blackbirdonline journalSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt
Her historicity remains uncertain. A sixth-century vita identifies her as a Judean singer.
A half-century later she is a nun with no name. The following narrative, based on Sophronios
(ca. 560–638), finds her as a prostitute who, struck by a holy vision, abandons Jerusalem
for the desert. Forty-six years later she tells her story to Zosimas, a passing monk. 

The oldest of the Old World roils— that desert, dear,

of your redemption. Do cheers, tear gas, or wails

move you, sleepless still, through

streets you once abandoned? In bookstacks, yes,


we met unmoored from our centuries.

A man whom I made speak had made you speak

till we three fled that tattered crime scene.

And now in frescoed Lent, in hagiographic glass



I seek you: unfed & thinly androgynous—

a cloak to ward off cold

and loathsome nakedness, your handreceding, silvery as our moonlit surf—

or so the Byzantines once painted.


Does your halo hail me or receive true believers?

However its gold foil glows, know

this: that grandeur’s only possible with pressure.

Sainthood encircles you. The stoplight shifts to yellow.



And people—stacked daylong upon other people—intersperse

prematurely. It is evening, mid-November, MUNI crowds

merge and mull, spilling out from sidewalks.

And there’s steam and glances


held two beats too long and the taqueria’s lime-sweet ventilation.

Though we live out dense, almost-island lives

appetite still narrows the space between us.I walk

into this rush-hour crushand wait for it



to move me. I long to lead you

through this throb and throng— past tram wires & the Transamerica spire,

past taillights crisscrossing

fog-locked hillsides. We’re flush with light not warmth


and take sex as winter’s savior.

Do you feel it—vaguely waiting, willfully bated—in these jostled bodies?

Fucking here holds such small,semantic thrall; clothing

whispers free in the mind’s undressing.This Mission, this city



saintly named, teems with so many

I see as you,a girl—she glances back, she ambles on—

reminds me why neck tattoosare sexy:

we want our pictures whole; we must imagine herunshirted to do so.


Young still, loving a lovely wife

and son, I turn toward home, kiss your gilded hand, and think

this icon’s flatness

does not suit you.



Wilderness, a few trunks upthrust

and zero underbrush, no berries or thirst-quenching streams—

that is all I expected.

Penitent first, only later saint, I walk this dirt


I’m meant (with my three meager

loaves) to loveas one might a hereditary acreage.

And I too borrowed tongues to please or succumb.

What lover doesn’t knowlovers everywhere are actors?



Mary—I am a man transfixed by you

but fixed into (forgive this thought) his home’s small lot:

I picture winters thinner, whole years

lost like toys beneath couch pillows.


And yet this city’s bodies move

aware of their own bodies.I feel them, lithe in denim, a wind

with hips I’d press into or kill for. I feel them but must come home

to wife and son— lest your story



detain me. Those who’ve told it call you harlot, pray to a hermit—

forgetting how both roles hold

such freedom: I watch a woman’s hand ascend a thigh;

I stare into a window where someone reads past midnight.


I am only free

in the day’s in-betweens, eavesdropping on outdoor bars

or lifting into the livesuncurtained above them—

Mary, take my hand and deliver me into either, into ether.



How many voices, various timbres,

possessed me until (46 years gone) I barely owned my own?

With Zosimas I summoned everyone

I’d ever heard to muster my own story.Beside his muse, the monk could not move


Speech is merely heat

emanating from a body, strengthened by the pores that warm it—

the mouth is only its holiest exit.

I am weary here, upon your lips:your nearness exceeds your reverence.



So let me hover over yours—

hands cupped above a potter’s wheel—I’ll palm

your heat, or shape it. Fall’s here, bringing Dungeness crab and stone fruit.

The streetlamps must last a little longer.


And we, who shall lie mild, linger together

in restaurant corners

where the rich leave wine unfinished.I drink; you drink—

There must be more than words



between us. I’ve this story: once there was a man

who so loved an ancient tongue that he felt

a millenium of air collapse

in loam-rich pronunciations. He’d blush and brim


with a wantonness that could—when translated—consume him.

Once, snowbound in Louisville, he did nothing else.

For days he hoarded syllables

as one would the stars in heaven.



But now his house stirs

with its own small voice, sweet as a mockingbird’s—

its contours forged from listening. What joy to hear his words turned back

on him; what fear to know his discontent is mimicked.


