POEM FOR GENE WOLFE – On the Occasion of His 80th Birthday

by Red Cell via Jerry Friedman

Written on the occasion of Science Fiction luminary Gene Wolfe‘s 80th birthday, this poem by Jerry Friedman employs an eclectic blend of literary technique and styles. Be sure to read the author’s notes at the bottom of the page for more information.

Chris Romero Walks to Chimayó on Good Friday

I’m passing by the church in Santa Cruz.
What angles give the most artistic views
Of slant adobe? Clouds are blown aside;
Shadows of cedars lie in line like pews.
I face the mountains, think of how I lied
To Angelique when I was feeling fine
Enough to study math, the sinful pride
With which I say every sarcastic line
Over Sev’s head, though he can surely tell
I’m mocking him. Forgiveness is divine—
I find it difficult. Our numbers swell
Where each lane enters, slow cars, families.
I alone am walking alone. The spell
I cast shadows me with its penalties.
Here comes the wind with a few flakes of snow.
Somewhere men—you can tell they’re on their knees—
Are singing, “Cuando tu cuerpo espiró
Y salió de tu alma bella
En figura de una estrella
Derecho al cielo subió.”

St. Francis, free of his wounds, listens as hard
As to a lark. A Narnia lands to stay a
While on my jacket (sloe-black, safety-barred
With rowan-orange), in which I hunch as beneath
A hedge, hardly breathing, barely a yard
From a lane between green barley and a heath.
I hum a tune, then stop; a young Man walks
Loudly toward me. We turn, hearing a wreath
Of corn-cockle shake. There among the stalks
Crouches a little… well… a Hobbit-lad.
“Good Lord!” I cry. (Not A la ve’?) He gawks;
We gawk. “Please, sirs, don’t tell no one. My dad
Would wallop me.” He turns. The man says, “Wait!
What are you?” I’m quiet so I won’t add
Pressure, fear—but he doesn’t hesitate
To tell what hobbits are. “When did you folk
Start living here?” I ask. He stands up straight.
“Before the kings came. Gammer says yon oak
Is younger than us.” “I’ve an interest
In old times.” “We remember when Men spoke
Forgotten tongues.” The man’s struck dumb. “A quest,”
I say, “an ancient song or story— are
Some living now?” He boldly pipes, “’Tis blest,
The hearthlog’s golden light,/ But lift the bar,
And look afar./ Out in the cold you see
Tonight/ The trees, the gem, Ëarendil’s star.”
“My God! You know Ëarendil?” “Come with me,”
The hobbit says, “and read in Gaffer’s book.”

Jealous, I wish I could accompany
Their walk to cozy sand-banks of the brook
Hand in hand, content as next to a girl
Who with an airy tone and sidelong look
Mentions she left work early. Entrails whirl
As I remember something different. Was
She with that smiling stocker? Like a churl
I can’t help asking. “Why?” she pouts. “Because
I care.” “’Cause you don’t trust me.” Everything
Is dull, I’m dizzy, visualize his buzz
Haircut, his arms with snake tattoos. I fling
Her hand away. The mouth I cherish gets
Twisted stiff. “So what? Nothing’s happening.”
Cabrón, so you were with him.” She glares. “Let’s
Just pick a movie and go.” “You can pick.”
Romantic comedy. My stomach sweats.
“I’ll just stay home. I feel a little sick.”
It’s true. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine, I’m sure.”
“Can I do anything?” “Enjoy the flick.”
I drop her off. Her hips’ joyful allure
Disappears as she shuts that heavy door.
Math is just a temporary cure.
She’s laughing at the movie’s ending, or…

I read my trusty book till time for bed.
My neck burns. I can’t guard my thoughts, and more
Imagined love scenes shuffle through my head
In lockstep till the Man clunks shut the lock.
Each white-walled minute weighs me down like lead.
Alone with lonely cons who fill the block,
I don’t have anything but stink and grime.
They’re watching—I can’t even stroke my cock,
And all I can remember is my crime
Inside the oubliette of cubic steel.
They say that writers should take risks. It’s time
For the bull to bring me a disgusting meal
And for blues: Lyin’ an’ thinkin’ up a lie
Lyin’ here, thinkin’ up a lie
Bald-faced as eagles in the sky.

