“It was a history that neither owed nor paid him any attention.”

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

The gnashing of teeth, teeth wet by tears, pulpit-promised to the damned, though it is, God-damned as he does, also describes the mastication — the toothsome sucking of sorrow into sweetness — of a righteous anger. Just as it takes more than a single tooth to chew, such an anger, to be more than a nip attended by a protested spittle, needs a crowd.

Protests are those gatherings we attend or avoid, with political ends usually left unachieved. Protests are planned, their signage stapled or taped across town before and after. People of vaguely like-minded intent meet at protests; sometimes they fall in love, other times they just fuck. Mostly, though, they end up forgetting. “I was there, too!” they’ll say seven years later. “Those were good times,” they’ll agree. “We tried, but alas,” they’ll shrug. There is a class of “professional” protesters — people who somehow make it to every action, Johnny-on-the-spot and on time, pamphlet-informed, equipped with goggles and a milk of magnesia concentrate for tear-gassed eyes. Protests are peopled by those on every stage of an activist life-cycle — naive hope; enthusiastic promise; success so close; success so far; promise broken; hope bludgeoned — with a few jaundiced zombies here and there, usually near the curbs.

People and placards gathered as quickly as the suspicions that the fire had been no accident. Crew-cutted white men had been seen, empty gas tins found. So-and-so said so. Threats, scrawled, screamed, and scowled, had framed the background of the church’s very existence for so long that no one noticed when it had advanced to the fore.

Every protest has within it an embryonic crowd that its slogans, signs, intentions and goals cannot contain.

Every protest has within it a conflict, for it is of at least two minds.

Every protest has within in it a threat, that itself threatens the protest.

Every protest has within it a crowd it, in varying degrees and moments, suppresses and unleashes.

The crowd outside the church, viewed from a safe distance, was unwieldy. Neither their signs nor the chants, often one and the same, tunes as catchy as a cold, were the message. They had become a complex, multi-limbed body akimbo and splayed, learning to walk. Clumsily at first, it moved through the streets, from project block toward condo project, furious with a message R. could not make out over the din of its movement. There was no spokesperson that he could see. Pastor Troy had flung himself into the sea of bodies his cries and phone calls (and evening television appearance) had pleaded for, and he’d been swallowed. He would emerge a few hours later — R. would say three — answering the classic journalistic W’s  — the What’s and Why’s — with an anonymous “We.”

Crowds are buoyed by contradictions — vengeance and forgiveness, rights asserted and wrongs forgotten — and peopled by an assortment of bodies whose purpose is never so much forgotten as held momentarily at bay.

Crowds are subject to symbols — fire and broken glass, nearly without fail; laughter, at things later unfunny; fear, for oneself and others. Anger and joy are never so far apart in the crowd as they are in the protest

Crowds are such that their stories are not the sum of their plot.

On the street from his safe, well-lit post, R. watched as a certain history of the world passed. It was a history that neither owed nor paid him any attention. There is a temptation to think such crowds have become rare. Or that if they are common, they are to little effect, due to our modern, technological yearning to self-narrate a story that adds up. Should the spirit of protest occasion a crowd, though, by whose reason would it be exorcised?

Of course, not all crowds are equal. Some, as another history has shown, and would yet again soon enough, are born of a desire to deny another crowd from occurring again or at all. These blaze, according to untold histories imagined and true, into controlled flames called arson and extermination.

The gnashing of teeth

January 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

The intense warmth from the burning church was not, despite the midday heat, unpleasant. The waving flags of flame rippled in spangled triumph over the efforts of a black man with a water hose. A lighter-skinned black girl near R. stood recording the scene on her phone. A white woman a block away visored her eyes with one hand and squinted herself agog as the steeple, which had for minutes stood defiant, an aggrieved but avenging angel, teetered like a toddler. For a moment, the crackling of the blaze receded to an obeisant hush.

“Lord, have mercy!” the black smoke shrieked.


With an audible snap the steeple quivered, and did not so much as fall down as melt away.

“I would’ve thought that’d make a lot more noise,” R. unknowingly told the girl’s camera.

“Why, Lord! Pastor Troy, how could this happen?” the smoke wailed.

As two fire engines rounded the corner en route, sirens silently flashing, the black man dropped his hose and replied: “I don’t give a fuck how this happened! What I wanna know is … who did this shit right here?”

The gnashing of teeth, teeth wet by tears, pulpit-promised to the damned, though it is, God-damned as he does, also describes the mastication — the toothsome sucking of sorrow into sweetness — of a righteous anger.

could be undone with but a sneeze.