A smart friend (OK, my therapist) advised: “To change the way

you see the world remember: your kid sees his whole worldthrough you.”

Teach me how to want less, or want me.

Give me your wilderness, or will me to refuse it.



I am altogether earth and ash and flesh,

Alexandrian by birth— a runaway who resorted to sorting flaxseed.

I asked for alms. I asked to be neither wife nor daughter.

Then, waking up one afternoon, I saw a lover leave me


coin, oblivious to that rarer gift

he’d offered: he listened.

September followed, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross,

and those pilgrims bathing by the seaside. My body—warm as the unraked sand—



bought me safe passage.

All toward Jerusalem the sea lurched—boat, man, and me

rocking unsteadily. My shamelessness was such I drank

the world up through their hungry bodies. Why did the sea


not swallow us whole, drown our unholy journey?

On land I found new hands, a mob which—

driven by love of one—offeredthe pleasure

of being pressed by many.



Is that dark, understated charge why you dawdle

now, one more domestic truant? Here’s where it led me:

Up till dawn, waiting for church gatesto swing free,

I was three times denied entry.

I held tight to the holiest I found;

I watched a groping couple going forward. Still, I sat there

still—anchored to that courtyard’s refuse.

It was then that She appeared and then the desert.



So meet me where the grass is cool and lovers—scarved

in darkness—hide their mischief.Here is Mission Dolores Park: dusklight, caressing.

Its namesake welcomes

worshippers one block north. Each group seeks


a voice that will embrace it.

Both buy love with secrets.

So let us drift through this potsmoked playground.

I am more real than the priest I met who only loves you for converting.



Lights aswirl around my head

and the refrain of lascivious songs—

my three loaves gone to stone, and errant weeds I’d suck the juice from:

these were my first 17 years. Here is the solitude (thirst


then lust compounding thirst) you swoon for.

One whole month I refused the sky, my tears

feeding the desert. At its close I lacked both food and clothes.

My name never felt so good as when I yelled it skyward.



And She (gentler now, Her voice faint as a fruit bat

gauging the distance to its dugout) gave reply—

and I would no longer want for meal,

embracing rock when shelter was unforthcoming.


I was happy then, unbidden;

my refusals rained down

from a beetle’s whirring wingtips.

I’ll call you love, my love, when you feed on the Word alone, as given.



Praise be then to thee who lives in sumptuous destitution.

Is this blasphemy? (So be it.) Tragedy (one poet said) is

imagination showing us lives we can’t access. But you

refuse it all; I wish heaven


was more than a handful of belabored words

meant preserve me. How would you, Mary, have me

proffer myself more? I’ll disengage (through penitence

or praise of you) from this erotic world, but you are all my fancy.



I walk to Mission and Cesar Chavez.

I stand beneath St. Luke’s—of her holiness, Sutter Health; of the angels

who cut a son from my love and the pediatric doc

who told us this story about honey:


Once upon a time three soldiers wandered through the desert.

One stumbled into a hole. It oozed with honey.

And then they dug to find the head, immaculate, that it surrounded.

And then they ate till morning. Dear Mary, I would dip—



—into the sweetness I’m embalmed in?

My boy (whose night-long psalm the dark

has, piecemeal, discharged, whose hunger—cold as an unstruck bell—

still rules him), you sweeten


me too, ummortify my appetites— or are at least persistent.

Put my name

upon your tongue. (It’s done.) Divest yourself of all that’s not

its sound (that honey, that sun) then repeat it till



She fills you— I will be there too, so much

freer, a mouth where you presupposed an entrance.

Or linger on this secret:

I’ve imagined—in Lent’s fifth Saturday, in a vita penned and passed and read again—the heaven


of unborn vocal chords,

a life’s desultory remnant (may one reader

retain us).You’re discontent with contentedness?

I’ve loved



Zosimas since he entered

the fantasy my desert cold had gilded. He squinted, light glinting

off gypsum. He stopped to watch me.

I tried to flee but rose


instead, buoyed about a wadi. How long did I hold there, unclothed,

before I took the cloak he offered?

Its fur (musk-infused) and threads (a monk’s bed) encircled me

but asked for nothing.It was that flesh, incarnate



of his first remarks (“Glory to God, who grants gifts to those who love Him”)

that saved me. Zosimas alone offered

his body as his voice’s vanguard.

