Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Kiki Petrosino’s poem “Nursery” appears in the February 2017 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
I’m writing poems about miracles these days, divine transformations. All my life, I’ve caught glimpses of another world, fragments of strange music. At night, as a child, I used to watch Figures crossing my room between realms. And I want to tell you: this other world is very close. A breath, a dream. A hand resting, palm up, on the desk.
I want to talk about what I keep seeing.
In the old story, an Angel appears to a Virgin. He calls her blessed. He calls her full of grace. When the Angel speaks, he pronounces the Word of the Lord, the same Logos that drew constellations from pure darkness and wrung the rain from long scarves of nothing.
The Angel tells this young woman that her Lord is pleased. In fact, He’s already here, coiling like a slow gold chain inside her body.
Fear not, Mary.
The woman’s name is an ancient one. It means “much wished-for child.” But when she becomes the Mother of God, her old name can’t contain her anymore. Mary’s titles begin to knit themselves around her. Queen of Heaven. Holy Mother. God-bearer. Star of the Sea.
Centuries later, in Guadalupe, on the Hill of Tepayac, Mary imprints her miraculous image—that of a pregnant Aztec girl in black maternity belt and royal mantle—onto a man’s poncho.
Dear little son, she tells him. I want you to know who I am.
That December, fresh roses bloom where Our Lady walks. The light radiating from her body turns the dry rocks multi-colored. Millions call her Mystical Rose, Morning Star, House of Gold.
I want you to know who I am.
The name my parents chose, Courteney, derives from Old French. It means “dweller at court,” “courtier,” or “court attendant.” The action of waiting is pressed into the name like a fingerprint in wax. The courtier attends deliberately, with measured steps and sweeping eyes, ever watchful for those habits of grace that will lift him closer to magnificence. In The Book of the Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione puts it like this:
Even as the bee in the green meadows flyeth always about the grass choosing out flowers; so shall our Courtier steal this grace from them that to his seeming have it, and from each one that parcel that shall be most worthy praise.
As a courtier, then, my fate is to hover above the grass like a bee, “choosing out” my own particular flower of grace, always calculating, hedging my bets against the likelihood of making the wrong choice. But Mary simply says yes to her future—that parcel—as it is offered. May it be done to me according to your word, she tells the departing Angel. Perhaps this explains why the words of the “Hail Mary” prayer have such a satisfying transparency to them, a sacred symmetry. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Even today, I like how each part of this sentence resides in its own cup of blessedness, like separating the whites of an egg.
After her yes, Mary receives no more divine visits. The text leaves us to wonder what happens next. Does the unspellable sleep of early pregancy take her down? Is that how yes works?
In my life, yes has come slowly—marriage at 32, no children at 37. In fact, I’m still circling the question of children, my little yes appearing and disappearing, sometimes, from hour to hour. Instead of yes, I address myself to the sacred with more questions. Instead of yes, I just keep waiting. Here’s what it’s like. If I say yes one way, I’ll step into the nursery where my future children sleep. The nursery means motherhood, means diffusing essential elements of my own body into the bodies of others. To enter the nursery means to selflessly divide, and, by division, to multiply the Lord’s goodness, just as I was taught in Catholic school. But when I say yes another way: it’s another room, no children sleeping or waking, just a room I could fill with furniture of my own design, and with more yeses, the dimensions of which I haven’t yet dreamed, but which I could dream, if only I could say yes. It’s clear, in these visions, that neither room is more blessed than the other. There must be some way to merge them, but so far I haven’t figured it out.
I don’t know how to say yes both ways.
The terrifying thing about Mary is that she can appear at any time. She comes to priests and nuns, yes—but also to children playing in the French countryside, and to ordinary people on their way to work. She arrives with signs and medals, gold chains, banners covered with mystical messages. Always, the witnesses are forever changed, their lives swerving in sudden, new directions, like sled tracks in snow.
As a child struggling to fall sleep, I would sometimes concentrate on the palms of my hands, feeling them tingle from the force of my attention. I used to imagine my hands and feet opening into stigmata, as happened to St. Catherine of Siena in 1375. Could I, like Catherine, somehow request that my spiritual wounds remain visible only to myself? Would I really have to become a nun?
Please, I prayed. Don’t come here.
When I visualized the Virgin Mary, she was a white laser beam sweeping the roofline of my suburban Pennsylvania home; a UFO passing over me to abduct another girl. Except: once or twice, I did feel something enter my room. The door moved back on its hinges to allow it—a wisp of a presence—inside. The edge of my mattress dipped, as from a bodily weight, and a Figure, neither kind nor threatening, hovered there. I perceived with certainty that it had a face, tilted in my direction. It waited.
At last it dissolved. An oval of empty air.
When Mary got the chance to call herself something, she chose “handmaid.” It’s a name that seems to come straight from the fairytales I devoured; stories that end in weddings, in chambers bursting with spun gold. And the miracle of the Magnificat is, precisely, one of transformation: in pronouncing herself “handmaid,” Mary becomes the very message she accepts. Surrender, dissolve. Dissolve, surrender. The much-wished-for-child bears a child, Himself much-wished-for.
Still, at 37, I don’t know if I want to surrender just yet. I flyeth always above the question, choosing out possible replies.
Every spring at my childhood church, there was one day when the older girls would enter in procession, wearing crisp white dresses and new shoes. From our pews, we all sang hymns of devotion that we never sang at other times, courtiers to the majesty before us.
My soul magnifies the Lord / and my sprit has rejoiced in God my savior.
At the perfect moment, one specially-chosen girl would place a lush circlet of fresh flowers on Mary’s statue. I was never chosen for this ceremony, but I leaned into the image nevertheless. Even now, some deep part of me cranes forward to touch the hem of a Queen I can’t quite see. She is disappearing. She is just arriving.
I want you to know who I am.
Poet Kiki Petrosino was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the daughter of an African American mother and an Italian American father. She earned a BA from the University of Virginia, an MA in humanities from the University of Chicago, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author...