After the Feast of the Body of Christ

(I’ve revised this since receiving some excellent comments. Here’s the new version.)

The curtain falls. Mass exit, and we’re free,
still drunk with drama, working out the last
bleak scenes of the profoundest tragedy.
Thank god we didn’t have to face the cast.

We see each other wide-eyed and betrayed
like gut-shot infantry. “That was some play.”
Off to the car! It’s not that we’re afraid
of showing feeling, but we just can’t stay.

This passion play’s most soul-defining moments
we’ve just begun to act. The show goes on.
The clergy swallow their distaste for Romans
and call for them to pound the brambles on.

Someone will stand for Peter and deny him.
Will someone play his mother and stand by him?

(For the record, here’s the original.)

The curtain falls. Mass exit, and we’re free,
still drunk with drama, working out the last
bleak scenes of the profoundest tragedy.
Thank god we didn’t have to face the cast.

We see each other wide-eyed and betrayed
like gut-shot infantry. “That was some play.”
Off to the car! It’s not that we’re afraid
of showing feeling, but we just can’t stay.

This passion needs more work to reconcile it
with our real lives. Therefore the show goes on.
No one likes Romans, but we need a Pilate.
Who’ll play high priest? Who’ll pound the brambles on?

Someone must stand for Peter and deny him.
Someone must play his mother and stand by him.

© 2010 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons

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About Greg Bryant

I teach writing and literature at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas.
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18 Responses to After the Feast of the Body of Christ

  1. Robert McPherson says:

    Very nice Greg. Impressive. I would like to read more of your work.

  2. bryon says:

    “Mass exit” indeed. I haven’t seen this play, but I know the feeling you evoke so well of not looking to the right or left, not talking to the cast. And then there’s the problem of bringing something profound into our mundane lives. The profound can be inconvenient; it doesn’t always fit well. “Therefore the show goes on.” How to assign the roles? How does this experience of the profound affect how I see the others in my life (and perhaps how I see myself)? The poem asks all the right questions. And scans well, too. I enjoy(ed) this.

  3. Julie says:

    I can see and hear the exclamation point in line seven, which is quite an accomplishment. This is just excellent.

    So, Pilate washed his hands. And we, the reading/watching audience, are the Jews. And, like them, we are all (silently) yelling “Crucify him,” which was actually written into the Catholic mass for centuries…which in turn led to centuries of pogroms…perhaps even to the Holocaust…But, Peter, Jesus, the high priests, and Mary were all Jews. Hmm. I need to think about this one some more.

    • Greg says:

      Julie, here’s some background as you think about it: in late September/early October, the Unified Theater Company (a students-and-community-members group) rented the HCC theater and performed Corpus Christi by Terrence McNally, a play that compares the ostracism and persecution of Christ with the modern popular ostracism and persecution of GLBTQ people. The play’s central metaphor is a young gay man named Joshua living in Corpus Christi, Texas, sometime in the 1950s or 60s. He preaches tolerance and love, gathers disciples, is arrested and crucified. The play’s theme, unquestionably clear to all who saw it, was anti-bullying, pro-tolerance, and especially pro-love.

      My poem alludes to an aftermath of this play’s presentation at HCC. A couple of weeks after the production, three clergymen(one was Father Rod) and some of their flocks went to the HCC board of trustees meeting and protested, demanding the college apologize to Christians, and that it institute some kind of protocol to prevent such messages from ever being performed again in that taxpayer-funded facility. The cast of the play attended the meeting and listened respectfully without comment. None of the protesters had seen the production. They knew all they needed to know.

      A spate of letters and editorials in the Troy Kansas Chief over the next few weeks brought out even more vitriol from some Christians and a surprising amount of kindness and sense from other Christians and citizens. Someone called for the resignation of almost everybody at the school. I had a letter in there somewhere, praising the production and suggesting the students were doing what we have taught them: use their talents for goodness and light.

      The administration and board later clarified that this was a First Amendment issue and that the play was not a college-sponsored event, but that they would review their policy with the advice of their lawyer. This they did, but I have not heard the outcome. The board and admin have responded admirably so far and I expect they will continue to do so. It really is a clear-cut case of free speech.

      What I thought was interesting is that the churches, once again, predictably, came down on the wrong side when they jumped off the fence. Their high priests, normally hostile to government, appealed straight to the highest authorities at the school — the closest they could find to Pilate — to get whoever was responsible crucified.

      I have a copy of the play if you want to borrow it to read sometime. It’s very good, often funny, a little raw in some of its humor. The crucifixion scene, of course, is pretty disturbing and violent, though not gratuitous.

  4. Julie says:

    Thanks for the detailed background. I guessed the nuts and bolts from a conversation I had with a friend.

    Your poem makes not only the situation clear, but expands it to universally encompass all scapegoat type situations.

    What I’m pondering is what the consequences are for the audience/crowd/readers. Non-violent resistance depends upon the crowd to realize how reprehensible their actions are, and to change them. What we psychologically are seeking is not Pilate, but a way to bring our guilt and shame into the light of day, get rid of it, and supposedly clear the path for acting better in the future. But when we see our innermost sins/desires/thoughts/injustices reflected in broad daylight, it scares the crap out of us and so we have to kill it in order to maintain some sense of normalcy, and pretend innocence to save face. Historically it seems that those who resist and yell the loudest are generally the ones with the most guilt.

    I guess what it comes down to is, it seems to me like maybe there’s an even more profound direction that lines 11 and 12 might be able to insinuate. Or do they already? Am I making any sense at all?

  5. Greg Bryant says:

    Yes, you’re making sense to me. I see lines 11 and 12 reflecting all the things we do that are more like crucifying Christ than emulating him. It just never fails to amaze me how Christians, when presented with a challenge either to respond with love or to lash out, manage to pick the wrong response so much of the time. They jumped on that theater troupe with both feet, very hatefully, because of the threat to their image of the kind of guy Jesus was. They’re willing to let slide certain inaccuracies and pretenses about his historical reality; portraying him as a sandy-haired Anglo-Saxon, for example, sold Sallman a lot of paintings. Everyone knows what Jesus really looked like, so no harm done. But portray him as a 1950s homosexual, even though no one in the cast, audience, or public believes Jesus was gay, and all hell breaks loose.

    There is a scene late in the play, while Jesus is being tortured out of the audience’s view, where a teacher at a Catholic school is scolding and punishing a pupil for having chewed gum during Mass. She makes the little girl put her hand on a table, pulls out a ruler and says, “Whenever you chew gum in Mass, you hurt Jesus!” Then she strikes the girl’s hand — hard. Over and over. And the audience hears Jesus scream every time. the message is pretty clear: Jesus isn’t hurt by the disrespect of the ceremony so much as he is by the hateful treatment of the child. This is what the Christian groups seemed to miss: that using Jesus metaphorically, and in a consciously nonscriptural way, to make a point about love doesn’t hurt Jesus. All they’re doing is using Jesus’s life story to advance the very ideas Jesus lived his own life story trying to advance.

  6. Julie says:

    I’m thinking, “No one likes ___?____, but we need a scapegoat,” instead of a Pilate? Just to open it up, and expand the levels of meaning? As the play itself expanded the meaning of the story of the Christ to reflect it’s universality?

    I hate to even comment on your poems because they’re so well done in the first place, and it makes me feel like a nit-picking perfectionist. I guess I project my ultra-sensitivity onto other people. You have more stamina and courage then I do. I’m rather narcissistic about my creative work: I like to look at it, admire it and stuff it in a box, away from critical eyes and commentary.

  7. Greg Bryant says:

    Uh-oh… lose “Pilate”? But I worked so hard to find a rhyme for it. (Just kidding. And oddly enough, that rhyme was pretty easy.) The thing is, in that line I’m not sure I want to turn the reader’s attention to Jesus. Jesus is in the poem merely as the pronoun “him.” I want to focus on the social and legal machinations we create in order to put away from ourselves the inconvenient and uncomfortable truth of the meanness of our own behavior. Caiaphas used Pilate, and those ministers used the school board. Jesus, the ultimate scapegoat, is the problem we are compelled to deny: We can’t have been so beastly to him. There must have been something wrong with him. (But just in case, we need to team up and get rid of the evidence.) So they really did need a Pilate. They already had the sacrificial lamb: the cast and crew of the play, who volunteered for the part.

    I don’t know. You’re right, I do want it to have a lot of levels of suggestion, but I want to control the direction all the levels move in. But I agree it’s not “opening up” that way exactly. It might just be too message-oriented a poem. Maybe I’ve been reading too much John Milton and not enough Emily Dickinson.

  8. Julie says:

    …what a rich subject for art.

