Angels Grieving over the Dead Christ

By Gjertrud Schnackenberg b. 1953 Gjertrud Schnackenberg

The epitaphios of Thessaloniki

From those few famous silkworms smuggled
Into Constantinople in the head of a walking stick   
Silk waterfalls
Poured from the ancient bolts

Into now-destitute reservoirs   
Of church treasuries in Aachen,   
In Liège, in Maastricht, in Sens,
In the Sancta Sanctorum of the Vatican,

Bright rivers seeping past
The age when a teaspoonful of   
Silkworm eggs the size of one grain   
Could endow a church,

The age when the letters in the words   
Of sacred testaments were
Unreeled in the coastal cities of Asia Minor,   
When a bookworm conspired

To wrest a maze of empty roads   
Through the words My Lord—
That ancient, flickering text   
Once permanently affixed

By blind but face-picturing, speechless   
But law-breaking wooden shuttles,   
Now a heap of gold wires displayed
With a crumbling silk vestment someone

Plucked from a shovelful of dust
During one of those treasure hunts conducted   
In the burying grounds, in other eras,
A shovelful of dust

Now blowing into your eyes,
As if a storm wind from Paradise   
Blew the rumors of this death
So hard you must cover your eyes

Before the museum case.
The late afternoon tugs
At a gold thread you can hear fraying   
When you close your eyes,

A thread you feel your way along,
A thread at which the invisible globe pulls,   
Leading you to the end of the world   
Where there is a pile of

Clothes stolen from the grave,   
Where your fear is relegated
To a masterwork of silk slaves—
That He is dead.

Here death is only a flash of worlds   
Unfurled from a rifled
Church treasury, and you are invited   
To walk this alluvial wave of gold,

To walk in the labyrinths
Of the angels’ howls,
To run your hands along the walls   
Of the silk thread’s passageways,

To feel with your fingers
The angels’ barbaric, stifled,   
Glittering vowels
Tightly woven with gold wires.

If you were to tug at one,   
Unraveling the angels
Into a vivid labyrinth of thread   
From the fourteenth century

Backwards to the scissors blade   
A seraph takes to a fragile
Filament of gilt
According to a law still unrevealed,

The shroud would disappear   
In the gust of a little breeze   
From this door left ajar
Into the next life,

The threshold we cross with closed eyes—   
Where angels hide behind their backs   
The saws with which they mean
To saw the present from the past,

Oblivious to the scarlet threads   
That prove to be hidden among   
The filaments, those red rivers   
Running through the theme of time

So shockingly—so before you set foot there,   
Take heed. This is the work
Of Byzantine silk slaves confined
To the palace grounds at Constantinople,

And you must beware.
There was a way station
On the Silk Road
Where the authorities executed

Traitors in a wooden box
In innumerable, unspeakable ways.
When you touch this shroud from the east   
You take that hundred feet of road.

You must walk softly past.
You must try not to look.
The torrent of words—later, later.   
Here tongues are cut out,

And that is why the howling   
Is mute,
Gilded, herringboned.
Because although this is death,

It is the work of slaves
Whose task was only
To expose the maximum amount of gold thread   
To the ceiling price of so many nomismata

Per square inch, in a swift mischief   
Of curious knots, of mazes
Flashing past, of straight paths   
Made inextricable,

So look again.
The angels wring their hands   
Over a statue. They are deranged,   
But not by grief. They mourn

Not a body, but a work in bronze.
They do not bring a mortal to the grave.   
But we onlookers who grieve and grieve—
We cannot relegate this thought

To a glory woven cryptically
In heavy silks;
We cannot consign it, sweep it off,   
For we cannot weigh

In our palms the empty cocoons,   
We cannot study
Within the secret workshops   
Of the silkworm,

We cannot touch the boiling   
Water where the spools whirl,   
We cannot learn firsthand   
The bleakness of the craft

With which God made the world,   
We cannot recount the legend that,   
When they met face-to-face, both   
God and the worm laughed.

NOTES: The title is from a description of the Thessalonikian epitaphios in Byzantium, by Paul Hetherington and Werner Forman (London: Orbis, 1983). Hetherington proposes that the epitaphios, an Orthodox liturgical length of cloth, was worn, perhaps, over the heads of priests as they approached the altar to celebrate the Eucharist. The epitaphios of Thessaloniki was discovered in 1900.

both/God and the worm laughed: I have not been able to locate the source of this legend.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg, “Angels Grieving Over the Dead Christ” from “Crux of Radiance” from Supernatural Love: Poems 1976-1992. Copyright © 2000
by Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, All rights reserved. Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: Supernatural Love: Poems 1976-1992 (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000)

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Poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg b. 1953

Subjects Religion, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Money & Economics, Christianity

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 Gjertrud  Schnackenberg


Gjertrud Schnackenberg was born in 1953 in Tacoma, Washington. She began writing poetry as a student at Mount Holyoke College and as an undergraduate earned a reputation as a poetic prodigy, twice winning the Glascock Award for Poetry. Her first two books of poetry, Portraits and Elegies (1982) and The Lamplit Answer (1985), established her as one of the strongest of the New Formalists and confirmed her early promise. Reviewing . . .

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SUBJECT Religion, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Money & Economics, Christianity

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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