CANTO III: MUTINY
—Pssst! Come on!
(Gunshots in Sarajevo)
The Vatican is dark. All Rome is dark…
(The newsreels rolodex
with grainy black-and-white
an archduke’s death)
A summer night. The moon is cold and stark
as men cast shadows through the colonnade.
—That’s all then? —No, I saw more coming. —Where?
—Conciliazione. —Good. Good good…
The delegates go in. The air is chill
and near-autumnal—even ominous
with fall—as all the hushed conspirators
assemble—silent, secret—through the stone
façade of Peter’s.
wafting within the cavern Vatican,
shoe-claps on stone reverberate through tall
titanic columns—and the spangled dome,
ribbed with Apostles, echoing their din…
Still, all continued through the Papal palace,
passing the maps and tapestries of power,
till the whole group (like suited types of those
more softly pictured by The School of Athens)
at last swarmed thickly to the painted shrine:
the Sistine Chapel.
Here they congregate
to hold a covert parliament: debate
a war to end the spiritual, and rid
a chafing planet of its over-Lord…
Soon, under frescoes (lit by quivering light
from trident-candelabras’ flickering fires),
this furtive congress dimmed its murmuring
and whispered disarray, when, up the steps,
the first to speak ascended—taking stand
before the altar as his stage—and, flanked
waited for the lull…
flare back the tapers’ blaze. His darkened brows
survey in silent rounds… In hand he holds
a cypress staff, whose marriage with a robe
that flows in purple plumes is guise enough
to lose him in the walls, these painted prophets.
They call him “Job.” But if that’s moniker
or namesake, no one’s sure—he’s simply Job:
a weathered man of carob leathered skin,
once wealthy in the Congo (so they say)
but now a beggared, ragged refugee
and ruined immigrant—whose frame (old bones
within old rags and tattered clothes) holds sway,
like something ominous, before the people.
The crowd fell still beneath his pregnant glare,
dimming quiescence from a shared respect,
till (planet-heavy silence bearing down)
the graybeard black man—fire-eyed… solemn—spoke:
Here we are.
At weighing wars with Heaven?”
(He grimaced deep, and scanned the eager room…)
“Yet I would know:
who prates of peace?” (his eyes
imploring) “…Who… who here’s a coward? Claims
we monger ‘wanton’ war? Who does not see
these corpses at our feet? The death toll rises…
I—I myself was nearly taken in His teeth!
…I—I have striven with the LORD throughout
my night of living—wrestling with his plagues—
no? begging blessing? truce? some settlement?
a giving Heaven? Still, when pleas for pacts
and treaties go unheeded—messengers
as swift as prayer unwelcomed; and doves die,
lost to the sea, that would beak back some olive
from the world’s Summit, ending flood on flood—
what can one do but weep
…then take up arms
against the One who ‘l o v e s’ us?
Let the weak
escape the field—but those who’d breathe must fight!
Grapple with Him, who gives to take—who takes
what peace we’d hoard! Fight for a cot, a smile—
some ray of light beneath these thunderheads
of God. See: I am not afraid of war,
but only of these painful terms of peace
beneath a God-who-wrestles, waging war
“You’d have more speeches—endless talk.
Have we not learned the value of our words?
When we awake, and find our castles stormed,
plundered at night by Whom we trusted most
and set as Guard upon our treasures: health
Damn the rich life!—achievement—wealth! God damn
all things but children?
…When we rise and find
we are but skeletons of men, we learn
new tongues, new sounds, new groans of wretchedness
we couldn’t think were languages till then.
They’ll scorn translation for the ‘blessed,’ who’ll watch
their sons grow tall—who’ll hear them call from fields
while threshing wheat and welcome you in arms…
They are instead the languages of men
who haggle with the night. Of fathers forced
to see their youngest child—my son as he lay there, screaming
…see, he was reaching out his arms for me
And there were such But, he was crying, baba! And so I bent down and I grabbed his broken hands—but what could… I clutched him, and I was praying—see—prayer, stung my cheeks—like this—and just as desperate, I heard a faraway voice rasp distantly begging please God please
“More words for air.
(Why did I think they’d work?)
I tell you: I’ve tried peace with them before.
They do not serve you. Stop militiamen
who raid your land—then force you watch them rape
your daughter, man
that you you too that I
…or else they’d do the same to all my girls.
