Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 2

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 2
Today’s Scripture

If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish.

Including this reference in Deuteronomy, there are at least 42 instances in the Bible in which we are admonished to “harden not our hearts.” In a world so full of din and spin, voices thick with propaganda and hatred, it is easy to close our ears to everything but our own immediate concern. Sometimes, to my great shame, I've shut out the people I love the most. What of the “many long dumb voices,” of which Whitman spoke: “through me many long dumb voices,” the voices that have been mute or made mute in our lives and in our world? What if we’re not listening to the very voice of God?

I found this illumination (below) in an exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and was struck by its astonishing beauty and its representation of a cruel and hideous act, the beheading of St. Bartholomew. I wondered again at the paradox of the limitlessness of human depradation and also the ability of human beings to depict even such acts with such grace. What if flesh is the text of God?

Manuscript Leaf with the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, from a Laudario

Illumination of the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew

from the dried hide of calves
carved sewn in quires

they bend & tend to him / as if
tailors or healers & not rending

skin from limb / their eyes
narrowing knives / he balances

naked on ankle / a single
arm aloft as if in flight

from body’s scything / O wholly
gold-haloed & yet-membered head

soothe the eye in which I am
thrown / hand without shield /

scissored out hymn / & if
the body’s flayed & displayed

in human palms / & human skin
scrolled open / the body still dances

& if the flesh is the text
of God / bid a voice to rise /

& rise again

On “Illumination of the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew” by Hilary Plum

In an age of text casually digitally illuminated, I find online a reproduction of a leaf from a ca. 1340 Italian hymnal, which above its fragment of hymn portrays in tempera, gold, and ink the martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew. I am following the poem. The pose of the saint corresponds; in one panel, skin of one leg flayed to the thigh; in the next, skin a cloak tied round the neck of the headless saint. Bartholomew is often portrayed offering forth his skin, specter of his own face gathered in his hands.

Bid a voice to rise: the page is waiting to be sung. Yet its fate has long been silence. A hymnal like this has become a document of song, not a means to it; to preserve and be preserved and not to be used.

Bid a voice to rise: of his encounter with the testimonies of those imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, Metres writes I found the transcripts… were too painful for me to read straight through; the only way I could bear to read them was to work with them. So every morning, I sat down with a photocopied page and a yellow highlighter. To illuminate.

The voice that rises, ruptures: in the “abu ghraib arias” that follow this poem, space and silence rupture the text. Black bars obscure where text might have been. To illuminate; to hear the history of silence. These poems document a silence that is a silencing; they mourn by hearing what they cannot hear. The poet calls forth his voice and then lets silence occupy it.

When I sit before the reproduction of this page I am following the poet, occupying a space before the screen he must once have occupied. Years have passed since he was here, years that have silenced further the fact of these crimes and of these living voices, the hooded faces we have yet to see. I sit before the poem and all that has come after. I follow the poem; the work remains. The poem means to be used.

Hilary Plum is the author of the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (FC2, 2013) and the essay Watchfires (Rescue Press, forthcoming 2016).

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