RIFF ON A LINE BY CHAR

Avec le lente neige descendent les lépreux.

—René Char, ‘Victoire Éclaire’

 

Somewhere inside the sacerdotal

Thicket of Leviticus, there’s the ritual

Concerning those ‘struck with skin blanch.’

Once a leper is cleansed the priest commands

That crimson wool, hyssop, and cedar wood

Be brought along with two clean, living birds—

Swallows, I think.

One swallow is slaughtered

Over a fresh clay bowl of fresh spring water.

He then dips the living bird—with the wool,

Hyssop, and cedar—into the vessel

Of blood and water; this messy handful

Is the aspergillum with which he sprinkles

The afflicted seven times to be purified.

The living bird is released into the sky.

 

*

 

 

I recall the summer they were everywhere,

Suddenly remarkable outside air,

Splayed on curbs, crushed on roads, curled by doors:

Dead birds.  As if left for me to take care

Or kind notice of.  Or—too late—to love.

Something pained, Levitical, in each curved

Talon, in the way it seemed a carpenter

Carefully lathed each dactyl like a chair

Spindle, or in the fern frond of each plume

I saw in a house sparrow half-entombed

By mulch in the park.   These should mean something,

I told myself, not meaning they held meaning

To suss out; rather, I’d make the birds mean.

Make of them some art of starting again, clean.   

 

*

 

 

Now it’s November first and the first snow

Of my worst year flirts with rain, is slow,

Short-lived, and little more than morning dew.

The birds are packing up or passing through.

I’m holed up in a studio my wrecked car

Looks roomy next to, restless, half-wrestling Char,

When his line summons a poem left undone

My first year as a seminarian.

It was about finding dead birds all around,

As though the remnants of some distant

Cleansing rite had flown to my feet to die.

It was a wordy unhinged thing, but not a lie.

This slow snow is a wringing out of wings.

Someone out there has new flesh.  My turn’s coming.

 

 

 

 

 

Jake Crist currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, and has worked recently as a supervisor of a large homeless shelter and as a clinical chaplain.  A recipient of a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony, his poems have appeared in Anglican Theological Review, Boulevard, Rattle, Shenandoah, and elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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