Rhyme is like two friends. The tune has the feel
Of Matachines. You can watch a guy
You know dancing in a mask, and not
Recognize Sev who steps, turns, passes by
My cell, rabbit-punches the guard. He’s got
The key. I’m out. The guard’s grip is around
My shin. I kick his head. Keys through the slot
Of the next cell bring a wordless happy sound.
“Bro, let me say sorry.” “You’ll get a chance
Later, when we’re out of this dog pound.”
The guard stands up. We get in fighting stance;
He runs. And now what? “Everything’s a code.
A means ox and endless. My favorite romance
Can stand for you.” The running footsteps bode
Recapture. “Ee…”, Sev moans. “E’s meaning is
A fence.” The cursing signifies they’re slowed.
“Short for hijo. H is praying with his
Raised hands, i-j. O is an eye that looks.
Wharves or rail-lines deliver sentences
That someone says in someone’s book. A book’s
A library.” “That’s bad!” I wish he’d said.
“This spot’s bad. You don’t have a pen?” He hooks
(An F) a marker from his pocket. Red.
I write a b-a-D on the rough wall.

It is one, and the dirt path hooks ahead.
A fence, another. Vaulting it, I fall
Right on my ass, on thistles. Donkeys graze
This muddy field, which isn’t far at all
From the Santuario. Holy dirt’s a phrase
Asterisked “hope”. Each glinting, gliding car,
Each walker forms the crowd in all our ways.
Turn east, medics, potties—a bazaar:
Crosses, panocha, water for my thirst.
The mountains look no closer, but they are.
The line is three or four hours long at worst.
I’ll call up Sev. I’ll call up Angie first.

Notes from the Author on the Poem:

The poem also has some features that you might prefer to figure out for yourself. Click here to see what to look for, with answers you can hide or show.

Romero is Spanish for pilgrim. It’s one of the most common surnames in northern New Mexico, a region with a Hispanic majority.

Chimayó is a town in northern N. M., the site of the Santuario de Chimayó, which tens of thousands of pilgrims visit every Good Friday. The “holy dirt” in one room is supposed to have curative properties.

Santa Cruz is a town west of Chimayó; a state road connects them.

Sev is short for Severiano, an uncommon name in northern N. M.

A morada is a Penitente meeting house.

The Spanish lines are from an alabado, a Penitente hymn, in praise of Saint Francis of Assisi. I found it in The Alabados of New Mexico, by Thomas J. Steele.

Narnia is a genus of bug that occurs in the region. The reason for the name is unknown, but it was given long before C. S. Lewis’s books.

A la ve’, a “minced” form of a la verga, is roughly equivalent to “holy crap!” Both the original form and the abbreviation are common in northern N. M., mostly among Hispanic boys and men.

Cabrón is literally “male goat”, hence “cuckold”, but roughly equivalent to “son of a bitch”.

A number of communities in northern N. M. hold Matachines dances around Christmas.

The letter meanings are those of their ancestral Semitic forms, available in lots of encyclopedias, such as A (for which I also had Aleph in mind).

Chris’s favorite romance is The Book of the New Sun. The hero is named Severian, and he grows up in the Matachin Tower as one of the Torturers’ Guild, technically the Seekers of Truth and Penitence.

“Ee” is a common interjection among Hispanic people in the region. The fuller version, hijo, means “son” (and the really full version is hijo de puta or hijo de la chingada, “son of a whore”).

Santuario is three syllables in Spanish, “san-TWA-ryo”.

Panocha in northern N. M. is a Lenten pudding.

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  1. Holy Bordello says:

    Very ecclectic literary style, really good. Found a New Media homage to Gene Wolfe on YouTube a while back, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0EK7ryUy94&feature=youtube_gdata_player

  2. Jerry Friedman says:

    I’m honored!

    Here’s a page of e-mails to Wolfe on his 80th birthday.

    Truth and Penitence force me to admit that I’ve only seen Narnia bugs in fall. The one in the poem must be unnatural or supernatural.

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