Saturday, April 25, 2009

On Revision: Andreas Serrano, Black Rock & Sage, and Me

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, in the end) so we could live again. And so on.

But, still. Pee 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?

-Andreas Serrano


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
of christianity’s
ritual sacrilege.

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 tackle 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 (thought 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.

And here's where that effort to push my observations of and experience with the picture beyond the surface has led:*

In Memoriam

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. His head bows right,
to his breast, bloody laurel

washed in a stream of light, his body sagging
beneath the weight of rebirth, knees bent
toward fulfillment of the pain grown thick

as waste in his veins. Behind him, shorn
from view by the liquid veil, an angel waits,
eyes wide like a father at the nursery window

watching his firstborn sleep, or like that child,
years later, at the gift shop counter, anxious
to take home some museum artifact dipped in plastic

and sold on the discount shelf
beside the rack of keychains that never has one
with his name on it, just Jesse, Jessica, Violet

Rose,
and there, at the end, a whole peg of
Zechariah crammed against the register because
there’s hardly room in God’s mystery these days

for anything more than Zack or Zachary, remnants
of a memory gone limp as the image in this amber abyss.

From this rhetorical attempt, I learned something important about revision: sometimes, you just have to let the language ferment for a while before it can achieve full-bodiness (not that I've done anything particularly spectacular or full-bodied here). And the patience and effort were well-rewarded (I don't want to toot my horn, but I'm going to anyway, but just because I'm stoked about this). After submitting the poem to Black Rock & Sage (buy your copies here!), I was notified that it was the Ford Swetnam Prize Winner for 2009. Surprise!

Anyway, because the note Judge Paul Lindholdt gave on the poem helped me see it in a new light, I'm posting part of it here for my adoring *uhm-hmm* public to read:

"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,' [the last two appear in section II]---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."

Did you hear that? "Accomplished poem." Woah. Does that mean I'm an accomplished poet now?

Probably not.

But I do like that part about restoring reverence to the image of Christ. It reminded 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 can do, even if they don't know they're doing it: try to restore something to God and His kingdom that's been stripped by the world.

I only hope I can live up to this "heady vision" in my own work.

* * * *

* This is the first section of what is now a three part poem called "Submerged: Variations on Serrano's Piss Christ." The first two sections were just published in Black Rock & Sage (Issue 8, 2009) as "Submerged: Two Variations on Serrano's Piss Christ."