Immersed in liquid light, like an insect
quenched in the amber’s flow, its body
pressed into the absence at the core,
the figure ripens on his tree, his nearest hand
pinned tight to the horizontal beam,
fingers and thumb contracted against
the sting of history’s curse, his other hand
lost in the amber haze… .
FitP Poet Highlight 31/82: Tyler Chadwick, “Submerged: Two Variations on Serrano’s Piss Christ” (on page 72)
My rumination on writing “Submerged” and some thoughts on a Mormon poetics:
The central method of gaining knowledge we have is our language. I do not think it is the function of the poets to give us little homilies in it, but to try to work the language to the limits of its resources, because when it is so worked, it has to be humanizing; it has to be a way of knowledge, because it is as deep inside ourselves as any part of our being.
—John Ciardi, New Era (Aug. 1987)
* * * *
Some years ago during an undergraduate intro to art class, the professor introduced us to Andreas Serrano’s controversial photograph, Piss Christ. While some students couldn’t have cared for the picture either way, many ranted, railed, and gnashed their teeth about it, asking, in essence, “How could someone be so sacrilegious as to bury an image of Christ in a vat of bodily fluid?”
Because it caused such a stir in class and because so many of the students placed themselves in opposition to the picture, I decided to exercise my critical thinking skills and take a stance for the image. It does have a certain beauty, I reasoned, and illustrates the notion that Christ essentially re-entered the womb (which is really just a vat of pee, after all) so we could live again.
And so on.
But, still. Urine makes such a bold statement, I had to suspend the hellfire and damnation in myself to keep from dismissing the image entirely.
And my response was such that I was compelled to write a poem about it. Here’s how my first attempt turned out:
On Piss Christ
Is the subject of religion so inviolable
that it is not open to discussion?
Pouring waste and blood
into a ritual retelling
of Sheol’s abyss—
immersed in liquid light,
the fetus ripens on His tree,
reentering the womb
to rebirth His fallen race—
the artist bites a nerve
in the modern body of Christ,
confronting the helm
Nothing spectacular. So I let it ruminate for a few years.
Fast forward to January 2009, I think, when, digging through my stockpile of crappy poems, I came across my initial attempt to approach Serrano in verse and thought I’d try again. And I scratched everything but two lines, around which I tried to do what Ciardi mentions in the quote I’ve epigraphed (though I didn’t really know that’s what I was doing at the time): to push language to its limits, to re-humanize this controversial image in a way that helps others see it, and Christ, in a new light. “Submerged: Two Variations on Serrano’s Piss Christ” came out of my effort to push my observations of and experience with the picture beyond a surface treatment.
Through this rhetorical labor, I learned something important about revision: sometimes, you just have to let a poem’s language ferment for a while before it can achieve full-bodiness (not that I’ve done anything particularly spectacular or full-bodied here). I also realized something about the work of a distinctly Mormon poetics through something poet Paul Lindholdt said about the poem. In “Submerged,” he said, ”The poet managed to take a very controversial and even ugly photograph and assign it beauty. […]
“Especially impressive are the verbs in this poem. ‘Quenched,’ ‘ripens,’ ‘shorn,’ ‘pickles,’ ‘leaching,’—these inventive verbs bring the static photograph to life and restore some of the reverence the photographer stripped from the crucifix in his image. Another striking feature of this accomplished poem are its subtle internal rhymes.”
I really like the bit about language restoring reverence to the image of Christ. It reminds me of something Gideon Burton once said about Mormon criticism:
“Consider the Restoration of the Gospel as a paradigm for Mormon criticism. Sensing some apostasy from truth, the critic rectifies this falling away through an act of restoration. As Joseph Smith sensed something incomplete about the truths of religion and then became an instrument in restoring this truth, so the Mormon critic, equally sensitive, becomes an instrument in restoring the truth to which he or she is witness. One feels a void, then fills that void with words. Here Restoration invokes original Creation: God’s spirit, brooding on the void, filled it through His Word. In this sense Mormon Criticism is both restorative and creative, both reactive and active. The Restoration paradigm provides powerful metaphors for criticism: critics can assume roles as prophets and creators, as mediators and seers. It is a heady vision for criticism, but one to which I have been witness, one for which according to the paradigm I am constrained to bear testimony.”
And so: on with the work of restoration. That’s one thing, I think, Mormon artists, poets, critics can do, even if they don’t know they’re doing it: Feeling a void, they can then fill that void with language in an effort to try to restore something to God and His kingdom and His children that’s been stripped from them by the world.
I only hope I can live up to this “heady vision” in my own work.