: A Darkly Bright Anthology of Verse (2021).
Reflections on poems from the his collection: One Is Found First.
Ten years ago the firebells numbly wept. Yellowed leaves, hot wax on willow, tumbling buds, searing flakes of ash and burning human forms, ushered once and for all by the crush of an aggregate prelude. And a sword shall pierce your heart clean through. Now I sit here in the leafy grass, feeling crass beside Russian children, waiting for her icon, waiting for the bells to tell us she is here: the smell of roses whisper in the ear, quelling early autumn death, cloaked in robes of red and ochre, she arrives. Four days short of a year later, I am out of breath: my infant daughter’s form is borne from sheltered space, dark and liquid, into crushing light. In the ninth month, something happens— first responders jump a fence, lips press the breathing child. We are midwives, bundling up in blood-soaked sheets the still-breathing, gritting our teeth, waiting beside the born and the dying in the place of the skull.
In this poem I am trying to explore the connections between Mary’s maternal role, as seen in her presence at the birth and death of her Child, and real acts of nurturing care that both birth-giving and dying ask of parents or first-responders to tragic events. The imagery derives from memories of three events. Around September 2011, I was in Vancouver visiting a Russian Orthodox church, waiting for a particular icon of the Theotokos, or Virgin Mary, to arrive. This visit occurred around the ten-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. Nearly one year after this visit to Vancouver, our first child was born on September 8, the feast day that commemorates the birth of the Holy Virgin.
For its title, the poem bears a Greek term used to describe the Mary, the Mother of God, as one who is “most-holy.” What Elder Symeon tells Mary in Luke 2:35 – that a sword shall pierce your soul also – anticipates the future suffering of her Son, the Messiah. There is no shortage of suffering in today’s world. Mary’s faithful presence at the cross of her Son and Lord shows us a way of facing that suffering by – not daring to hope in seeing its end in this life, but – recognizing it as the deepest level of God’s own incarnate participation in our creaturely existence. This suffering is an act “even unto death” (Philippians 2:8) in which He transforms death into a doorway to true life. But for now it still hurts, beyond words.
Other stars grow from time’s taproot. Their branches sag with moons, glowing inhale, aura of constellated zone, chinks in superlunar dome, oozing Empyrean white; are knots on a line lowered by hands to pierce the ceiling of sea, sink into the tertium quid, descending fraught to harvest shells of thought, the mind’s cataract, noetic chambered nautilus; are freckles on her shoulder, nebulous trace, melanin zodiac laced by that galactic love which moves the sun, which throbs like a pulse in the arm of a child in the sun and other stars.
Dante inspired this poem, or at least the last lines. The idea of becoming a star, or stellification, is somewhat like the pagan equivalent of deification, and it appears in the writings of Platonists from Cicero to Macrobius. Dante holds a different if no less significant place for the stars in his poetry. While casting doubt on astrology and stellar apotheosis, he upholds stars as stunning examples of divine craftsmanship, fixtures in the level of Paradise where the Apostles reside, and stable nautical and agricultural points of reference, echoing Virgil’s Georgics.
The beautiful scientific fact that all the elements on earth were first formed in the chemical reactions of stellar nucleosynthesis may not have surprised Dante too much. After all, the Scriptures speak of the intimate role of stars in God’s creation: “He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names” (Psalm 147:4). What is more, in creating vibrations detectable by asteroseismology and scaled up to human hearing, perhaps hydrogen fusion is the instrument of the real music of the spheres. Such celestial music would have been a part of Dante’s cosmic model, both for Ptolemaic and exegetical reasons: “when the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). For these and other reasons, the poem sees stars as present in the manifold experience of our existence.
As John held his severed head, swung like a lantern, announcing with glee Sheol’s foreclosure and the Lord’s descent, could he for a moment foretell, even he, prophet of the desert, the bodies piled in the gutter? The desert in the heart of your brother? There is reason to think so. With knotted hair held in his fist, brand new blood to his fingertips now is moving. It’s the same in the dancer. Her own end came swiftly, too, and though she had heeded her mother’s request, it was just this that had brought him to preach to the spirits in prison. He smiled when he saw her. And the rest is not history if such moments return, mended, even Salome to be.
My studies of medieval poetry and drama which portrays the harrowing of hell may have brought about the idea of writing this poem. From Ukrainian mystery plays to Piers Plowman, vivid and hilarious depictions abound of St. John’s and then Jesus Christ’s entrance into Hades to scatter the bumbling demons and save those who have died, in particular the Old Testament righteous and in some versions (drawing from Romans 2:13-16) even virtuous pagans.
The poem takes its starting point from Herod’s execution of St. John the Baptist in Matthew 14:1-13, beginning where that narrative leaves off, and imaginatively pictures the Forerunner repeating his prophetic role as a “voice crying in the wilderness” among the dead as well. But the poem widens its purview to include another character from the biblical narrative whose eternal fate is of course impossible to know: Salome. To imagine the fierce, locust-eating desert prophet in a moment of warm encounter with the person who caused his beheading is undoubtedly speculative theologoumena, but the poem gestures toward this with the conditional “if” in the final lines. Only God is judge, but in humility He also invites us to intercede in prayer for all those who have died, even Salome.