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The Anatomy of a Poem

By Sandra Lee Schubert | May 17, 2011

I asked my friend Patrick to dissect his poem Maundy Thursday: Stripping (© Patrick Hammer, Jr.). His emotions around Holy Week were so strong and the poem that came out it so powerful I was curious how he came to write this particular piece. Please comment on your thoughts about the poem and his description of how he came to write it.

From Patrick – I wrote this poem, finally, after years of not liking Lent, especially the second half of the last week of it, because I pushed myself to attend Maundy Thursday Services…which is what this poem is about. The Easter Vigil and Easter Day is a piece of cake but Thursday and Friday are killers. I discovered why I disliked Holy Week by being a part of Services that produced the range of unexpected memories and emotions here, mostly sadness and longing.

In the first paragraph I set the stage with all the actions going on. It explains the title and is the central metaphor to the poem: stripping myself to the core to see why I hate this day.

Maundy Thursday: stripping the Altar, washing it,
after the washing of feet, after one last Consecration,
one last Eucharistic Feast.

The organ silenced, lights extinguished, Christ covered in purple for these few days, hidden away from me when I need him the most, is disturbing. Things are shutting down and going away.

Now the Great Organ suddenly silenced, the Seven
burnished Cathedral Lamps lowered, extinguished.
Christ has gone away. Christ the King ransomed
in purple cloth, as are all this Temple’s Processional
Crosses…now fading away into the lengthening shadows.

The way the faint light hits the High Altar pillars reminds me of the way light hit the door that separated me from my grandmother when I was a child. I have lost her unconditional love; I have lost God’s unconditional light.

This Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, of Revelations,
my universe in miniature. In near darkness faint light
falling on the Great Pillars behind the High and empty Altar
push me back in memory: I am a child in my Nana’s
back bedroom, on Decatur Avenue, off Fordham Road,
in The Bronx…she is in the front room, and I weep.
I am separated from her unconditional Love…as I am tonight…
severed from God’s unconditional Light.

I compare how I am feeling about these losses by using gospel references like the false kiss of Judas, bitter denials of Peter, lances in Christ’s side and his thirst, disciples asleep in the garden.

O, this is too much like a False Kiss, like Bitter Words
between friends, who are friends no longer, this is too much
like Denial, like a Lance jabbed, like a Thirst, like the need
for a friend who is lost in Sleep.

The Reserved Sacrament has always seemed to me to be a fragile, losable thing…and so we watch it this night. Watching with us, awaiting their own resurrections, are the communion of the dead in the next-door Columbarium.

The Reserved Sacrament, all we have left, has been left
in the Baptistry, now a Garden of Palms and long-in-coming
Easter flowers. We are a room away from the Columbarium,
the Communion of saints…dead with living…a room I will
one day sleep in, in time. A small village of those gone
who loved this place of glass and stone, who wait now
for their own Easter Promise.

In the night, on the watch, we stay guarded against the Evil One…the devil and his minion.

And so the All Night Watch begins until dawn with what
we have left of Christ…guarding this Wafer-thin Body
from the Dark Forces, and the Evil One who would
snatch Him in the night.

I can’t settle down for my allotted hour of watching. I try a host of activities but am reminded that it is like a watch with one on a death bed…here my stepdad and close friend, Jim, are recalled because they were the recent losses that threw me off kilter the most. I suspect my irreligious friend would laugh if I saw me, years after his death, in a church…a cathedral no less. And, yet, now in death, I suspect he may be part of the eternal mysteries despite himself and his disbelief.

Restless, listless, listening, I fidget, my mind fidgets.
I open, close my Book Of Common Prayer, a Breviary,
too, that I have brought, thumb the Hymnal. Some pray
the Rosary, others prostrate on the cold stone floor.
I stare into the void, into the space of remembering,
remembering sitting with my Stepfather in the long night
before his death…sitting with dear Jim, who would laugh
if he saw me in this House now, if he were alive,
if he were AIDS-free. Perhaps, somewhere, he is
not laughing, being a part now of this Continuum.

It’s like a wake. Like the sadness of nursing homes, of funeral parlors. Christ’s death is too much to take. I am happy to be outside in the air.

Awake. A wake. I wait.
And this wrenching hour passes.
Hospital bed memories pass. Nursing Homes
and funeral rooms dissolve with their cruel smell
of flowered-death. I step into the welcome
New York air outside.

