By Scott Cairns b. 1954 Scott Cairns

Magdalen’s Epistle

Of Love’s discrete occasions, we   
observe sufficient catalogue,   
a likely-sounding lexicon

pronounced so as to implicate
a wealth of difference, where reclines   
instead a common element,

itself quite like those elements   
partaken at the table served   
by Jesus on the night he was

betrayed—like those in that the bread   
was breakable, the wine was red
and wet, and met the tongue with bright,

intoxicating sweetness, quite   
like ... wine. None of what I write arrives   
to compromise that sacrament,

the mystery of spirit graved
in what is commonplace and plain—
the broken, brittle crust, the cup.

Quite otherwise, I choose instead   
to bear again the news that each,   
each was still itself, substantial

in the simplest sense. By now, you
will have learned of Magdalen, a name   
recalled for having won a touch

of favor from the one we call
the son of man, and what you’ve heard   
is true enough. I met him first

as, mute, he scribbled in the dust   
to shame some village hypocrites   
toward leaving me unbloodied,

if ill-disposed to taking up   
again a prior circumstance.
I met him in the house of one

who was a Pharisee and not   
prepared to suffer quietly
my handling of the master’s feet.

Much later, in the garden when,   
having died and risen, he spoke   
as to a maid and asked me why

I wept. When, at any meeting
with the Christ, was I not weeping?   
For what? I only speculate

—brief inability to speak,
a weak and giddy troubling near   
the throat, a wash of gratitude.

And early on, I think, some slight   
abiding sense of shame, a sop   
I have inferred more recently

to do without. Lush poverty!
I think that this is what I’m called   
to say, this mild exhortation

that one should still abide all love’s   
embarrassments, and so resist   
the new temptation—dangerous,

inexpedient mask—of shame.
And, well, perhaps one other thing:   
I have received some little bit

about the glib divisions which   
so lately have occurred to you   
as right, as necessary, fit

That the body is something less   
than honorable, say, in its   
... appetites? That the spirit is

something pure, and—if all goes well—
potentially unencumbered   
by the body’s bawdy tastes.

This disposition, then, has led   
to a banal and pious lack   
of charity, and, worse, has led

more than a few to attempt some   
soul-preserving severance—harsh   
mortifications, manglings, all

manner of ritual excision   
lately undertaken to prevent   
the body’s claim upon the heart,

or mind, or (blasphemy!) spirit
whatever name you fix upon   
the supposéd bodiless.

I fear that you presume—dissecting   
the person unto something less   
complex. I think that you forget

you are not Greek. I think that you   
forget the very issue which
induced the Christ to take on flesh.

All loves are bodily, require
that the lips part, and press their trace   
of secrecy upon the one

beloved—the one, or many, endless   
array whose aspects turn to face
the one who calls, the one whose choice

it was one day to lift my own
bruised body from the dust, where, it seems   
to me, I must have met my death,

thereafter, this subsequent life   
and late disinclination toward   
simple reductions in the name

of Jesus, whose image I work   
daily to retain. I have kissed   
his feet. I have looked long

into the trouble of his face,   
and met, in that intersection,   
the sacred place—where body

and spirit both abide, both yield,   
in mutual obsession. Yes,
if you’ll recall your Hebrew word.

just long enough to glimpse in its
dense figure power to produce
you’ll see as well the damage Greek

has wrought upon your tongue, stolen   
from your sense of what is holy,   
wholly good, fully animal—

the body which he now prepares.

Scott Cairns, “Loves” from Recovered Body. Copyright © 1998 by Scott Cairns. Reprinted with the permission of George Braziller, Inc.

Source: Recovered Body (George Braziller Inc., 1998)

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Poet Scott Cairns b. 1954

Subjects Religion, Nature, Relationships, Love, Christianity, The Body, Desire, Realistic & Complicated

Poetic Terms Epistle

 Scott  Cairns


Scott Cairns was born in Tacoma, Washington. He earned a BA from Western Washington University, an MA from Hollins College, an MFA from Bowling Green State University, and a PhD from the University of Utah.
Cairns is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Theology of Doubt (1985), The Translation of Babel (1990), Philokalia (2002), Idiot Psalms (2014), and Slow Pilgrim: The Collected Poems (2015). His writing has . . .

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SUBJECT Religion, Nature, Relationships, Love, Christianity, The Body, Desire, Realistic & Complicated

Poetic Terms Epistle

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