Although New Yorkers may not remember the name Chris Ofili, they would remember his painting, even if they'd never seen it. Ofili is the man whose one particular canvas--linen, actually--caused such a sensation in the media. It also enraged Roman Catholics because of its blasphemous nature. The painting, which appeared at the Brooklyn Museum of Art as part of a 1999 show called Sensation, depicted the Virgin Mary spattered with elephant dung. While the work was "radical" (assuming that word still has meaning in a jaded age), the responses it galvanized from Left and Right were wholly doctrinaire.
Amid the diatribes and demonstrations, many lost hold of two simple questions. These are the two questions that eventually come into play whenever we meet the blasphemous in art. Is the artist simply looking to nettle a segment of society and score publicity, or is he coming to grips with an idea dredged from the deep psyche and embodied in a traditional icon? No matter whether it's Ofili's linen, or Salvador Dali's "Crucifixion," or a poem like "The Supper After the Last," by Galway Kinnell,* these questions obtain.
"The Supper After the Last" might very well weigh in as blasphemous, but Kinnell is at least wrestling with a significant angel. This early poem, from his first collection, What a Kingdom It Was (1960),* depicts a Christ come back as a meat-grinding destroyer. It plays not only upon the iconic Christian moment of the Last Supper but also upon the Emmaus story from the end of St. Luke's Gospel, in which Jesus, unrecognized by two of his mourning disciples, sits down with them to eat a meal--a supper after Da Vinci's The Last Supper--in the village of Emmaus. According to St. Luke, as the resurrected Christ breaks the bread and blesses it, the eyes of the two disciples are suddenly opened, they recognize him, and he simultaneously vanishes.
Kinnell conflates these
two well known Biblical moments with a Day-of-Judgment scenario, but--here's
where things may run amok for some--he introduces a violent, Hindu-like
vision of the Divine that doesn't fit comfortably with a Sunday school
understanding of Christ.
The host's plan
Kinnell's poem proceeds through five tableaux.
The first brings us
to a desert, where sand and the illusory water of mirage intermingle, setting
the scene for confusion. Presiding over the quiet desolation is dragonfly,
a sort of harbinger of things to come, that "lays / On dazzled sand the
shadow of its wings." Kinnell has always had one foot set firmly in the
natural order, and his dragonfly here stands in as nature's Paraclete.
Next we see (in the second, and shortest, tableau) the chair and jug of
water the disciples have carefully prepared for the arrival of what we
imagine will be the Son of God: "The host's plan is to offer water, then
stand aside." The word "plan" bears much weight here. As an intention based
upon a lack of understanding, it points up the complacent expectation of
the host (not The Host, just a host), who with the other
disciples intends to welcome a recognizable, patently good Jesus Christ.
Blood and gravel
The awaited guest appears in the third tableau. He turns out to be a rosé-guzzling, chicken-devouring wild man, "the wreck of passion / Emptying his eyes." He doesn't smile. He gouges out the eyes of the chicken head on his plate. He destroys the people at table with him, aided and abetted by a blind cat and a dog "busy grinding gristle" on a "blood and gravel floor." Believers who find this blasphemous perhaps miss the point that it is in not the celebration of some savage and debauched existence but a brush with Shiva the Destroyer, out of Hinduism, who combines the countervailing energies of birth and ruination. Here, the sublime is the terrible, and it kills you.
In the fourth tableau, the emotional center of the poem, the holy wild man addresses the remains of his company in the apocalyptic mode, a passage that is shot through with the emotional necessity Rilke thought was the ultimate validation of a poem:
I came not to astonish
To use a phrase from a recent essay about the poet James Ragan, this passage, along with the poem's final tableau, "lyricizes rupture and devastation." [SeeEssays, March 2001. Ed.] You can almost hear the sneering voice as the three successive questions above linger on the "Your" at line's end. The language, which is quite direct, is borne forward lightly by the pure, primitive emotion out of which it arises. The scorn in these words resonates with the violence of the Book of Revelation, in which the Second Coming, rather than soothing, amazes and terrifies.
In the fifth and final tableau, the wild man appears somewhat more conventionally as "the Saviour," sitting in the desert's optical illusion of water and "whispering to the world," becoming himself part of the mirage. Kinnell reprises here the image of wings from the first tableau. Whereas the dragonfly hovers, its wings shadowing the dazzled sand, here we witness the mortal "wings that live gripping the contours of the dirt," and the crucified remains of wings that are "all at once nothing, flesh and light lifted away." This is what the disciples are left with. The poem ends with apocalyptic force, as we see that The Saviour's whispering is not meant to console but to enlighten:
You are the flesh;
I am the resurrection, because I am the light.