Christ will harrow hell and return on Easter; my dead ones will not…this makes me incredibly sad. I feel I don’t have enough firm belief to sustain me in the thought that even my dead loved ones will return. A promise without backup seems tough to buy.

I know the Harrowing of Hell to come
this weekend, and the Hell to get through. I know
The Lamb will return but not the ones I loved, lived with,
and saw die. And so I live on a Promise, without proof,
on Faith alone, that we will meet again
in The Resurrection…at that last Vigil.

By the end of the poem I ask two new friends, made in Lenten classes this year, how they sustain faith. Where did it come from? How do they hold on to it…especially over time? Why don’t I feel that same authenticity and conviction? I have been completely stripped, like the altar, like Christ, stripped down to these my basest emotions by the end of the poem.

This I tell Chris, as I have told Stephanie before him,
my new Lenten friends, as we walk away from The Close.
They seem to Believe perhaps even stronger than I can.
And I ask him: where did you come from? Ask her:
how did you hold on to that Faith so long?

Visit his author page on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/pages/Patrick-Hammer-Jr/125538920812130

And the full poem is below –

Maundy Thursday: Stripping (© Patrick Hammer, Jr.)

Maundy Thursday: stripping the Altar, washing it,
after the washing of feet, after one last Consecration,
one last Eucharistic Feast.

Now the Great Organ suddenly silenced, the Seven
burnished Cathedral Lamps lowered, extinguished.
Christ has gone away. Christ the King ransomed
in purple cloth, as are all this Temple’s Processional
Crosses…now fading away into the lengthening shadows.

This Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, of Revelations,
my universe in miniature. In near darkness faint light
falling on the Great Pillars behind the High and empty Altar
push me back in memory: I am a child in my Nana’s
back bedroom, on Decatur Avenue, off Fordham Road,
in The Bronx…she is in the front room, and I weep.
I am separated from her unconditional Love…as I am tonight…
severed from God’s unconditional Light.

O, this is too much like a False Kiss, like Bitter Words
between friends, who are friends no longer, this is too much
like Denial, like a Lance jabbed, like a Thirst, like the need
for a friend who is lost in Sleep.

The Reserved Sacrament, all we have left, has been left
in the Baptistry, now a Garden of Palms and long-in-coming
Easter flowers. We are a room away from the Columbarium,
the Communion of saints…dead with living…a room I will
one day sleep in, in time. A small village of those gone
who loved this place of glass and stone, who wait now
for their own Easter Promise.

And so the All Night Watch begins until dawn with what
we have left of Christ…guarding this Wafer-thin Body
from the Dark Forces, and the Evil One who would
snatch Him in the night.

Restless, listless, listening, I fidget, my mind fidgets.
I open, close my Book Of Common Prayer, a Breviary,
too, that I have brought, thumb the Hymnal. Some pray
the Rosary, others prostrate on the cold stone floor.
I stare into the void, into the space of remembering,
remembering sitting with my Stepfather in the long night
before his death…sitting with dear Jim, who would laugh
if he saw me in this House now, if he were alive,
if he were AIDS-free. Perhaps, somewhere, he is
not laughing, being a part now of this Continuum.

Awake. A wake. I wait.
And this wrenching hour passes.
Hospital bed memories pass. Nursing Homes
and funeral rooms dissolve with their cruel smell
of flowered-death. I step into the welcome
New York air outside.

I know the Harrowing of Hell to come
this weekend, and the Hell to get through. I know
The Lamb will return but not the ones I loved, lived with,
and saw die. And so I live on a Promise, without proof,
on Faith alone, that we will meet again
in The Resurrection…at that last Vigil.

This I tell Chris, as I have told Stephanie before him,
my new Lenten friends, as we walk away from The Close.
They seem to Believe perhaps even stronger than I can.
And I ask him: where did you come from? Ask her:
how did you hold on to that Faith so long?

Patrick Hammer, Jr. © May. 2011

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Topics: Creating, How-To, Poetry | 3 Comments »

  • Phammer82

    Sand, thanks for posting this. I am so surprised many people have found something in this piece which was, after all, extremely personal to me. Patrick Hammer, Jr.

  • Julie

    I didn’t previously know this poem, but I found it very moving. It has clarified a lot of previously vague feelings about this time of year.

  • Thanks to Patrick for allowing dissection of his poem. Here is his new facebook URL – https://www.facebook.com/PatrickHammerJr