By: Elder Gideon
ensconced at school he copied masaccio's expulsion
humanized the human fall with pathos he painted
two nude men exiled by shame one face wails open
mouthed to heaven the other face buried trembling
deep in hands to earth
of their fig leaves bare the blame
the fear of othering anything shameless as flowers
as ceaseless as grief as grey
the dust no one outruns
everywhere his breath
in Italy disturbed the surface rest
of ashen silt his mother's ashes ushered him
up train steps on door knobs light switches kitchen
tables on dishes cups & laundry lean & folded
on Claudio's shoulder his hair their bed at dawn asleep
with him his world his body his closet dis-
embodied as a shell of itself with no where real
for faith to go in exile from religion he
wandered Catholic ruins dominion waste lands
the truism shall not set free
he never doubted but his
place in such a body
he’d trekked towards the drone dead grasses iridesced
with cricket songs parted in the field where he lay
with his back to the dry ground beneath stars he awoke
to all of the reasons he loathed himself aligned in an influx
is not a line but a suture
inside the dome skull of sky
broken open but snaps back shut
the instant it’s perceived
he bolted upright knowing
all in a moment why gays threaten men
egos without children
family names that end
for being oblivion
suddenly the crickets ceased
the ground quivered grasses broke
behind him another breathed
his hair jolted his pores gasped for air
tapered his heart beat his head
he turned to see a daunting silhouette blocking stars two horns
as long as the horizon the beast’s mass dense as adamantine stone
Wisdom told him breathe—
in the fear is focus
he did not move neither did the bull
his face turned inward in degrees
until fully forward unwavering in skin he fit
in his abode
he abode the presence of the bull
in night and time’s release
Nothing needs be done in the gap
You see between the door and frame—
To his bedroom door, which is open just enough for you
To see the backs of two lean boys sitting in their silhouettes—
They are earthen desire shameless as stamens awakened
At the edge of flora his bed flooding green—
Why is there no tension?
Children are pristine who murmur and smile—
Given to feel and touch in childhood’s seal
Concealed from unforeseen eyes but yours—
Reflect whence doctrine
Demeans as obscene the holy root of touch itself—
Still nothing needs be done
If you let him be your son
Elder Gideon is the author of “Aegis of Waves” (Atmosphere, 2021) and co-author with Tau Malachi of “Gnosis of Guadalupe (EPS Press, 2017). He’s an alumnus of the 2021 Community of Writers, directed by Brenda Hillman and showing sculpture this fall with Verge Gallery’s Open Studio Tour in Sacramento. A veteran English teacher-activist and leader of a gnostic tradition, Gideon lives from metaphysical urgency. He is queer.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
I’ve focused on writing in verse over the last ten years. Poetry has always compelled me, particularly ancient and medieval spiritual source works. They are so dreamy to me in their freedom to leap about and across the abyss.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
Ecclesiastes. Psalms. And when my sixteen year old self first heard a voice over in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) reading the final stanza of e.e. cummings’ “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond.” I will always remember how it changed my breathing. A space within me bloomed and I encountered how words are what they orbit.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
Among too many to name: Phillip Levine’s devastating Detroit poems What Work Is (1991), David Mills’ seance with the New York slave-dead in Boneyarn (2021), Kaveh Akbar’s faith in Pilgrim Bell (2021), and my renewed appreciation for Lucille Clifton.
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
Writing cantilevers out of self-knowledge, my writing process is anchored in prayer and meditation: They mutually generate. I’ve cultivated particular attention to and have come to trust the first thoughts that rise in my mind. The zone of morning, before swiping on my cell phone or even leaving my house, is precious for its proximity to the subconscious. The sooner I get to my desk in the morning, the more surprised I am by what I hear.
Komunyakaa has advised us to write poetry by hand. Hearing this was a shift for me, who was formerly used to writing poetry with a word processor. He’s right. Slowing down enough to write by hand exercises my concentration while preserving a reliable record of thought to backtrack when I get lost.
I write with 0.3 mechanical lead on legal paper folder lengthwise and don’t erase. Writing within a column is good for me; focusing on only half of the width eases the paper flipping when I’m on the other side.
I start with a flow of unpunctuated phrases until forms and relationships surface from the current of words. Phrases gather into lines; lines coagulate into stanzas. But lineating always eludes me.
My constantly having to re-write by hand induces distance and reflection.
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
My forms are seldom preconceived. They show me their array only after many revisions. I measure ideas within narrative frames, so as not to alienate my reader with abstract imagism. Narrative forms for me are more physical and integral to the senses.
Compared with other sense expressions—visual or musical—language is inherently the most conceptual and abstract. It must translated. So I seek as directly as I can to ground a written form with narrative and a claim. This is often how ancient voices achieved so much with simplicity and directness. Narrative forms are most communicable.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
The source of voice is a quest. What or where is it? Voice arises, but I can’t find from where. It’s as though voice emerges from nothing. But I can’t call voice nothing, because the something of a voice always arises.
None of us are going to mentally figure this out. All there is is to be aware of this phenomenon of voice. Like the observation of the self, cultivating this awareness is the essence of meditation. My advice: Know yourself: Interrogate all assumptions of the self: Meditate daily. I can’t express enough the link between daily meditation and the cultivation of voice. How else does one recognize which voice is nearest and even from the center without stabilizing an interior life?
An authentic voice moves through an authentic self. I mean here nothing of the ego, which is duplicit. No. Voice is more. It’s simpler, subtler, and nearer to me than I am to my self. Voice is metaphysical. It’s the awareness, the observer of and present with everything, while distinct from what is observed.
What is your editing process like?
Where did I once read that “writing is revision”?
I have to compare this with a relationship: It’s so easy to have an idea and something else to follow through. Isn’t this editing? It’s the least romantic part of writing and often the hardest, inner work. I’ve accepted this. I’m a committed partner to my writing relationship and we work it out. Only, we’ve agreed to never process at night. If there’s a misunderstanding, we agree to talk it out while we’re fresh the next morning. Otherwise, those late night debates are seldom what they’re about.
I’m at my best as an editor of my own writing when I’ve given my work weeks or months to cure in the drawer. Only after the euphoria of inspiration has passed and I have more distance from what I’ve written can I see it as someone else’s work. This enables me make hard cuts with detachment. The upside hiding work from myself for another time is that I’ve also found ways to revive writing that I was certain was dead.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
Just recently, I hosted a reading with the Sacramento Poetry Center which featured Chen Chen, who spoke to this very question most brilliantly: He knows he’s finished a poem if he can ask and answer, “Have I learned anything?” Yes. Because I write for insight, to learn what I didn’t know I knew, this discovery best answers for me when I know a poem is finished.