July 18, 2007

Hump Day Poetry: Jesse Lee Kercheval

Posted in Poetry at 10:24 pm by The Lizard Queen

Scooting in just under the wire! 🙂

Enter Mecca

Not the center of the Islamic world,
but a sandwich shop across from the red brick towers
of a southern university. I was nineteen,
an English major, and every day we slouched
toward this Bethlehem of lunch counters,
ordered our BLTs or cheeseburgers
from the black short-order cook, paid the black cashier,
both dressed in white like house slaves
and not much better paid, though this was 1979
and civil rights marched here a decade earlier.

In the far booth sat Dr. Rubenstein,
famous for a book declaring God was dead.
Now, he taught courses on the Holocaust.
I looked at him and thought—How can a man
study Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Treblinka
every day with no God to pray to
and still eat tuna on whole wheat for lunch?
I had no answer.

I still don’t. Though I have come far enough
from that humid southern believers’ air
to doubt God’s existence, it’s beyond my powers
to imagine the holocaust that killed him.

When I was a minister’s wife, briefly and too young
in rural Florida, someone shot a dog
and pushed it through the window
of a neighboring town’s church.
There’d been a split in doctrine. Members marched
angrily down the aisle one Sunday and out
into the hot sun and their waiting cars.
The dog crawled the length of the church,
trailing his blood and feces down the aisle
to die alone, underneath the altar.
Who could do that to an animal,
I asked the God I prayed to then,
just to show how much they hated other humans?

Years after watching Dr. Rubenstein
eat his tuna sandwich, a friend called to say
she’d seen my book in the gift show
at the Holocaust Museum. She heard my silence,
caught herself, It’s not a gift shop, really.
More a bookstore.
But, really, why should I be shocked
to hear the words “gift show” and “Holocaust”
in the same sentence? In French, language
I was born to, souvenir means to remember.
And Dr. Rubenstein, wherever you are now,
I promise that I do.

My daughter, struggling through the dyslexia
of kindergarten, once wrote doG loves U
on an Easter card to her grandmother.
Maybe that’s what happened.
They shot Him and pushed Him
through the open window of His own church.
God is dead, but he bled and bled
and did not go easily.

The next time, the angry congregants
were less subtle. They set their church
on fire and burned it to the ground.

God, that Dog Angel, looking down.

—Jesse Lee Kercheval, 2004

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