Naturally I would, in loving him, reverse it.


He heard everything you’ve heard.

You owe your hearing it to his words, rivering down through others’ words,

each younger than the last one. I only asked

for a year’s silence (tell me why) before his first retelling.



Because I was indebted to Her who’d quarantined the world;

because Zosimas pledged a future communion;

because his eyes distilled

the sky


and I’d grown accustomed to watch where I was walking;

because I could lodge myself like a pebble

beneath his tongue

that he’d return to his monastery in secret.



And so you went unuttered.

Mary, this much this city’s taught me:

sex is the earth’s endless pull; it exerts

itself regardless of which bodies will or won’t receive you.


Likewise words, which don’t just preserve, but weigh

their gravitas is part gravity, and names

build out their own exacting orbit. By the way,

you can call me Derek.



Love, allow me my last refusals.

I could remain Hers till heard as his. To undim my name

would mean one thing: Zosimas could not return it.

And so his cloak became the vellum


sheaves I couldn’t read

but knew that he passed through: I rubbed the hide that withstood the world.

I felt the flesh that felt his lungs’ upheavel.

Come: approach this page and breathe



till your lover fills your dormant senses—

that was my summer, fall, and winter.

Zosimas returned beneath a moon full as a silver coin, and I walked

upon the Jordan to greet him.


He brought figs & sweet legumes. A chalice

held the Lord’s blood, though it was that blood’s messenger I followed.

Desire, you say,

moves you now—but it is dissimilitude that will save you.



Would that I could hide in the love you hid

from Zosimas, or loft myself into altitudes that nuture solitude—

I’d move like a dandelion’s white thread

through flight patterns headed home; I’d drift through lovers sipping


sodas below their baggage. But no.

I can hold here half a night or more,

another figure in fog, just walking.

But no— better to wrestle compromise from two truths



and call it a conclusion.

“I love you,” the semiotician tells his love.

“I love you,” he repeats, but also means: “I need to hang up the phone.”

Is marriage not equally a metaphor— resigned to reconciling



I hold my mouth, Mary, beneath this stream, knowing

my baptism cannot catch you. I make of you a mask

only to find myself convinced by communion.



It is blood and it is wine.

And Zosimas—who alone beheld my full self—

returned home, blind to the sinner he’d resurrected.

Only then did the sand seem like a page untarnished. And I who couldn’t read


was writing: “Dear Father—

bury this body, a humble Mary, in red

desert’s morn. Here reborn, I will to dust this dust

return— For me Lord shall Zosimas pray. He’ll be here, a year’s time.



In the month of Pharmouthi (so say the Egyptians)

In the month of April (so say the Romans)

on the Passion’s last night

died I. My Last Supper, Zosimas gave—” and I gave him my flesh to bury.


This, my friend, was where my speech was meant to end: sand

warmed by sun, ants inside my letters’ grooves, darkly glowing.

But you had to escape on the lips

of your creation. We all wear masks, my love, to face our waking.



I’ve loaned you

a role, given you this night to find

the solitude you yearned for. So tread

lightly down these now uncrowded streets; follow the white figures


walking forward. Mine did not decay

until Zosimas found

my writing in the canyon. The desert was my preservative.

A lion helped him with the digging.



Our love then, forever ours:

whether darkness or disinterest splits us.

Today I read that Voyager had shook off our sun

and soared—interstellar orphan—on a course


its home star charted. Whatever children, whatever lovers,

bid us elsewhere, our signal lingers

blinking, blushing—

red as the pulse hidden beneath your sunburn.



I run my fingers along a building’s brickwork.

I feel the shoulders (cool in T-shirts, maybe strapless) on which the mortar pressed

its pattern. I feel the shirts unbutton—

and it is nothing.


I shall instead bear down—

bear you, Mary, down to basement stacks, and then bear home;

let whispers lead you down, let my paleness pass now

like a moon sailing beyond your window.



The street is bright with constellated smartphones—

and sparks of trolley wire, and foreclosed storefronts—and I am

led on now by what’s left of you, my Northstar

in shattered stained glass. I scatter you like the coins


that made music in my pocket.

And yet, and yet my jawbone aches

that you, unbeknownst to most (or soon to be),

might irrevocably kiss me.



Dear boy: don’t you see? We have touched and touched and touched

in the space between these lines— your lips are ever more

upon my lips: what is imitation

but a love ground so fine you breathe it in unknowing?


