“The Altar” by George Herbert

Tulips panted against the wall. So much need to feed
a crisp stem, I thought, as we put our fingers
in the bullet holes above the bed. Typed captions translated
photos of Rivera, Kahlo, Trotsky and his wife

in her boxy suit, devoted smile, that hopeful hat
with bent feather below an image of the assassin
who would get her husband in the end. George Herbert was
what I translated, The Temple, the only book I brought,

where he says the heart must be a stone on which
to build God’s altar—no love without affliction:
my hard heart meets in this frame. In those days,
I loved the jungle, spread like wool below

an unsteady sky and the crumbling pyramid’s altar top
flocked with moonlight. I loved the monkeys
throwing sticks and rinds at tourists from their nests
in the trees. The noise at night, the hysterical crush

of insect limbs rubbing, animal want, all night banged
against the window, each with an urgent song of me me me.
How loud the fecund world can be. Mi corazon duro,
I wrote, bored, and smoke rose from other tables,

from the wheels of the cars on the cobbled roads,
and once I saw a mouse, suicidal, enter the frantic
crowd. I cried out at the park in Mexico City
where Indians, ropes on their ankles, dove like

fatal birds to the ground while a Hassid, in his 19th-century
cloak kept after me, Speak English? English? He said,
We’ve all become vegetarians. There isn’t a butcher
for miles. I watched his black hat disappear

into the swarm of vendors, masked dancers. Was that it,
devotion? Young and gorgeous for it, I crept away
one night, met a German hippie and he pulled my swimsuit
aside in the volcanic lake. The fat Costa Rican’s coffee plantation

unfolded below, the ranging packs of filthy dogs, the water
so hot and sulfured I gleamed like something ephemeral.
Sometimes I saw movies, cheap Hong Kong action films
dubbed into Spanish with Mandarin subtitles. But that started

to get difficult, the young men dying with extravagance,
the improbable ballet of whizzing swords, gun fights
in teahouses filled with caged birds. Herbert,
consumptive and small country parish-bound,

wrote that struggle must be the same as resolution,
as faith itself, while he suffocated in his sad minister’s bed,
for years arguing with God and himself. It’s the uglier
business, willing yourself from despair to belief.

In those days, I thought the saints, robes heavy with must,
with ancient, gnarled hands, deserved the nothing
they felt their way toward. In those days, my favorite saints
were the ones who burned away young—I admired them

in the cathedral paintings, hooded eyes, the brutal
wings of their ribs, gilt halos, baroque frames. What does it mean,
devotion? Mothers weep in the corners of those paintings
while a man, each morning, sweeps the church floor.

More Poems by Connie Voisine