Back to Issue Twenty-One.

sacristan

BY ELLEN MCGRATH SMITH

 

The basil haunts the cathedral
of not-quite-frost, invisible
apses and vaults blueprinted

in the air. The last surviving plant,
gnarled hands and scoliotic
stems, is the church's sacristan.

You make it bleed because you can,
by mashing it with the broken teeth
of garlic, adding olive oil

as a kind of joyful weeping. Then
the squirrel-brain walnuts
rattle as the Cuisinart

declares the end of summer.
The altar gleams, the paten dreams
a body into being born again

on Christmas Eve
because the sacristan believes
the way the basil plant believes:

rigid and brittle and of a single
mind. A dozen priests
have come and gone,

a dozen heirlooms red
with the reflux of contrition—
too much wine, too many hands

of poker. But the sacristan,
because she was plain and simple,
stayed and grew pungent in the hours

before she left her resin-scented
room to ready up the church
for Mass. I used to use pine nuts,

but they're so expensive
and have a stale taste even fresh.
I used to go to morning Mass

in the dark. We sat in the pews,
a broken chain, while others
woke to the morning news.

Garlic means learning to taste
pain through to sweetness.
Garlic's the chill on the nape

of the neck that you're sure
is a presence. Turning, you see
only charcoal

and a silence so deep
a footstep leaves it pregnant.
This holds you in place.

The crushed leaves are regret,
and the warmer the bread
they’re spread on, the brighter

your outlook on winter.
Green can be exaggerated,
heightened, because less

is not more in most cases,
though winter brains love
to rub a paradox together.

I’ll always love the Catholic church
and pesto with the same set of knives
moored just under my sternum,

and they, like the sacristan,
don't give a damn
who recites the prayers, just as long

as they're said. My mother
had a priest friend
who seemed so genuine.

When it came out that he'd done
what he did to a boy we all knew,
my mother found other portals

to divinity; she didn’t need
to go to Mass each week.
I have never heard a sacristan

speak, but recently, I watched
a woman at the Clarion Hotel
in Fairmont, West Virginia,

cook, stock the breakfast buffet,
bus tables and wash dishes
by herself

while we and 50-odd
football fans filled our faces.
She didn't speak to anyone,

but sped from task to task,
a wispy, gray offering—
Take and eat. This is my body.

 

 

Deena November.

Deena November.

Ellen McGrath Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. Her writing has appeared in American Poetry Review, Los Angeles Review, Quiddity, Cimarron Review, and other journals, as well as in several anthologies, including Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Smith has been the recipient of an Orlando Prize, an Academy of American Poets Award, a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3, and a 2007 Individual Artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her second chapbook, Scatter, Feed, was published by Seven Kitchens Press in the fall of 2014, and her book, Nobody's Jackknife, was published in 2015 by the West End Press.

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