the interiority we create by reading is rich and lonely
~ Marie Howe
when the sword was thrust into her throat the vessels tore,
rippling blood as her head was thrown to the ground,
her long tresses a dark halo as her body lay adrift; this,
because of a choice to remain betrothed only to Christ—
virginity and chastity, a candle lit from a time long passed,
yet flickering among the shadows of contemporaneity
no better off where i lie, caving my body into yours,
ripping my soul every time i know love isn’t there
and before, because i wouldn’t risk becoming Tess,
ravaged then ignored in the weight of our histories—
instead, grant me Stonehenge, Tess’ union and consummation,
the beauty and naturalness leading to the inevitable end—
the relic of Agnes’ skull lying where it was struck,
in agone, at the foot of the stadium, in a church where i turn
towards the altar, fingering river stones in prayer for
bliss and anguish, settling behind curtains half-drawn,
so I may read in solitude, in the quiet moments of repose,
in imagining a life complete, pages folded into my own.
with my body I thee worship
embrace the age-old silence of a room illuminated with snow,
your whispering sweet nothings only I can hear
with kisses we’ve remembered how to give to one another,
the touch of our lips on lips and eyelids, didn’t you know?
with my body I thee worship, but my body I despair to give
before our vows make us sacrosanct—
this means I’ll remain by your side; this means you will leave,
the book closing on its final chapter, a blood-warm hand tracing
its pages, all because my woolly love will not smooth the lines
of your brow, will not satisfy the begging of your body in mine.
jams, marmalades, crab apple jelly histories held in miniature
longer than memory octagonal jars lifted filtering sunbeams
one eye squinting the other shut to the past
picnics in Muir Gardens or outings to Niagara-on-the-Lake, where
jams, marmalades, crab apple jelly are found in abundance
where we would go exploring for the day fudge too, and now,
caramel apples on sticks though not in our day, I don’t recall—
for another time, perhaps an inkling of something greater
Ágnes Cserháti currently lives in Aurora, Ontario. Writing mainly of memory and place, her poetry has won the Hart House Poetry Prize (University of Toronto) twice and has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize (UK) and the Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Competition (Toronto). Her writing has been published in Hart House Review (Toronto) along with journals in the UK and Ireland. She is also the founder and editor of Rufus Books Publishing.
These poems are highly personal, though I don’t think confessional, insofar as predicating on my experience with love and loss. Though the first two poems may seem religious at their core (and I suppose they are), what interests me more is the humanist view, a reliance on the relationship of man—and woman—with the world. I steer clear of dogma, yet love with glory and respect are encompassed in our histories too. A preoccupation with how we shape our intimate relationships drives these poems.
“the silencing” involves three distinct narratives: that of Agnes of Rome, Tess of the d’Ubervilles, and the poet’s. The idea that we become what our names mean intrigued me as the basis for this poem. Agnes of Rome became St Agnes, patron saint of virginity, chastity, and purity. Essentially, this is because she would not marry, claiming that she was already betrothed to Christ. At a time when Christianity was outlawed in Rome, this eventually led to her execution. The poem opens at this point in Agnes’ story, moving to the poet’s observing of the virtues of virginity and chastity in contemporary life as still being relevant, finally comparing it to the protagonist in Thomas Hardy’s novel, Tess of the d’Ubervilles, who, between two men was compromised, rejected, lied to, then accepted, but not before she killed one and ran away with the other. Stonehenge is the site where the authorities catch up with Tess and arrest her; she too is executed publicly in the end. This circles back to Agnes and the place where the relic of her skull now lies, in the church of Sant’Agnese in Piazza Navona, in Rome. The poet’s prayer is for the “bliss and anguish” we experience in reading, as the epigraph from Marie Howe espouses: the interiority we create by reading is rich and lonely. What has been a ‘silencing’ of Agnes and Tess becomes the voice of the poet, the imagining of another’s life becoming “pages folded into my own”.
“with my body I thee worship” draws particular attention to words that are uttered by the groom to his bride on their wedding day, which come from the Book of Common Prayer. Marriage, in my belief, is indeed “sacrosanct,” and whatever vows are said these days (the variety seems inexhaustible), “with my body I thee worship” is not often heard—or understood. My own upbringing is Catholic, but this proclamation from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer is as beautiful as it is profound. The poem touches on responsibility and a line drawn, which concludes in the figure of the man leaving the woman because she wishes to remain chaste before their marriage. Still, the poem wrestles with love and intimacy and desire.
“preserves” is a pun on what we preserve from our past, whilst also describing literally the “jams, marmalades, crab apple jelly” noted in the poem. Here, too, a loving relationship is recalled, particularly “picnics in Muir Gardens or outings to Niagara-on-the-Lake,” memories that are bittersweet, as the relationship had ended badly. The repetition of “jams, marmalades, crab apple jelly” emphasises the hanging-on of memories, and yet things have also changed. The description of Niagara-on-the-Lake is quite accurate, a place I enjoy going to, but the break in the poem falls at the “caramel apples on sticks” that weren’t there before. The concluding line, “for another time, perhaps an inkling of something greater” suggests hopefulness in a more meaningful relationship one day.