November 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

A context-free edit:

Have you considered the possibility you’re rushing justice too quickly into the bed of peace? You know my aversion to end-points. Creation implies the complexity of  movement, and movement requires friction, and friction, well, that always rubs somebody wrong, doesn’t it? If there’s to be a real peace, surely it is as tentative as a handshake deal. When, in the history of its proclamation, whether as an achievement or a goal, has it not come with a boot on the back of somebody’s neck? Our sense of an ending comes too easily. Mourning and remembrance end long before our bodies do — our ashes burn longer. Even if your fundamentalists are right, it’s because our wicked ways are as fertile as our bodies, the wages of sin a hand-me-down prize, for the earth and its beasts. Even when these bodies and all that they carried within, the rights minted as credit and wrongs compounded into debt, are forgotten, the breath once sucked in by one, was inhaled long before by another, and will be breathed again, repeatedly, elsewhere. This isn’t to say we don’t and shouldn’t pick our moments when to say “enough,” to name some thing by calling it peace. This is language, after all, and is meant to be used. But these agreements we make, the inevitable acceptances even in the course of a sentence let alone a life, could be undone with but a sneeze.

“So by all means, for Christ’s sake, pilfer them as you please.”

January 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

R. was greeted by S.’s judgment the moment he walked in the office the next day. —Lighten the load on the Right Reverend Taylor in your next one, boy. He asked a lot of his congregants back then, and they were an exceedingly more charitable lot than you’re apt to have today. You’re wise to have cut out the Latin. I didn’t learn that lesson until I was older than you. Different times. This being a Kraut Papist town, it was not as surprising to hear then.

—But the use of Taylor himself is fine?

—Himself? Oh, you mean his words. Of course, quite fine. “The Descending and Entailed Curse Cut off” is a wonderful choice. Fine selection. The same with the Fuller, though I’m not sure Barlow is making the point you seem to imagine. Or perhaps it was misdirection? More than anything, I trust your professor was stung, or perhaps he was simply sleeping, when you unsheathed dear Featley. “Let others go forward as they please. I will stay still at the Cross. I desire no other Pulpit,”—did you slap the wood here, boy—”then that tree. No other Preacher,”—you pointed at the lot of them, surely you did—”than thy crucified body. No other text,”—please tell me you weren’t reading at this point—”than thy death and passion.”

—”No other notes than thy marks. No other points than thy nails. No other book than they opened side.” No, I’ve committed that all to memory. You once said that climaxes should never be read.

—Good, boy. Good. Everything else, yes, may be by the book but that.

[. . .]

—You were concerned I would dislike it?

—The words, sir. Most of them aren’t mine.

—And you thought this would upset me?

—Yes, I suppose I did.

S.’s clinched eyes spread wide, revealing a glassy blue hung above darkness. He collected himself for a moment by collecting the loose leaf pages before him and tapping them straight. —It’s come to this, R. Do they not even teach the gospel at this institution? Is it time to give it back to the drug addicts? [. . .] The gospel is preached, not learned. You’ve heard me say this, but have you ever listened? It is about making words right, R. Can I possibly be more plain than that? [. . .] We haven’t much more time together. The steeple’s shadow hangs over us both. Hear me now if you never have before: the gospel is not a product, potential or potent, of the words. Ah, it is quite the opposite. As with the ones you pastiched at the pulpit the other day, the gospel marks the spot of their failure. [. . .] It cannot be plagiarized, neither kidnapped nor seduced. The gospel can take care of itself. Whether it’s preached by the poetry of Thomas Adams or the clumsy of you and me, it matters not. It works, if ever it does, by grace … not by craft or originality, but in spite of them both. And grace, R., doesn’t give a damn. Why? Are you listening? Because these beloved preachers of ours, S. stood to hand back the sermon, are as damned as we. So by all means, for Christ’s sake, pilfer them all as you please.

For here, the heights of fidelity become the most malign.

January 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Donne’s repudiated text consumed R. that summer, and he tried repeatedly to write to S. concerning what he thought he understood of it. He signed and folded the first month of the break one letter a week, but tore to pieces each. Nothing he wrote seemed adequate. Repression, he considered, as he learned later Biathanatos had endured from its start, was perhaps appropriate, for Donne’s was a diabolical book made all the more so by ringing of something familiar. Expanding outward, into biblical precedent and social history, its vision of faith made sense of S.’s parting words. By Donne’s reckoning, if the example of Christ behooves his followers live as he, the effect is fatal. The one who needn’t ever die at all, God in the flesh, chose to do so, and in so choosing was not murdered by another. His was, to put it plainly, a suicide. The climax of Donne’s defense is to the point. To die to oneself, and thus as Christ, requires one risk committing the very offense for which there can be no confession. Nevertheless, because so few ever succeed in killing themselves correctly — some sinful residue of the self lingers nearly without fail in the act, whether born in the throes of melancholy or at the sword of martyrdom — it remains good and right for the church and state to stand in the way of righteousness. By pulling back a bit from his defense, consoling the sad-sack suicidal depressive was never his intention, the scandal of Donne’s treatise draws closer. For here, the heights of fidelity became the most malign. R. could not help but wonder, though, if it might be otherwise, and in his final unsent letter concluded: “The life of faith ends not unlike the beginning of the best sermon: as the greatest tragedy. Properly unfulfilled, both.”

