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THREE POEMS

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By Royal W.F. Rhodes

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The Montréal Review, September 2021

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Disused Church by Harry Cory Wright (Eleven Fine Art Gallery, London)

CHURCH VISIT

In the ragged stone church
beside the cloud-shawled river
on a long, long summer day
visitors to this box of holiness
could smell beeswax and mold.

Light from beyond penetrates
the colorful panes in old windows,
the work of a new glass gospel.

Even if we no longer hold
belief in seven heavens,
seven virtues or sins,
what remains is an itching
sense that life is for something.

Is it in the world of creatures
that makes us stop and marvel,
even if eternity is no longer eternal?

Here is a leper, naked except
for a scabrous coat of skin,
with a bell to border his exile,
kneeling at the bare feet
of a radiant lady saint,
linked to him by a hanging rosary.

At the top, from a pink cloud,
an interrupting, finger-pointing
hand of God floats without touching.

It is not clear to us whether
it blesses or is waving good-bye.

St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, (oil on canvas) by Iain Walker

SAINT FRANCIS AND THE WOLF
(inspired by Galway Kinnell)

The darkness
fills and empties
all things of causes and conditions,
as light grows within
working on healing itself with diligence,
though sometimes a gesture
is needed to direct attention,
to place a hand directly
on an angry, troubled brow
to remind by words and touch
it is lovely, loving, loved,
until the emptiness bursts with light,
as the poor man, Francis,
stroked the head of the wolf
plaguing the people and flocks
in the distressed town of Gubbio,
and learned from this creature
the hungers all the living hold
for daily food in good season
and thirst met in the dry times.
Then the one called holy
felt the ribs sticking out
and the boney knots of the back
spiking from the bent spine,
and recalled the human desire
for daily bread, and blood-red wine,
broken long ago for the broken heart,
as he stretched out his bandaged hands
to let the wolf lick the traces
of life trickling in drops.  

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

DEATH ON A GRECIAN URN
~  reflections in my illness

i.
The longing love for you is like the ache
that laid me out upon the clinic's bed,
near soothing nurses who will try to make
the visitors who thought I would be dead
smile and use a mask and latex glove,
while the heart that skips  -- a hit or miss --
starts a code, indifferent to love,
where shock replaced the older act  --  the kiss
of life -- as both the breath and heart-rate fall.
At least it is not something I will feel.
The moment when to stop is hard to call,
since death is not a symbol, but too real.
Heartbeat, heartbreak -- both are mystery
that in my sickness you revealed to me.

Ii

Each night the slow procession of the stars
will light for me the figured heaven's map.
And Eros, making Venus cling to Mars,
provides the energy all life can tap.
Our bodies, some call rags we leave behind,
resemble gods in sacred nakedness  --
the way that soldiers stripped for battle bind
each other's hair in braids as they undress.
On this urn is painted Zeus's son,
slaughtered like dumb cattle cast aside,
whose father could not save. The deed was done
and done again before the blood had dried.
I hold you close, while gods this harvest reap
and bear you up -- the brothers Death and Sleep.

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Royal W.F. Rhodes is the Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Kenyon College.

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