Getting there was the penance.
Arriving was like stepping into
a somewhat disappointing heaven
where saints and Virgins looked
real enough but didn't move or speak,
but lived in worlds that could have been
royal mausoleums or giant jewelry boxes or
though the pews reminded you this was
business and not pleasure, now and not
My first shrine: too young to know it
wasn't a playground with kneelers and
statues. That grotto where I enjoyed
lighting candles. A smell like vanilla,
vague charcoal and holy death, and the
beauty of light-wings beating against
ruby glass: those tiny souls trying to
break out of miniature purgatories. I'd
take a long match and with a touch, a
new soul was born. Such power in my hands.
The people at shrines: very young, very old.
Some damp polka-dotted ladies I can now
imagine in Bermuda shorts stalking heavenly
buffets in Miami malls. And nuns, all black
with cardboard-like trim; real-life statues
that never looked sad or quite happy.
I wondered about their world,
and yet I didn't wonder.
Other kids all laced and ribboned and clothed
in purity . . . a type of telepathy going on:
how long you in for?
The shrines of youth--immense yet small,
rhinestones sparkling at the bottom of a
deep dark well.
Late-night benedictions. The gold of candlelight
praising the gold on the altar. Lovely chanting
I couldn't understand and didn't need to. Incense
swarming in my nostrils:
luxurious, deep ebony, ancient,
a scent that stilled the violent spirits for
There is a shrine in the mountains;
a leafy sanctum just below the clouds--
a river cuts through it, cuts twice:
the earth like acid, my boredom like a
And in those days the sky was endless
dessert too sweet for this world.
And a smooth white Jesus greeted the
pilgrims with open arms as if to say,
place your pain here, upon this chest,
here is the secret place injustice hasn't
How wonderful if the sky absorbed all
the world's pain the way a lake draws
the sky into its luminous soul, if pain
was some sort of prayer and
didn't merely collect in the air like
fumes and cleverly asphyxiate the world
Prayers flow upwards, reach higher places.
Prayers are the evaporated cares of
How wonderful if pain was more than just
evil's grandest shrine.
The shrines of my blossoming years:
noticed the clothes the women wore and
antique frescoes of pastel apostles,
The Judgement Day when God will sort
out those like us and those like them.
Shrines were now museums where I learned
about fashion, art and fear.
Left home in '79.
Out there was a big shrine
of reality waiting,
a playground with offices and
Though I found it a rather
And I became a pilgrim
searching for a place
where howling words don't come
out in the night, where something
grander than life, like the sight
of Renaissance cherubs, the scent
of sable smoke, a tiny burst of flame,
can take me home.