We sin so it abounds. How in Christ would it ever otherwise?

January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

—And your choosing them, your plagiarized words, with your lecherous leers, looking down their shirts and up their skirts, does what then? Aren’t yours the grubby, groping hands of an angry God, deflowering the virginal language of those preachers?

—This is serious …

—Who’s joking? You think I don’t know my religion, but I’ve known you long enough to pick up a few things.

—My choosing them doesn’t change them or what they are. Sinners are indicted in this life … they experience their corruption, know it as something different from everyday self-loathing … they experience the presence of something innocent and uncorrupted … something that maybe doesn’t belong … that crops up where maybe it shouldn’t, or has no reason to. A kind of beauty that’s actually kind of horrific if you think about it.

—I’m sorry, really I am. You would not have called me unless you knew I’d be honest, but I don’t buy this at all. All those words, the ones your wretched eyes are somehow permitted to see and depraved brain is for some reason allowed to choose, are somehow exempt? They get a free pass from, what do you call it, the Fall?

—It’s grace. A gift …

—No, I’m sorry, but your Saint Paul got it wrong. We sin so it abounds. How in Christ would it ever otherwise? Those words you idolize, don’t you understand, they’re as depraved as you. This is what your professor’s been telling you and everybody else for years.

—I don’t think …

——The words must be made right, R., redeemed. And how? Through the sin of my lips and the filth of your tongue.

—I’m hanging up now …

—Your professor is right. Listen to him. What you call grace is the sin, else there’d be no gift at all …

—Goodbye …

—Being damned’s a beautiful thing, like most of life’s necessities.

Thomas Adams on his tongue, Mystical Bedlam on the page.

January 7, 2014 § 4 Comments

Freed from the conforming influence of a grade, R.’s fancies took flight. Reading aloud to Stein from his curated collected of sermons, none his own, of course, or century, seen by more mites than humans, R. found a kinship he did not share with his fellow students. Or, indeed, with himself. R. inhabited these words not his own, so far from common use or hearing, that often even needed to be translated from older archaic spellings, caressing the curves of the unfamiliar characters, in a natural manner he seldom managed his own skin. These words, R. knew, had been made right. What hope had he that his ever would?

For a single semester he fumbled with the contemporary forms, preaching repentance by deduction and edification in story, but distinguished himself in class only by his voice, which he was told was pulpit perfect. Sonorous and deep, quintessentially masculine, they meant, even if he was scrawny and rarely in need of a shave, his baritone was the envy of many. None commented, however, on the transitions over which he toiled, his telegraphed foreshadowing or cliched simile. No one fretted over his leaky logic, emulating what he thought he understood of Anselm. Who among them, he wondered as they stared ahead at him, and later read their reviews (—What a voice! —Jealous of your voice! —Give me your voice! —You should be in radio with that voice! —Maybe a little loud …), heard a word he said?

So it was, until one day he set aside his prepared exposition of the twenty-third Psalm, and began instead: —The subject of the discourse is man; and the speech of him hath three points in the text. None at first paid note. —I. His comma; II. His colon; III. His period. R., for the first time, felt right behind the pulpit, Thomas Adams on his tongue, Mystical Bedlam on the page. —“Men’s hearts are full of evil”; there is the comma. “Madness is in their hearts while they live;” there is the colon. Whereat not staying, at which point Professor Shannon at least looked up, —“after that they go down to the dead;” and there is their period. R. paused to peered down at the lectern, and gave then full voice to the World of Madmen, —The first begins, the second continues, the third concludes, their sentence.

Hush, boy. The truth happens first in silence.

January 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

In R. Stein found a willing, if not always witting, spy. News of Old Main’s impending destruction kindled a sort of passive interest in what was happening on campus, and R. was a perfect observer to his downfall.

—It’s necessary that you’re uninterested in what will happen to this old man.

—But that’s not true, though.

—Hush, boy. The truth happens first in silence.

