Poetry: Gethsemane

Introduced by the poet, Benjamin Morris
 

This poem was written in 2009, about four years after a certain hurricane had devastated my hometown in Mississippi and most of the American Gulf Coast, primarily New Orleans. Portions of Mississippi and Louisiana had ‘come back’ by then, but many others hadn’t, and visions of disasters past and present danced daily around our heads. At the time of writing, I was living in England, studying that storm as a postgraduate, and traveling back home to do research as often as possible. For some time, though, independently of that work, I’d wanted to try my hand at a corona of sonnets; once the first image of boats found suspended in trees (one of the few images drawn directly from life) fell into place, the form took hold, and most everything else followed swiftly on.

Despite this influence, I don’t think of Gethsemane as a Katrina poem: the genre was and is too swollen, and those narratives by then had changed shape from those first, frantic, days. If anything, rather than rehearsing the past, it gazes, somewhat nervously, into the future, into more of what we can expect. Reaping, of course, what we have sown.
 

Gethsemane

for my daughter

i

One of the first fights we had was whether
they were still boats, when we found
them in the trees. Sails mute of their weather,
oars snapped in the novel tides, sound
of Johnson 18hp motor long silenced,
we said to each other: is this not now a house?
No more did we measure our way in mileage
but rather in slow eddies gained, louse-
eaten food secreted away in attics
where the bloated corpses of the blessed
lay watch over them with rusted axes
and moldspoken dark oaken chests
where their last refuse fermented and flowered.
Blessed? They had found a shaded bower.

ii

Bless us, Father, who found the shaded bower
of Gethsemane, our priest implored as he
celebrated the Mass, a few scant hours
before we heard the floodwalls had breached.
Or so somebody said. I wasn’t there—
I was loading rounds into my .38,
praying to my own gods, chance and fair
warning, asking forgiveness were I late
to our assignation. Later I heard
he had drowned at the top of the nave,
kissing the tongue-and-groove cypress boards
of the vessel that carried him to a grave
only his god knew where. How do you bury
a body in a flooded cemetery?

iii

The bodies in the flooded cemeteries
(St Joseph no. 2 and Xavier no. 9)
soon began to float free. At Holy Mary
Our Lady of Sorrow it’s said that Compline
was better attended by the dead
than by the living. Dust to dust takes fire,
not water, and so their numbers grew. Help had
not come. Rumors bubbled through the mire
— of helicopters, of Guardsmen, of food —
but each new murmur faded just as swiftly
as the last, and before long we knew
they would not come. There was no cavalry.
Nor was it long before some began to wonder
the sound their words would make, going under.

iv

The sound a word makes as it goes under
a soft wool blanket or past a cracked door
would have come like a jolt of thunder
to our parched ears. As would seeing a floor
to any structure—it had been a year
(is that what they were called? I can never
remember, and my mind is less clear
from having battled the silence, the fever,
and the near-permanent solitude)
and still the waters had not receded,
only teased us with the occasional ruined
husk of roofs and treetops. These we needed
to cling onto just the same—here, alone,
the only shadows cast were our own.

v

The only shadow cast became my own.
It had been weeks (this was a word
I knew) since I’d taken the skin and bones
of my castaway and thrown them overboard
after he tried to paddle off without me
as I slept. There are virtues in concealing
weapons in one’s shirt, and so I
shot him in the back, and now he’ll congeal
with whatever lurks below. Then last night
I heard another shot: a sign of life!
Praise god or gods—or perhaps a suicide,
most everyone now has a tale of a wife
thus gone, a cousin or a lover. Me, well,
all I have is an invented past to sell.

vi

This invented past I have, I’ll sell
it to you for a gallon of water. And what
would I be doing, risking both my health
and my family’s for a story? It’s all that
we ever gain, as far as I’m concerned.
What else do you offer? My second child
caught the melt-worm and I’ve earned
nothing in this goddamn trade except bile
and dice and insomnia. And I this thirst.
What if I spin you a yarn you can then
use to lower anyone’s guard while your first
sneaks up and slits their pockets—few men
now keep what they treasure on their vessels.
Better to hold it close to your blood and muscle.

