Earthly Spirits

by Mike Rosen

Section 0 - Author's Notes 
Section 1 - Paris, c. 250
Section 2 - Nigeria, 1995
Section 3 - St. Odilo, d. 1046
Section 4 - North America, c. 1840
Section 5 - Veneration of Reliquaries
Section 6 - Reliquaries of Veneration
Section 7 - After the Crusades
Section 8 - Ethiopia, 1984. 

AUTHOR's NOTES: Mike Rosen comments on his poem about Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose 1995 execution was protested worldwide as a political assassination: "I was very impressed by the circumstances of his death and the unrelenting oppression suffered under the former regime in Nigeria. As a member of the oil industry, I was horrified at the possibility Saro-Wiwa's death may have been fostered by a major oil company. Saro-Wiwa's death, my interest in ecological politics and the very odd convergence of a longstanding interest in the artistic depiction of Catholic saints, led to the following unfinished poem. In this poem, I am attempting to draw a parallel between the pious voices of religion and matters of ecology, including both how we treat the earth and how we treat each other as children of the earth. This poem still needs a lot of work! Several sections, however, seem to have gelled. Among them are 1 & 2, the section on Saro-Wiwa (2) and the parallel drawn to St. Denis (1), Patron Saint of Paris. Sections 3, 4, & 6 also seem close to finished. Section 6 is a bit odd -- it concerns the bog people found in various swamps of north- western Europe that seem to have been the of ritual sacrifice. Some major inspiration there from Sheamus Heaney's wonderful poems on the same subject. Again, Section 6 is paired with 5 for contrast. Let me know what you think. . . . I welcome other suggestions on unfinished work like this." -- Mike Rosen, November 1998 To contact the poet, e-mail Mike Rosen at:
Earthly Spirits

1. Paris, c. 250 After the grill and beheading the body of Saint Denis arose, saddened that it could toil no more beneath the desperate sun, and recovered its bloodied head. Defiant, inseparable the head and body wandered in procession of two from the lowlands of their cleaved death to the summit of the hill of martyrs, site of a great temple of the sacred heart. There they fell together at the feet of a pious woman, pure. Metal of the executioner's sword crystallized and cracked in guilt. Clothes and armor of the oppressors fled before their naked inaccomplishment, unable to subdue the land. Around this legend, from the swamps of the Seine, there grew a city of unimagined song, where you can retrace the steps of the headless Saint.

2. Nigeria, 1995 The sun hangs from its rope and sways over the blackening mangroves, a dark hood gathers above on the dome of sky, smoke drapes a shroud about the horizon. Today Saro-Wiwa did not descend the gallows broken-necked and stumble into some corner of the delta, slipping in silence below the waterline. Instead night waited as always, sharpening its dark sword for the day. The sun will fall again, martyr to the blade. The day will resurrect itself, redeem the land for one more test of faith, one more hour of light. We expect miracles but there is only emptiness at the bare feet of Ogoni women and the black water of Bomu. An aged lesson learned is acted anew- if you would subdue the land, martyr the men. Cast their tales to unborn religions, to the cities that come. Then feast on the spoils; life is short.

3. St. Odilo, d. 1046 Pray to Saint Odilo, son of Berald de Mercoeur, the honest, and Gerberga, who died the nun of Autun. Pray to Odilo, abbot of Cluny, on his day the first of each new year. Beseech unto him the Truce of God, that holy writ for which lords subdue desire and princes castoff conquest from the set of sun on Wednesday until the dark sunrise of the Monday to come. Pray to Odilo that the powerful hands stay muscled and clenched in their deep pockets through the uneasy Sabbath. Then cower in Tuesday=92s storm, for no Saint can save you always.

4. North America, c. 1840 Along the Trail of Tears the dispossessed were heard to utter strange incantations. Heads lowered, shoulders drooped feet shuffling amid the dust, barely audible laments crossed their flaccid lips. Watchers called the sound, rantings incomprehensible cries. In an alien vision born of blindness an Alabama woman said she imagined a wail rising from the land upward through the migrants, draining their lives down into a great wound. It was the invocation of swamps, a litany of hills. It was the beseechment of trees. Few understood, for the landless who had taken the religion of saints, pursed their lips in silence.

5. Veneration of Reliquaries The riches of the land are gathered to form temples around a fragment of cloth, some fingernails, the vial of blood, a whole hand or a collection of tarsals. For such earthly parts, only a heavenly house. Mine earth, smelt ores, hammer metal again into nature's forms. Let the golden leaves and vines, moons of silver, amber suns adorn these shrines. Cut stone and polish porphyry, sculpt the false alters worthy of confession. When the sinners come something of this treasure will ease their pain.

6. Reliquary of Veneration For a reliquary what does the land mold? Unadorned flatlands framed by sky and rain, a filigree of leaves and stems pressed to peat, the kiss of tree trunks glued in extruded juice, this saliva of the soil. Are these saintly bodies a vestment of virtuous lives or simply the tender coincidence of time and excess energies of the ground? Saints of the Bog -- with your charcoaled flesh your tanned gray hides -- who are you? We unearth your martyred bodies neck in noose, throat slit. uncover you, hugged flat by overburden, washed in immortalizing waters. Your bones are pliant as boiled garlic. Your cheek and face stubble caress the bog floor. Yet we do not know. Who are you to be entombed here, to embrace the land endlessly, what earthly sins did you confess to be so cherished so blessed?

7. After the Crusades From flowers of riteous conquest, From the petals of roses, From stems stiff and thorny, Among shocks of rootlets hung Like the beloved hair of our slain, Came the soil of the Holy Land. It clung to the fingertips of priests. It touched the brows of brethren. It's lingered as crosses of dust In the blessed air above the repentant. With the Eucharist it crossed The lips of lay brothers. We spread the holy earth over spent soils And our barren fields grew gravid, heavy. Hunger left the land. We sprinkled the dust among our graves And the dead laid still as in sleep. Our nights were unvexed. Turned with the potters' clay Our wine vessels became bottomless. None wanted for thirst. With this captured earth, our meager toil And the blessings of heaven, What miracles were wrought.

8. Ethiopia, 1984 Under the guise of famine wanderers were lifted From flowerless cemeteries of war and Scattered over the wasteland. Thin and ghostly lines of nomads Moved like the dead And blew like husks in the wind Across the parched lips of the plains. Some passed within hours of the Carnation fields- Sown with imported seed, irrigated with pumped Water and international cash Pampered in equatorial sun without pesticide To contaminate the distant lapels. Those who could walk, drifted in Silence on their way and Exchanged words only with clouds of dust Raised on the leathery tongues of their feet. A few stumbled on camps of pestilent water And reconstituted food Dehydrated in the oven of nations With rain and commerce and blessings. Many were planted on the dirt and in sun Where their skin baked around the bones Of their fingertips and across The petals of their brows.

-- Mike Rosen,

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