Sunday, June 29, 2014

"and we dead stand undefended everywhere"

My drive home from Nashville takes me past a lot of churches, and this evening as I watched them flicker by I got to thinking about being a little girl in church myself, listening to preachers present Bible stories as lessons for sinners, every narrative wrangled into instructive service. There was no room for ambiguity in the religion I knew. Every tale had a good guy and a bad guy, and there was never any confusion about who deserved sympathy. But I was confused, always. I loved the stories and I tried hard to see them the way I was supposed to. I just couldn't. I liked the troublemakers and the losers — Eve, Cain, Esau, Lot's wife, even Judas — and from the time I was very small I felt a mixture of shame and resentment about that: What's wrong with me that I can't understand things properly? Why does there have to be a proper way of understanding? I was baffled by many things about church when I was a child, but nothing troubled me more than the feeling that I was in some way too stupid or too corrupt to root unreservedly for the star on God's team.

I was still brooding about my morally bewildered young self when I got home, and that sent me to a poem I loved early on, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which in turn led me to James Wright's "At the Executed Murderer's Grave." I never think about one of those poems without thinking of the other. I've spent most of my Saturday night pondering sin and death with Wilde and Wright. Somehow that feels more sustaining than church ever did. The stanzas below are from Wright.

I pity myself, because a man is dead.
If Belmont County killed him, what of me?   
His victims never loved him. Why should we?   
And yet, nobody had to kill him either.   
It does no good to woo the grass, to veil
The quicklime hole of a man’s defeat and shame.   
Nature-lovers are gone. To hell with them.   
I kick the clods away, and speak my name.

This grave’s gash festers. Maybe it will heal,   
When all are caught with what they had to do   
In fear of love, when every man stands still   
By the last sea,
And the princes of the sea come down
To lay away their robes, to judge the earth
And its dead, and we dead stand undefended everywhere,   
And my bodies—father and child and unskilled criminal—
Ridiculously kneel to bare my scars,   
My sneaking crimes, to God’s unpitying stars.

*The girl in the photograph is 11-year-old Ellen Woodman, who was sentenced to seven days hard labor for stealing in Newcastle, England, c.1870-1873. Image from Wikimedia Commons 


Amy said...

Ellen's eyes! They look as if they cried their last tears a long time ago.

I grew up Christian Scientist, and they believe in neither hell nor evil, which is also strange, albeit less traumatic than the fire-and-brimstone.

The fate of Lot's wife appeals to me as a metaphor--spend your life looking backwards with regret, and it will be consumed with salty tears. As a literal story it really pisses me off.

BitterGrace said...

Hi, Amy. Perfect description of Ellen. How utterly different childhood was a century ago.

I think the story of Lot's wife irked me more than any other we heard in church. So cruel and unfair.