vii

I held it close to my bloody muscle
but still the searing pain would not abate.
Fuck. That at least was a word I could rustle
up from the life before, a word that
you’ll never learn. It means please. The bastard
went and shot me as I got back on my boat—
all that work weaving loss into a hard
spun cloth and his youngest took my coat
and razored it as I was sewing up the tale;
I’d told him how it was done and he goes
and does it. All that I had left was two bales
of rope, a little food, and wind that wouldn’t blow
no matter how hard I swore. That and a soiled
rag around my arm, darkening like oil.

viii

This rag around my arm, grown dark like the oil
paints she used to fling upon the canvas,
is now the flag I fly on the pitch and roil
they call a sea. Had I a current atlas,
I would sail this strapped-together ship
to find her with her easel and her brush
breathing back into the landless landscape
grasses and trees, birds, things we’ll never touch
again. But all we have is the self-erasing line
the crest of each wave makes, frothing song
without words save the sideways III
over, over. Whoever used the word was wrong.
This is not a sea, and there is no one
to drown in it, no man, no woman.

ix

Left to drown in it, no man or woman
could forget the floodwaters’ acrid kiss
on the skin. It’s true—I told the trader one
of the early swimmers began to sizzle and hiss
all over as if she were being fried alive,
and how I tried to wrap her in my shirt
to soothe her, once I had pulled her out of
drowning’s way. This was in the days before dirt
had become a currency and could purchase
one’s own life in the right market. Anyway,
my shirt stuck to her back and arms and face
and came off only in patches. Since that day
I’ve not seen her—she vanished that night—
but I pray to my gods for her at first light.

x

I pray to my gods for you at first light.
Your mother and I were separated
from each other on the second night—
the crowd at the shelter was a great
wind pulling us this way and that, into
and out of its writhing mass, and a hand
slipped free became a face at a window
locked from the inside. Do you understand?
I never meant to lose you. But that one
moment and you were gone, you with her, still
safe inside her, just weeks away from your own
journey into this troubled ocean. I fill
my cup with you both, and drink deep
each night before I do not sleep.

xi

Each night, because I do not sleep
much anymore, I have taken to naming
the stars anew. We had forgotten them, our need
of gods above us long supplanted by aiming
at the sky to shoot down whatever flew there
and eat it. But even these small gods showed
something to those who were left, that air
rises from water by desire, that nothing known
survives being known. If you must, you can eat
rotten fish-picked bird found floating past.
Forget it had a name; think of it as meat.
I gave you a name, but it didn’t last.
I don’t remember it now. It’s been too long.
The words begin to loosen in the water’s song.

xii

The words begin to loosen in the water’s song:
what part of me bridges the arm and the head?
It hurts all the time, like it doesn’t belong
on my body. My skin is stained beetroot red
but I don’t know if that is from the sun
or from the blood of the fish I have caught.
Thank you fish for giving me your thin bones
to write with. My head hurts. I am not
sure like I once was where I am. Are we
near home? Are there still streets below the waves
or have they swum off too? Here, fishy, fishy.
What lovely bones you have. What is your name?
A pleasure to meet you. My head, it hurts.
My father’s father was a slave, and ate dirt.

xiii

My father was a slave, and ate dirt.
Sew up the tale. Finish your dinner,
then you can go play. What do I care
for heaven? I was born a sinner
and I’ll die one too. I’m sorry I shot you.
No, don’t come. You and our daughter
wait here. I’m sorry I forgot you.
What do you mean the floodwalls—the water
can’t be stopped? Fishy. Or was it a hard
flat coin? Why would—she was just here—
I left her here and went to make a call.
How could she go and disappear?
A hand slipped free. My eyes hurt. Bury
my heart at Flooded Knee. Will you carry me?

xiv

Will you carry me?
In my fevered dreams,
in this strange alchemy
of mind, what seems
to be your voice
keeps calling out to me—
a light, silvered noise
just like the melody
your mother would hum
as she gardened at night.
This I do remember:
one of the last fights
we had was whether
there would be weather.


A native of Mississippi, Benjamin Morris is the author of numerous works of poetry, fiction, drama, and nonfiction, and a member of the Mississippi Artist Roster. Having lived on or near water for most of his life, he currently lives in New Orleans. More information is at benjaminalanmorris.com.