At the equivalent moment in St. Luke's Gospel, the two disciples are changed forever, having had their quotidian understanding of death and time shattered. Whereas the violence of that moment occurs in the mind, Kinnell--true to the themes of violence and destruction that underpin so much of his work--situates the upheaval outside, as a physical force that works over the disciples, turning them into "sacks of appalled, grinning skin." There is no ironic distance in any of this. Kinnell, who has been called a poet of immersion, indeed has a vested interest in his dark vision.
It's not surprising
that Kinnell, who has always written about elemental life, despair, and
death, would open his arms to the Hindu god Shiva rather than settling
for a doctrinaire concept of Christ. There is, however, some kinship in
Shiva's warlike ravagings and the weird violence of the Biblical Book of
Revelations. Both excite terror and awe, the primitive emotions that fascinate
Kinnell and drive much of his work. What happens in "The Supper After the
Last" is perhaps emotionally closer to the indiscriminate blood baths of
the Old Testament than to anything in the New. Kinnell's wild man is the
scornful, ego-obliterating face of Yahweh. It is also the face of Shiva,
Ares, and of Dionysus at his worst.
A devotional poem?
Putting the question of blasphemy aside, I would like to propose that Kinnell's poem is actually a devotional poem, a speaker's little altar to the humbling and destructive forces that rage beyond--often not too far beyond--the partition of the mundane. As such, it might not be so iconoclastic after all. There is a tradition in devotional poetry in which the Strange, the Unanticipated, and the Terrible contribute to a spiritual rinsing of the eyes. These poems often seem blasphemous to the extent that they puzzle, disconcert, or stray from the corporate path of worship. Consider these lines from "Dark Night of the Soul" (1577-78), by St. John of the Cross (translated from the Spanish by E. Allison Peers):
The breeze blew
from the turret as I parted his locks;
I remained, lost
in oblivion; my face I reclined on the Beloved.
Turrets? Lovers? Christ wounding someone in the neck? Certainly, this is somewhat irregular, or at least surprising--and joyful! St. John of the Cross chooses a happy lens through which to witness an ego being overwhelmed and, in sweetest fashion, destroyed by union with the Divine. In contemplating the Absolute, some select this consoling perspective, while others are predisposed to look at the darker facets. While I don't mean to equate Kinnell with St. John of the Cross, it is worth noting that the same things happen to the speaker in "Dark Night of the Soul" and Kinnell's company of disciples: they are transported by their encounter with the Absolute. When mediated by Shiva, this moment can be sweet and generative or it can be awful and obliterating. It might be said that this dichotomy exists in analogous form within the Catholic tradition itself, in the persons of Thomas Aquinas (the light) and Augustine (the dark).
As for terror and violence, these forces take center stage in what is probably the greatest devotional poem in Western literature, The Divine Comedy. In order to get to God, Dante has to lose himself, hounded by meat-eating beasts in a dark wood, and venture into the limbewn basins of Hell. It is only through this passage that he can come to understand the full extent of Divine majesty. Dante goes so far as to put Popes in Hell, making Kinnell's offense seem like a minor traffic violation.
So, has Kinnell trespassed? Is his poem blasphemous? Believers who find it offensive, which is understandable, might choose to reflect on the words of the Lord's Prayer: ". . . we forgive those who trespass against us." There are, after all, worse forms of trespass to fret over in our age. If there is, or was, outrage over this poem, that outrage has come to naught. Or perhaps the putative blasphemy has encouraged artists like Ofili, though I doubt it. In the end, it's Kinnell's little affair with God.
(John Foy' poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New Criterion, Parnassus, Southwest Review, Graham House Review, and other periodicals, as well as on the Poetry Daily web site. His essay-reviews have appeared regularly in Parnassus. He is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program.)
[* This poem appeared in Kinnell's
Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1982 -- Pulitzer and National Book Award)
and in A New Selected Poems released by Houghton in April, 2000.
Mary's 9th-Hour Clemency Plea: An Essay in Verse
John is the only one of the four Gospels in which Mary's presence at the cross is mentioned, and then only because Jesus consigns her to that disciple's care. ("Man, behold your mother.") While Mary, the virgin, might have 'pondered in her heart' the wonder of the angel Gabriel's annunciation that she was to bear the Son of God (Luke 1:-26-38), elementary knowledge of human nature compels the surmise that Mary, however obedient before then to her calling, once witnessing her innocent child's torment, would seek to negotiate his reprieve, and failing which, would offer herself in his stead. That surmise forms the premise for the short verse dramatization which appears here.
A vivid German Northern Renaissance depiction of Mary at the foot of the cross shows the mother of Jesus so overcome with grief, that she would surely collapse were it not for John's steadying arm looped about her waist. (View painting. Artist: Matthias Grünewald 1475-1528). Though not exemplified here, Medieval artists commonly depicted Mary wearing a white, blood-spattered veil, suggesting her close proximity to, if not physical participation in, Christ's suffering.
The Earthly Trinity
(Speeches are interior
monologues spoken as asides