Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize
through the trees and I come back in my mind
to the man who made me suck his cock
when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.
I thought I could leave him standing there
in the years, half smile on his lips,
small hands curled into small fists,
but after he finished, he held my hand in his
as if astonished, until the houses were visible
just beyond the railyard. He held my hand
but before that he slapped me hard on the face
when I would not open my mouth for him.
I do not want to say his whole hips
slammed into me, but they did, and a black wave
washed over my brain, changing me
so I could not move among my people in the old way.
On my way home I stopped in the churchyard
to try and find a way to stay alive.
In the branches a redwing flitted, warning me.
In the rectory, Father prepared
the body and blood for mass
but God could not save me from a mouthful of cum.
That afternoon some lives turned away from the light.
He taught me how to move my tongue around.
In his hands he held my head like a lover.
Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.
from What Saves Us (Northwestern University, 1992).
We fell in love with this poem at Squaw Valley one summer, at the poetry writing workshop, me and a few others. Now, it’s a bit harder to see what we loved. I still like it, but not with the same enthusiasm, and there are things that trouble me, in particular when it comes to the last line. At the time, we were drunk on beauty—the Sierras in Summer, how could we not be? And all there together, to write together, for a week “to sit at desk / and condense,” as Lorine Niedecker put it. I thought often of the Navajo Blessing Way—”beauty all around me”—during that week, and of the notion of poem as prayer and as beauty, issues that came up in a number of the workshop sessions.
Now I see that last line as perhaps a bit dangerous. Is it really true that you can “make it beautiful, no matter what” by saying it clearly enough? I’m not so sure. Some things no amount of condensing will render into diamond.
Did Weigl really mean that? The poem takes an episode of childhood sexual abuse and does, really, render it fairly beautifully. But doesn’t it lose or efface much of what falls into the category of “no matter what”—the violence and pain—with the beauty of its language? “He taught me how to move my tongue around.” It’s a big shift from the “mouthful of cum” just two lines earlier—which, frankly, is a line I have never liked. I’m not sure if this is because I find the abuse hard to take, and it is rendered starkly by the pornographic turn of phrase, or if it is the language of the line. I usually feel that it is the “God” in the beginning, whose appearance in the poem seems abrupt and unhelpful, and also the awkward flow, the lack of rhythm of the line as a whole. But perhaps it is me “turning away” from something that makes me uncomfortable…
I think, too, about the contrast between “he slapped me hard on the face” near the end of the first stanza which seems almost prose-like, and stark in its violence, and “In his hands he held my head like a lover,” whose alliteration verges on poetic parody but doesn’t quite cross the line—at least not that line. Its flow and alliteration, its music work to make it beautiful. But it isn’t really something that should be beautiful, is it? And so it takes us into the last line, which tells us “Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.”
Weigl has told it pretty clearly and pretty beautifully in places, so how do we evaluate it? Doesn’t the beauty have a kind of judgment, a value judgment to it? Or is that just me?