SPEAK TO ME, LORD!
Why don’t you hurl your words
as liberally as thunderbolts? So dumb?
Could One who broke the silence of the Deep
to speak Creation lose his tongue? No! NO!
And yet you show your splendor in the storms
and cataracts that break the world!—that sweep
the village off and crumple cities up
in jaws of whirlpool. Why is man big then?
Why do you suffer then to visit him?
to end your fast of words by banqueting
on savagery? to break your quiet lull
with screams? to wake from some eternal sleep,
only to make a nightmare out of us!?
“Our so-pious friends had words enough—
proverbs and high theologies of thought
assuring Heaven’s innocent! ‘Free Will’
(they say) explains the child-soldier, the ship
of slaves, a daughter’s rape: that man is free,
and with his freedom damns himself to pain
and rich infinitudes of tears through acts
God hates—yet worth true worship’s Liberty…
I am no wise philosopher, but this—
is this a God for worship, were we free?
For he’s not bound! yet look what ‘free’ He made!
A Free Will he created with a sting!
and if ‘Omnipotent’ could he not give us
a freedom with no pain?
Speeches and speeches…
Enough. They end today. Our cause is just
to bring Him down! for, having seen his fires
shoot from the sky, I do not doubt his arm,
I doubt his heart. This war was never ours
to start, but waged by him on us from birth!
Why prattle then as though we didn’t see?
War is theodicy! and I—my dust
ground thin by Heaven’s pestle—insides mined
by Heaven’s eagles—stand so hollowed out
I scoff at fighting’s further furrowings,
rising by wounds more empty than the air!
There are no words inside me yet, save those
to curse him to his face and die
in arms! And with my dying breath I’ll drag
You down, cruel King: to kiss the blood from these
bare feet, and teach You now
what suffering is!”
With that, the refugee raised up his staff
and dashed it to the ground—then left the stage
to murmurs, shouts, and ocean-swell applause
that nodded in assent from suffering
and pled for war.
But silence once again
fell on the underground assemblymen
when up the steps a tall dark figure strode,
his frockcoat billowing obsidian.
His ornamental cane, in clockwork beats,
tapped echoes through the hall, as sharp eyes viewed
like sentries through his oval lenses all
the would-be Deicides, assassins: man’s
avengers, standing rapt to hear him speak—
that magister, the scholar: conjurer
of over-knowledge, there, John Faustus cleared
his throat and smiled…
then spoke, mellifluous:
“Ladies and Gentlemen… Distinguished Minds…
it may be bold, but I believe that I
can play the prophet for our prophet Job,
and offer answers why no answers come
THERE IS NO GOD TO OFFER THEM!
Haha! Short work for that old, knotty riddle!
But have it on authority of years:
I watched Dear God dissolve before my eyes,
and gazed too high through Heaven
till I broke
“Oh, I was once a holy fool,
precocious for the mystic’s mind, and grew
from zealotry at boyhood scriptures thirst
for spiritual realities. I’d haunt
the sacristies in smoke, or linger long
on lines like, ‘Verbum caro factum est,’
or else, ‘In ipso enim vivimus,
et movemur, et sumus.’ Even now,
so many years…I still recall that thrill,
which Easter bells ignited when they tolled
sweet Resurrection! Every prayer was lust
and satisfaction! longing, and relief!
and all the ecstasies of reverie
that hating life could purchase: praying, fasting,
or wringing-hands-and-sighing—all made sweet
my contemplation of Elysium:
Cloistered deep in dark,
and lost in thralldom to my codices,
my quest for Heaven called me upward—up
from the ‘vile Earth’ to transcendental Forms
beyond these ‘shadows’ of the lower world…
My books played pentagram, from which I’d draw
old sages like a necromancer. Up,
John of the Cross! Augustine! Desert Fathers!
These corpses Witch-of-Endored from the page,
I’d swoon in Love’s austerest visions—up,
still upward tending!
“But… one devil plagued:
my side-thorn devil, doubt, who’d scrape ascent
with skeptic claws and down my chariots
Where stood Elysium? it asked,
Of what stuff was it made? and How composed?
How could one know that it was really true…?
With such a Mephistopheles inside
I couldn’t vault into the higher Realms!
but, melting Icarus to cynic’s seas,
fell Aristotleward from Plato: back
to Plato’s cave.