All my pores release themselves to ruin or rain.

You delight in me, dream me silky thoughtsyou’ll surrender to—

but when have you thought to have me?

Mine’s a body you would (like Zosimas) obscure but never enter.



I lay you down in the crowd boarding the 14L. Find an expression here

that suits you. Let these people lead you

home; let this city spin its nocturnal charm or turn

into a ball of foreign words— a gift


to offer your son and one your wife’s already given.

Listen now: her syllables (я тебя) are palletized air (люблю) and diaphragm,

tapwater (мой мальчик) and (мой сын) farmers’ market produce—

Your voices rise from bookmarks.



Mary of Egypt, Mistress Mary, Mary My Ascetic whose name is the lone weight

I carry from this evening: when it tolls, this charm I stole, for saviors,

singers, gardens—

let it toll always as thee. Behold: I take this bell of you


before you sail off unbodied.

I pass through Muni’s pneumatic doors, past sputtering cars, and see three men

asleep in St. Mary’s Park, off Crescent.

Return to your lion’s grave smoother than mortuary stone



as I return home, crack the door to hear—

in words she learned one by goddamn one; in a voice

other than the voice we love in— my wife sing our small son down.

And he is singing there beside her.


I sip her honeyed tea till a small hive hums inside me.

Rain forks against the window glass, and I fold

my old words into Zosimas and Talbot and Sophronios:

we are the shroud you shine through.  

1.6 “A man whom I made speak”: Jacob Balde (1604–1668), an Alsatian Jesuit and Neo-Latin poet. Once, while serenading his lover from beneath her window, he overheard singing in a chapel next door. The next day, it’s said, he converted.
6.1–8 An interjection, however brief. Also a rebuttal.
9.1–8 She returns, but won’t begin her story in full until 13.1.
11.7 “Hoarded syllables”: Latin, with its quantitative prosody, lends itself to mouthy, self-satisfying utterance. Sophronios wrote in Greek.
16.1–8 The poet, progressing south, becomes insistent, interruptive.
19–20 The inkling of a dialogue. She will anticipate him in 21.1.
19.1 “sumptuous destitution”: Richard Wilbur’s phrase for Dickinson.
19.2 “Tragedy (one poet said)”: the poet is T.S. Eliot.
20.1–4 “of the angels / who cut a son”: The poet—out of self-pity, out of exhaustion—said the following as he put on his scrubs: “I feel like I’m headed into Chernobyl.” The obstetrician’s reply: “Uh uh, honey. You’ve already been through that. This here’s the easy part.”
21.7 (It’s done)”: bolder, more welcome, he is able now to slip answers into her sentence.
22.4 “Lent’s fifth Saturday”: John Berryman, this poem’s silent patron, reminds us that the date can coincide with April 1 (“April Fool’s Day, or, St Mary of Egypt,” The Dream Songs 47).
27.4 “vellum”: calfskin treated for use in early manuscripts. The finest variety was uterine, pages made “from the skins of unborn or stillborn animals” (The Bookman’s Glossary).
28.5–8 Her coyness extends into the afterlife. Sophronios writes of them reciting the Lord’s prayer, and when “the prayer [had] come to an end, according to custom she gave the monk the kiss of love on his mouth” (trans. Maria Kouli).
30.2–3 “I need to hang up”: Barthes’s point here relates (unsurprisingly) to both semiotics and eros. The phone bit is courtesy of Ira Glass (This American Life, episode 514).
33.6 “until Zosimas found”: “He ran up to her and bathed the feet of the blessed woman with his tears, for he did not dare to touch any other part” (Sophronios).
35.6 “basement stacks”: a composite, by now, of Doane Library (Denison University), Rackham Graduate Library (University of Michigan–Ann Arbor), and Stanford’s Green.
37–38 Her final reassurance, lodged in the poem’s coda. The poet returns in full by 39.1.
38.6–7 Я тебя люблю, мой мальчик, мой сын”: Russian, “I love you, my little boy, my son.”
39.7 “St. Mary’s Park, off Crescent”: conveniently, coincidentally, a three-block walk from his home in the neighborhood of Bernal Heights.
40.7 “Talbot and Sophronios”: see Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation (1996), edited by Alice-Mary Talbot. Also of use: The Life of St. Mary of Egypt (1974), edited and translated by Mother Katherine and Mother Maria.

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