Early Christianity: A Poem
for Jim Hall & Frank Eakin
OK, says James, let them keep their foreskins.
So Paul bows to Big J’s brother, departs
for Antioch–but there has a run-in
with the Fisherman over who can share
a table. Paul’s off in a huff round Mare
Nostrum, a decade tour beating the Jesus drum.
The city boy sends out his Timothys
to spy on the middle classes. Titus
sighs, So many preachers, so few Jesus
folk to go around.
Dead, alive, gone, coming
back, Jesus is in the neighborhood, mind
your Ps and Qs.
And Paul has made a killing,
lugs the loot back home where trouble’s brewing
in David’s city, the brethren rounded up and
dealt with. What the hell? says Paul, shambling
in chains past marching armies. Zealots, Essenes
dash themselves to pieces against the robot Romans.
Josephus cries, The jig is up! No one listens. Then,
there’re heads and arms everywhere and chunks
of God knows what, whimpering. Flames, flames,
and more flames, even the Temple up in flames.
The legions glitter with blades and booty,
settle in around Masada. Dead, dead,
even the earth is dead here, they mutter,
squint at the sheer rock in the sky, thirsty,
All over Palestine priests
evaporate, rabbis rise. So where is
this Jesus? Dead forty years now. Write this down,
write what Paul said, what you heard in the marketplace.
Sing of your sorrow, sweet singing of Paul’s
saying . . .
Mark this: It’s all Greek to them who
hardly care that the Temple’s gone. Mark that
J tossed off miracles with the best of them
and riddled their heads with parables, revealing
and concealing himself and his halo.
What did he want? Death: His side pierced, his temple
dismantled. The gold standard for losing.
Why, oh why, did he ever leave the Galilee,
us, the tomb? Mark that those who tell the tale
did not queue up to hear Him speak of The End.
As the clock hands one day will sweep, the story
changes: Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch,
Damascus, Jerusalem, Alexandria,
Matthew hits the Jewish bull’s-eye,
horizon still smoking, and Jesus climbing
a mountain, dumping on the Pharisees,
sending the dead apostles on missions
over the earth.
Cool Luke earns a profit
with his Scholar who gets the axe. Enchanting
physician, he can whip up a storm, cure
the gospels’ Greek. Synagogues seethe.
He plunks his yarn plump near the Palatine,
leaves his Paul breathing and booming.
J soothes his auditors, enlightens, runs
the show. John passes on the Passover,
hangs his J high, a lamb among lambs, but
with a better view. Torah, torah, torah,
scream the Jews round the Med’s rim, hounding
the Jesus folk out of the assembly . . .
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Hadrian haters
harvest the whirlwind—chop chop, the rebels
again vanish into bloody messes.
Not our fight say the J folk to the Big Wigs.
Extremists, they, who won’t render unto
You, stuck in the past, blind to the present.
We know what’s what and how to get along.
in memory of Jerry Donato
You’re sick of Correggios crowding
the permanent collections, crashing
Bassano’s Ultima Cena with its
funny, sleepy, drunk apostles.
You look down at your reliable wrist
and there’s nothing, fog bank, niente,
nada, zip. Where your pulse beats,
there it is: The Void.
It’s time to look wildly around. Beetling
Berninis! Mammoth marbles! You’re
squeezed by grotesquely sweet angels!
Have you drifted
into Sant’Andrea della Fratte where
the kitsch shall be with you always?
Doubt not, Pilgrim, but poke your finger
through the stone
spectacles on this padre’s cold face.
A dozen placid profiles mesmerized
by a Tiepoloed Madonna are watching,
watching as if she were
dancing. Something in your head or heart
or optic nerve’s on the fritz. The Virgin’s
flanked by the Jew who rose a Christian
right there and the priest
who’ll never need an eye chart again.
A pretty nun in a crisp habit the color
of putty takes the vases away,
brings them back full
of plastic lilies. The seated faithful still
don’t turn their eyes toward
the living. You snap, discreetly,
the evidence, then wait
in the cloister to see if the one guidebook
can possibly be right, the one that claims
Borromini’s campanile rotates
when it rings. Doric silence
marches round you. Noon has come
and gone, it must have, but the bells
hold their ponderous tongues.
You plunge out
into the searing light, your Ironman
swimming before your eyes. It’s
still blank o’clock and nothing
will ever happen again.
Ron Smith’s book of poems Its Ghostly Workshop is forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press. His Moon Road: Poems 1986-2005 appeared from LSU in 2007. The title poem of his first book, Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery (1988), was reprinted in Southern Poetry Review and in the anthology Don’t Leave Hungry (2009) from University of Arkansas Press. Smith is the winner of the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, the Guy Owen Award from Southern Poetry Review, and the Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest and has published poems in many magazines and anthologies, including The Nation, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, New England Review, Helen Vender’s most recent edition of Poems, Poets, Poetry (3rd ed., 2010) and The Poets of the Sala Capizucchi (2011), the latter published in Italian and English by University of New Orleans and, in Italy, by Raffaelli Editore. Ron Smith’s critical prose can be found in The Georgia Review, Blackbird, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere.