Confessions of a blasphemer
The bedtime billboard controversy was only a glimmer in the eye of St Matthews' liberal pastor Glyn Cardy when Michael Arnold e mailed me a month ago from a small Cham Muslim town outside Hanoi and asked me to send him a last-minute contribution to brief, the long-running Kiwi literary journal he has edited expertly for the past year. Michael's performance at the helm of brief has won the journal a wave of new subscribers, as well as a much-appreciated cash injection from Creative New Zealand, but he has had the difficult task of stitching together his latest issue from a series of stuffy internet cafes in Indochina, where he has been preparing to get married to his long-time Chinese-Vietnam-Cambodian partner in a huge and complicated ceremony that will finally begin on New Years Eve.
Michael told me that he needed a text or two to fill a couple of leaky spots at the back of brief #38, so I fired off a poem I had recently written. Admiral Arnold runs a tight editorial ship, so I'm not sure if my piece has managed to evade his reject bin. In the light of the violence and invective that the very mildly blasphemous billboard outside St Matthews has attracted, I almost feel a little trepidation about the possibility of the poem's publication. I'll post it here along with a little self-defence, so that the fundamentalist vandals can be forewarned and, perhaps, disarmed:
Churchgoing (for Nathan and Amber)
The cross was cut from driftwood
dropped on Island Bay:
some pohutakawa that leaned too far
off its cliff, or a kopi trunk washed
northwest from the Chathams.
You sit for a few minutes,
squinting in the rush hour light
a low window barely filters.
You are imagining the resurrection
of the tree - the smooth
tumourous swellings, and the twigs extending
like antennae. The blossom foam,
and viscous leaves.
Outside, beyond the pamphlet rack
and the poured concrete walls,
a diplomatic flotilla floats up the street,
disappears into Mount Victoria.
Christ arrived sometime
after supper. He pitched his tent in kanuka
on the other side of the broken-legged fence
that kept goats out of the churchyard
and off the footy field.
In the morning He walked past the hall
then the chapel, and the infant lemon tree,
pausing to lay hands
on Josh's pregnant tabby.
Christ joined the work bee beside the creek,
swinging a machete someone had saved.
Gorse and thistle were laid low.
At the noon He joined the rest of the boys
beside the chilly bin in the shade.
He rolled a smoke with one hand
and opened his beer with the other.
Nobody heard the sermon
except Josh, who was hanging around the chapel,
and a couple of kids who wandered in.
When it was over He stepped outside
and ascended. The little lemon tree tittered in the wind.
The poem is dedicated to my old friend Nathan Parry, the Presbyterian Minister of Island Bay, and his wife Amber. Ever since we were sixth formers at Rosehill College in Papakura, Nathan and I have conducted intermittent and inconclusive arguments about God, the universe, and the meaning or meaninglessness of life. Over the years our debates have become steadily less intemperate, as Nathan's early fundamentalism has evolved into a tough-minded liberalism, and my atheism has become more muted, in its expression if not its substance.
Unlike some of my more fiercely atheistic friends, I never had religion shoved down my throat as a child. I hardly visited a church until my late twenties. The spectacle of religious ceremony fills me not with the indignation that 'New Atheists' like Richard Dawkins express so eloquently, but with a sort of sad admiration. I admire the ability of believers to defy the vast indifference of the universe that surrounds them, as well as the oblivion that awaits them; I feel sad, sometimes, at the confidence that they carry to their churches and temples, and into their graves.
I wrote a different poem for Nathan and Amber in 2006, after I had the honour of being a groomsman at their wedding in the troubled little town of Whanganui. By the time I'd attended a couple of rehearsals and stumbled through the ceremony my head was full of hymns, chants, devotional poems, and sermons. The faith of the crowd that had turned out to celebrate Nathan and Amber's union seemed vast and invincible and self-evidently justified, and my lonely atheism seemed downright reckless.