Such ecstasies! all lost…
until transcendence had some certitude
to bolster it. And so I looked to Earth
(my falling-place) to abstract Overworlds
its shadows might still ladder towards:
the Law from life’s contingencies and I
might meet the Legislator! Chemical
Creator! Force of forces! Underprop
the universe and I might know Him yet!
a deep Intelligence and Providence:
Intention-woven cosmos! So I felt
re-winged, and rose by delving deeper: Earth’s
small molecules, and Newton,
I summoned each, and waxed my mind with physics!
probing the circle-motions of the spheres,
and chemical consistencies; the churn
of potions in my beakers, fire and air,
vast rooms of burning elements, and smoke,
vis viva—all the essences of Being!
when smoke had cleared,
I looked and saw
no Purpose in the workings…
Cold laws, but not my Lover reappeared
within the faceless fabric of the cosmos.
Though in each instrument and vacuum, plate,
or chart or dish there was my devil, doubt,
who whispered, laughing, This is it, dear Faustus!
this is it.
That’s how, at last,
—And yet still! I’d not give in!
Begging my Crucified, I screamed, ‘My Christ!
Savior, my Savior! save your Faustus’ weak
and battered soul from doubt!’
“But in the hush
which followed my distress, I heard no ‘still,
And then the distant bells
of Easter knolling out across the hill,
accompanied by maiden choirs who mulled
the Marys’ find:
We went into the tomb,
T’anoint and balm our Lord with care.
But lo! behold! The one we sought is gone!
Praise God! for we find Christ no longer here.
So sang Faith’s steepled villagers beyond—
of quiet crypts, and Gods absconded: hymns
of celebration for their missing Lord!
but resonating in my chambered heart
as empty as that tomb.
The devil wins.
And that’s that. And so I was downed to Earth—
whose only goal had ever been ascent
into the Paradise of Overworld…
But in a life so Resurrection-lorn—
sans Christ (Good Friday in perpetuo)—
at last sweet Easter dawned again: my own!
when I, so lately learning, looked to Earth
as Earth, and took its shadows for my Forms!
Ascetic rites and sober ritual
had faded with the Deity, and then
I too found ways (like pious villagers)
to celebrate an empty tomb:
and skeptic eye I summoned for a pact,
that if Eternity receive no more
let death take all
—but not ere such a life!
‘Come, shadows!’ I exclaimed. ‘Be all my imps
and ministering sprites!’ then, with my books,
called up Delights!—alchemical exploits
and strange devices:
Steam I made my slave!
forced power from ferocity and made
it do my bidding; caught the riverflow
to wheel my mills, and robbed the Earth of oil.
And then (thus potentate), I carved the globe
to will! massed people into Industry
and seized the waving radios! with steel
and coal slashed ‘Neptune’s’ face, and stole from ‘Jove’
his lightning! Amber in the city night!
and symphonies upon a turning-table!
engines to lift (that arms might more embrace!),
and laws—if Personless—obeying us:
Earth’s Universal Legislators!
There is some substance in these shadows yet!
And if Delight inheres in chemicals
why live projecting Paradise? Haha!
Away with that old brimstone and despair!
Lay down your beads and fashion goods to laugh!
Get over Love and learn to flirt with life!
Steal off with Helens from their Spartan starkness
and bed them in your Iliums of light!
For ever since those Easter bells wept down
their bitter-sweet chorales to dirge my faith,
I’ve cursed all soul-enticing tricks and ploys—
gimmicks of glittering toys and fantasies
of Sacredness. And so I’ll curse, with you,
a God of Lies: who haunts from ‘High’ and plagues
‘vile Earth’ with fears of everlasting fire—
yet is no more than smoke himself! Who stands
a supernatural Boogieman—a stick
and Spirit scarecrow warding us away
from dangling Garden fruit! Such effigies
we burn to ash! Become iconoclasts
of idle icons: send the Phantoms down!
Now is the time to show in deed that Man
will not collapse at Thunder—(noise; no fire!)—
nor quake before our fates in fear—but charge
the very Gates of Heaven! burn them down!
and OWN OUR OWN EXISTENCE UTTERLY!
even at risk of anarchizing all
and hurtling to the void!”