    I see your point. Who actually sentenced Jesus? I thought Pilate washed his hands of the matter? I guess I have focused on other messages and meanings in the crucifixion than the role of Pilate. What you’re saying is a new perspective for me to consider…”The social and legal machinations we create…”

    Maybe I’m reading it wrong. It seems to me like the voice/point of view of the poem changes in lines 11 and 12. The first two quatrains and the last couplet seem to be sympathetic with the play. Almost as if it were you talking. But you would never say something like is said in line 11. Even the first sentence in the third stanza could be read as sympathetic to the play. Really good tragedy does have that WOW effect on people…that nice stunned speechless amazement.

    Your rhymes ARE choice, and I haven’t told you how much I like the way the word “shot” stops the iamb like a bullet in line 6.

  9. Greg says:

    Julie, that’s an excellent thought about lines 11-12. The entire poem is basically sympathetic with the play until line 11:

    No one likes Romans, but we need a Pilate.

    That’s when the speaker begins mocking other members of the public in an ironic tone. Maybe a more consistent voice would be more forthright. That and a few other changes might help clarify the difference between the speaker’s attitude and that of the ones who condemn the play:

    This passion needs more work to reconcile it
    with our real lives. Therefore the show goes on.
    The clergy swallow their distaste for Pilate
    and call for him to pound the brambles on.

    Someone will stand for Peter and deny him.
    –Will someone play his mother and stand by him?

    What do you think of that sestet?

  10. Julie says:

    That makes the last four lines more clear and more powerful. Does line 10 (possibly 9 too?) need tweaked a tiny bit to provide a smoother (harder/angrier) transition?

    • Greg Bryant says:

      Does line 10 (possibly 9 too?) need tweaked a tiny bit to provide a smoother (harder/angrier) transition?

      Now that you point it out, yes, they do. They’re not very vivid. 9 and the first half of 10 are too abstract; about the only valuable word in there is “passion” (unless you count “reconcile it” providing a necessary rhyme).

      I’ll play with them. Thanks for the feedback.

  11. Greg Bryant says:

    Okay — same octave, new sestet:

    This passion play’s most soul-defining moments
    we’ve just begun to act. The show goes on.
    The clergy swallow their distaste for Romans
    and call for them to pound the brambles on.

    Someone will stand for Peter and deny him.
    –Will someone play his mother and stand by him?

    I lost Pilate, of course, but it’s better than a whole slew of alternatives. Whaddya think?

  12. Julie says:

    Oohh…yes. I think that will work quite nicely. It opens up the poem, stays true to the voice, doesn’t lose the rhythm or the rhyme, and keeps the pithy, heart-rending theme.

    Do any of Shakespeare’s sonnets end with questions? Or any other well-known sonnets? And it seems to me like the last line is close to a rhetorical question. Is it? Or, what kind of question would you characterize it as?

    • Greg Bryant says:

      “Do any of Shakespeare’s sonnets end with questions?” I just looked, and there’s only one, #115:

      Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
      Even those that said I could not love you dearer:
      Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
      My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
      But reckoning Time, whose million’d accidents
      Creep in ‘twixt vows, and change decrees of kings,
      Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp’st intents,
      Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;
      Alas! why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,
      Might I not then say, ‘Now I love you best,’
      When I was certain o’er incertainty,
      Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
      Love is a babe, then might I not say so,
      To give full growth to that which still doth grow?

      As for whether my last line is a rhetorical question: I think of it as an actual request, a challenge. “Plenty of people are ready to attack him. Who out there will stand up for love?”

  13. Julie says:

    The reason I asked is that Helen insisted we historically trace other poems in the same genre to see how the contemporary poet differentiated from former poems/poets. Of course, then she wanted us to ask why they were different, and if, how and/or why the poet chose to alter the genre.

    Also, I was trying to teach rhetorical questions a few weeks ago, and it seems they have many more possibilities than I previously understood, as evidenced by the questions my students asked which I could not adequately answer.

    • Greg Bryant says:

      I guess the ending question is rhetorical in that it is used for rhetorical purposes, where rhetoric means using language for effect or for persuasion. I am used to an informal definition of “rhetorical question” as “a question for which an answer is not necessary or expected.” It’s not rhetorical in that sense, because it is an actual plea, but it is rhetorical because the poem is an attempt to persuade the reader to action, and that question is the actual plea.

      I still think the best poetry isn’t rhetorical. That’s the problem with my poems and my songs: they’re didactic. They don’t inspire, they persuade.

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