The day afer the wedding I wandered up the road to the Whanganui district museum, and found myself in a dim low-roofed corridor called the nineteenth century. Behind the thick dirty glass on one side of the corridor, a wax priest was stepping out of a polystyrene waka tiwai, onto the muddy shore of the Whanganui River at the Catholic settlement of Jerusalem. In the light of a bare flickering bulb the priest's cheeks and chin seemed to glisten with sweat, or with tears, but what held my attention were his robes. Sown, according to the handmade caption pasted to the glass, in the grubby fortress town at the mouth of the Whanganui, they were decorated with a series of motifs that were ambiguously sinuous enough to suggest both the stylised angels and serpents of early Celtic Christian iconography and the endlessly unfurling spirals of classical Maori art.
The cloaked priest at Whanganui reminded me of a carving of the Virgin Mary in the Maori Court of the Auckland War Memorial Museum. When I worked at the museum I was once confronted by a fundamentalist Christian visitor, who wanted to complain about an exhibition on the life and work of the 'Satanic' Charles Darwin. I pretended to placate her by taking her to visit the Maori Madonna; as I had expected, her annoyance turned to outrage at the sight of the tattooed face and flat nose and staunchly pious brow the carver had given to a pillar of the Christian faith. 'That's sacrilegious', my pious guest told me. 'It shouldn't be on display'. The stern Frenchmen who created the Catholic Church of Aotearoa agreed: although the carving was produced in the 1840s, it was not displayed for many decades, and only became famous when it was blessed by Pope John Paul when he visited New Zealand in the eighties.
Like the carving of Mary, the cloaked priest at the Whanganui museum seemed to me to bring together two quite different views of reality. The priest's incomprehensible languages and otherworldly mission must have made him a strange figure indeed in the Upper Whanganui of the ninteenth century, but his garment seemed, like Mary's tattooed face, to evoke the very landscape and culture he was determined to alter.
In 'Whanganui 1873', the prose poem for Nathan and Amber which was published in my 2007 book To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps, I used a couple of incidents common on the Upper Whanganui River in the nineteenth century to try to dramatise the conflict I perceived between the pagan worldliness of traditional Maori culture and the world-denying abstractions of some forms of Christianity:
Reverend Lindauer is ready to begin the service: Panoho and Wiremu lift the vestments onto his hunched shoulders. The cloth is bright green, the colour of sunlight strained through the surface of the river. The boy drowned around a blind bend, behind the lamprey weir, where the undercurrent starts to tire, to turn back, to head for the near bank. Now the river is tapu. Green scum mantles the still water behind the weir.
O Lord, who art in. His voice is hoarse, like the river after rain. He coughs, begins again: O Lord, who art in Heaven. Heaven was a high place, as high as the nimblest boy could carry the bag of bones. O Lord, who art in Heaven. Heaven is a hole filled with dirt and worms. O Lord, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Heaven is green scum mantling the still water behind the weir.
Like the earlier poem I inflicted on the Reverend Parry, 'Churchgoing' seems to dwell upon the gap between the teeming, temporary details of the indifferent world we inhabit and the otherworldly message of the Christian faith. How could the gap between the world and the Word be leapt, in either the pagan nineteenth or the sacrilegious twenty-first centuries? How could an entity as abstract as the Christian God instantiate itself in flesh and blood and mucus and return to an earth like ours? If He did somehow manage to instantiate Himself successfully into this world, would anyone notice his otherworldiness? I may be a middle-class Pakeha living in the twenty-first century, but I feel a sort of empathy with the many nineteenth century Maori who were bewildered by the missionaries' message, and who either rejected it or adapted it to their worldview by constructing their own intricately heteredox faiths.
The church described in the opening stanzas of the poem is based on Wellington's St Joseph's, a building Nathan admires for its modernist design and materials, and on the similarly brutalist Holy Family Catholic church in Te Atatu. St Joseph's has poured concrete walls and a rusted steel cross; Holy Family has poured concrete walls and a cross made from driftwood. The title of my piece is a not-very-subtle allusion to Philip Larkin's famous poem about the 'awkward reverence' he felt, as an atheist obsessed with history and tradition, for holy places. Larkin was a grumpy old racist with terrible taste in jazz and painting, but he did get it right sometimes:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
If Michael Arnold does include my poem in the next issue of brief, I hope the crusaders who took to the St Matthews billboard won't hold a public burning of our little literary journal. Even if they are expressed clumsily, to small or hostile audiences, the doubts of artists and writers are as worthy of tolerance as the certainties of fundamentalists.