At this, the room
erupted into revolutionary cheers
and shouts for war. And to this chest-swell song
and antheming, Faustus picked up his cane
of ebony and faced the End of Days—
then hurled it like a harpoon-spear! Sharp—twanging—
it stuck into the side of Judging Christ
above (small flecks of paint-chips fluttering down
like blood and water) when—the Doctor leaps!
and, sprinting to the screened transenna wall
splicing the room, climbs up its grates to gain
some view and vantage on the crowd. Like French
wild from salons, who’d storm the hungry streets
and climb some fresh-erected barricade
to rally radicals to cause, so Faust—
with one hand free to (middle-)finger all
the ceiling frescoes—swung about above
and marshaled Earth to arms: “We must ascend, then!
From here we pose no threat to Heaven! Figments
will haunt us—till we see them ended. Come!
Let’s siege the ‘Clouds’ that floor these walls of Heaven!
Attack endangered ‘Firmaments’ and break
all barriers! Unhinge the ‘Pearly Gate’
from off Cyclopean jambs—and let it drop!
But first we must ascend, and mount a stair
that scrapes the sun. Ascend—and build a Tower!”
No voice was silent now, but hoarsed itself
with screams and shrieks—to free them from Above.
And so, to heed Faust’s charge, the cheering mob
disperses through the Palace Vatican
to seek their ziggurat’s first building blocks
and raise it up.
For this they stripped from the walls
all paintings, frames, and tapestries; they felled
Bernini’s bronzes from the hall; they broke
the sculpted Caesars into stones and ground
all down with pestles to a mortar gum—
then baked the rest for bricks. Young artists laugh,
hauling the Pietà, then hack it up
for parts as, through such wreck and leveling,
a ruin grew: a rising spire of broken art
with crumbled statues as its clay.
stormed Belvedere Courtyard seeking more—
then slithered round the garden eyeing stone
to build their Stair. They found Loacoön
and set to work, casting their fraying ropes
round head and arms, and snaring both his sons
in coil. The struggler thus enmeshed, they heaved,
and pulled, and broke thick legs from pedestals
of marble slab to haul his blocks away—
then fed his children to the Moloch-Tower.
So is it built, and rises in the chapel:
Skywardly reaching, till it’s ceiling-flush—
comprised of more than twenty centuries
of Western civilization’s work: the steps
of this Great Staircase,
—(when only Michelangelo
stood barrier to their revolt)—
ascended with uncertain steps this gyre
of man’s creation…
Coming to the peak,
however, (just beneath the scene of Adam,)
and stood in silence.
There, with hands
that trembled age’s dance, he slowly felt
the space between the fingers of his God
and forebear—that one inch a landscape which
divided him eternally from Touch…
…Aware now, looking up, the men below
grew quiet. For they watched the Sufferer
upon the Tower, hand on Man’s Creation:
tracing the emptiness which rifted him
and God with old, like-lifeless fingers…
he patted it with outspread palms
and hit it harder. Balling hands to knots
and fists, he struck and beat it harder, seething.
Striking the paint now—
till broken bits of paint and plaster fell
and fluttered down—God, gray, and ruined Adam:
down to the Chapel, Tower, and the ground.
Cracks lightning jagged out as blows beat in
a hole! He struck a c r a t e r where the space
had been, and, with a wail of human pain,
pummeled division with his bleeding fists
and made destruction from Creation scream.
Exhausted, he fell back, and, panting tears,
looked up at his attack with grief-blurred eyes
as silence dammed the Chapel hall…
and up the stairs the people stormed
to finish Job’s assault!
At Tower’s top,
they bashed the ceiling in with clubs and fists
and chunks of stone, so that they tore a hole
through what had been the roof and saw the stars
“Guys! Guys!” said one, “Let’s add this too!
Let’s add the ceiling to the rest of it!”
And so they brought it down, and hurled its lumps
of shattered plaster onto growing heights—
so that it rose into the midnight black
above the blinking skyline-lights of Rome.
Consuming then the chapel’s walls, it grew
that much toward Heaven—which in turn occurred
to Faust: “Let all the Vatican be fuel
for this: Man’s Pegasus! to fly him up
as high as Mount Olympus’ peak, once fed
on mangers brimming Holy See!”
they felled it all: the colonnades, the doors—
the obelisk and dome (and everything
which Michelangelo had done and made
before them). All was served as feast to their
ascent, as up they went to trouble the clouds
then do the same to Heaven.