Monday, January 28, 2013

#66: "A Gospel of the Human Condition" by Jennifer Militello

~This poem previously appeared in The North American Review (2010)

A Gospel of the Human Condition

And we are left on the cold sills of a world.
Years come and loiter in the bottles
we discard, years come and stir
with the wind, years singe like cigarettes
as they burn past their filters, the papers
of winter as they ladder to the ground.

Even here, in this mechanical hour,
dying becomes a hundred armored lords.
A grain of sand wears a volt of thought
more soft than the green of torture.
An asymmetry of irises.
The stars, that bed of nails.

It is the howl we make instead of love,
while the pigeons stir their ragged sleep
and sleep their dirty rivers, while
the evening is a crier of wounds.
Hewn, we are the minnows. Shallows
hold us in the bare of our shadows.

Alone, we are mourned by
our own ruined shrines, and the voyages
mine through our waking. What takes, what
makes scalpels of each of the eyes, each
a called mile, each a spun-sharp waiting.
We are faithless, fainting, praying.

The hair shirt is not enough. The fish hook
is not enough. We kiss in the corners
of subway stations. We undress in public.
We are cruel to animals. When we sing,
we sing poorly. Some mechanism in our hearts
fails and this causes a tinkering of happiness.

The old laws take hold. The single hoof
of each of our hearts remains unshod.
Our half-starved dogs are beaten, their ribs
listen to the darkened apartments within,
our voices trim the windows. We are

sure to be forgiven. We are sure to
feast. We oxidize in several winds.
There is shrapnel in the rain. We fade
like several finches. Ourselves
at the periphery. Begotten, not made.

I find I write a poem mainly in one of two ways: I either graft images together in a fashion that naturally unfolds in paper doll form toward the poem’s intention or, more rarely, I begin with the stem of a concept and fix images at the extremities like leaves, until the foliage of the concept is complete. This particular poem happened as the latter; it evolved as a more didactic poem. It has statements to make and makes them, unwinding the images and metaphors in the context of this.
            Within that unwinding recur emblems of the city.  As a New Yorker by birth, I know well the grimy dawns and filth-strewn gutters, the constant run of tainted water and the sidewalks strewn with waste. The images here, the filthy pigeons and discarded bottles, the half-starved dogs, the cast-off cigarettes, and the potential oxymoron of affection expressed in subway stations, all convey this. For me, the city is a gauge of our fate. Cities were constructed to deny death, to defy it through concrete and steel. They are our modern day pyramids, built to convey us into the afterlife. They are a testament to mankind’s lastingness, existing to convince us we are eternal. And yet the urban reality is a frightening thing. Each day, we look at buildings that will stand long after we are dead. We will each be outlasted by the city in which we were born. When I use these metropolitan images, it is with both the reality and the illusion in mind.
            Collective poems of existential angst, poems that unlayer the catastrophic state of the human condition, poems that mourn our fate, are some of my favorite poems to read. Poems that acknowledge that no matter what we do, the end lurks. Poems that emphasize our everyday failures and our marginalized state, poems that show us clinging to all our Biblical comforts even as we disobey, conjure such admiration that I undertake my own attempts. I write them without endeavoring to pin down the complexities, not as a salve, not as a balm. I write them to examine human behavior as it is dictated or shaped by these conditions; I write them in response. And I write them to transform the cruel into the beautiful, into the blue and musical, because that is what I believe poems should do.


Jennifer Militello is the author of Body Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013), Flinch of Song (Tupelo Press, 2009), winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award, and the chapbook Anchor Chain, Open Sail (Finishing Line Press, 2006). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The North American Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Best New Poets 2008. 

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