R. was a mediocre student. Above average nearly by default, given the seminary’s faith-based approach to admission standards. Quick with a lexicon, his Hebrew hovered just above intermediate and Greek smack below. He preferred the letters of John to those by Paul, but excelled only in the synoptic Gospels. Something about the parallel stories, some entwined like legs, others removed as relatives, each tinged with theological baggage, traumatic memory, and grudges to bear, seemed appropriate.

He happily reported to Stein the happenings of his courses, the various new hermeneutical models and critical theories trotted out by the younger professors. Stein weathered these accounts mostly in silence, interjecting only occasionally, —but the postmodern seems more conservative than the modern, and they’re the radicals now?, so that R. might move on to more important matters.

—They only seem to know of Jonathan Edwards. And even then just the gist of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

—The gist, you say? Does original sin have a summary version besides damnation? Surely, though, they know of Donne …

—The poet, yes. Nothing specific about him as a preacher.

— The poet? The Holy Ghost penning the Scriptures, Ramsey, delights in the melody of language! Donne the poet, Donne the preacher — they are one in the same!

Taking Stein’s words about silence to heart, R. chose not to report, judging it assumed, that with Stein’s retirement went too the assigning of De Quincey’s treatise on rhetoric, as well as the recitation in advanced preaching courses, with neither preface nor commentary, of the fifth chapter of Browne’s Urn Burial. (—If you don’t know in your soul the import of those words, no appeal to your mind will ever suffice.)

but only the holy must die

January 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Eripitur persona, manet res, Ramsey, you recall? We take pains to heap up things useful in our life and get our death in the purchase . . . .

—The Rule and Exercises of Dying?

—Not simply dying, my boy. The Reverend Jeremy Taylor is unconcerned with something so common. Words must be made right, never forget. No, it’s The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying. I’m surprised you made such a mistake, R. I’m old and forget details, but you?

—I’m sorry. I just misspoke.

—But of course this is not simply a detail is it, the difference between dying and holy dying. It’s not enough, R., that everything can and does die. No no no . . . What does Thomas Adams say? Remember your tribe, and your fathers poor house, and the pit whereout you were hewn. Hannibal is at the gates, death stands at your doors . . .

be not proud, be not mad: you must die.

—Yes, Ramsey. But did you hear it? Of course you did: must die, not does die. Holy dying refuses the biological necessity … the shrugged shoulder acquiescence that your day is done … licking your lips at your goose is finally cooked. Everything can and does die, Ramsey, this is true, but only the holy must die. You see the difference, don’t you? Yes, of course you do. You’ve spent time with the metaphysicals, you must.

Every thing, every day suffers some eclipse, and nothing stands in a stay, but one Creature calls to another, “Let us leave the World.”

—Henry Smith, oh, dear Smith! First we wax old, then we wax dry, then we wax weak, then we wax sick, and so we melt away by drops.

We must return to our mother’s womb.

—Yes, R.! Yes!

“unsure whether she was filled more with pity, for the effects of a war not her brother’s fault, than she was with hate, for the flaws that decidedly were,”

November 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Old Main

The house’s fall into disuse was quick, with Batey slipping almost immediately into dementia upon its completion. With Batey confined mostly to his second-floor bedroom, and his nurse comfortable with hers by the kitchen, several rooms newly painted remained closed until his death five years later. At which point, unsure if she was filled more with pity, for the effects of a war not her brother’s fault, than she was with hate, for the flaws that decidedly were, Batey’s sister signed over the property to a Methodist minister looking to open a sanitarium for drug and drink addicts. The Price Hill Sanitarium, or as it was known by some of its patients, Delirium Hill, stood high above the city for over two decades, and at its height was a regional destination for bottoming-out, middle-class alcoholics. It wasn’t until the cocaine and codeine addicts began arriving that the neighbors began feeling aggrieved and grumbles grew that with them came crime. When the mutilated body of Billy Ray Robbins was found in a nearby ditch, his eight-year-old blond hair matted with blood and prepubescent sex removed, who better to blame — other than the actual perpetrator, that is, his step-father’s brother — than the junkie who, after finding the body, had inquired about the advertised award. The sanitarium’s Methodist overseers wanted nothing to do with this public relations nightmare. The Eighteenth Amendment was but months away from ratification, and narcotics were already officially controlled substances, so they reasoned any intoxicant use henceforth was not only spiritually abuse but truly illegal — a criminal matter maybe best attended to by the justice system. This was the rationalization, anyway, affirmed by their denominational bishop, when they shuttered and then sold the sanitarium for the shockingly low price negotiated by the non-denominational representatives of the newly-formed Cincinnati Seminary.

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