Chapel of Relics

Matthew Alderman

The glacial white paint comes peeling away
From the monumental doorframe,
Peeling away in great strips like some fabulous
Undiagnosed disease:
And the columns all around are cold and mottled,
Pale and dead and grey.
I stand at the grate,
Looking in through holy prison-bars
Rich with swirling ironwork arabesques
Moorish Palermo turned baroque.

And I, John, saw underneath the altar the souls of the martyrs,
And I heard them cry out in a loud voice.

Within and above, beyond my reach,
Dingy coffered vaults rose,
Marked with complex leprous decay:
Chalky plaster walls harshly lit
By dim lavender electricity
That spilled forth
From two little bulbs
Screwed unceremoniously into
Two hanging lamps that seemed like armored flowers,
Two hanging lamps on hanging chains
With links like thorny spikes.

And I, John, saw underneath the altar the bodies of the martyrs,
And I heard them sing out in a loud voice.

The floor was marble,
A marble chessboard,
Like the gridded Roman Empire of Maxentius and Nero
And tyrant Diocletian,
Moving his legions round like polished-steel pawns
From Split to Mesopotamia and back again.
Moving his martyrs round like pawns
To back those huddling followers of Chrestus
Into a bloodied and obscure corner of the arena
Floored with sand and animal dung.

Like the round floor of the Pantheon,
The martyr’s temple with its mappamundi pavement,
The martyr’s temple which was once a cenotaph to
The martyr-slayers, that polycephalic beast whose heads
All bear the names
Of blasphemy: Augustus and Caesar and worse.
But the pavement bore instead, an emaciated lapidary text,
And I heard an innocent little voice, slain by Herod in Judaea,
Sing it, Custodet Dominus omnia ossa eorum.
Guard all our bones, O God,
That You once knit into a sacred frame,
That You brought to life from earth dry as dust,
That You once counted, one-by-one, on Calvary.
That place of Adam’s skull.
Not a bone of His will be broken.

And I, John, saw underneath the altar the bones of the prophets,
And I heard them sing out a macaronic prosody,
A sequence for the dead.

At noon, we remember, in fading, blurry days,
Days when sun and moon were dark together,
And forsook ordained ways,
We saints came forth from our tomb:
Our whitened broke-open tomb,
Flowing forth as if vulned by a lance
A jagged stream of amniotic fluid, a Mosaic womb,
Not knowing why or how of this magic happenstance:

Or how, while prey to Satan’s windy powers
Suspended in the air
Between heaven and earth,
Our King gave birth to His Spouse,
Our Mother, birthed after our own birth,
Our new Mother, with the dark and beautiful face
Of old and sweet Synagoga, where ere long we had nursed.
And those tombs still stood,
Their dormitories and depositories until Judgment Day,
Gilded wooden arks, tents and houses
A hundred bristling reliquaries or more,
Atop sacristy consoles, rich with dust and holy decay,
Atop plinths and altars
Dark dappled green
And marbled orange like martyr blood.

And I stood and studied
And waited in the quiet,
With neither eclipse nor earthquake
To rend my mental veil.
They were silent now,
The silence of the living, not the dead,
Of bodies waiting to be glorified
And luminous souls above,
Silently resting in their
Dilapidated houses of gold and towers of ivory.
Silently resting
In six great chests on either hand, raised up on eagles,
On cloudy carven puff-faced cherubim, scarlet faces faded to coral.
Their homes were worked in oak, worked in tarnished silver
That threw off pink and gold like mother of pearl,
Faced with hexagon-wired glass or paneled gilt.
They were tinged with candelabra, once vibrant and beautiful
But acid-ate with dripping drying wax.

(Flames: pyre upon pyre, and crosses set alight, the cries of Yhesus, Yhesus:
Their screams could be heard on every hill in Rome).

The paint was faded, the gold winking and forgot,
The style was
Crude and thick, naïve, more Romanesque
Than Sicilian baroque.

This disused and sacred curio cabinet—
Here, higgledy-piggledy, three cloudy little tubes with splinters of bone
(Will these bones live?)
There a shriveled whole hand
That might have caressed a holy cheek,
That might have blessed a marriage and a death,
Hidden (gruesomely?) in a glass-sided gold-plate tin
Set nonchalantly on the shelf, as in a plastic supermart
Next to a pile of dusty pamphlets or a blackened skull or two.

A skull or two that caged miraculous thoughts.

And I, John, saw underneath the altar the bodies of the martyrs,
And I heard them sing out in a loud voice, and ask: How long?

This disused and sacred curio cabinet—
Cluttered with statues with star-ringed heads and arched baroque crowns
That stand stranded on the walls atop rococo brackets,
This disused cabinet,
Swarming with grace,
Swarming with dingy grace for the taking,
But rusty from neglect.
Their houses gone to seed,
Wild once-gleaming finials
Topped with tin saints and bronze trumpeter-angels
Reduced to impious gewgaws in tourist eyes.

(And I, John, saw underneath the altar the bones of the virgins,
And I heard them weep.)

On the low marble altar at the chapel’s head,
Lit with two cheap and inconstant electric flames,
Stood another grand reliquary, both cabinet and bed,
Ringed with frantic silver bishops
Throwing benedictions left and right
At the heap of ostensories below them piled upon the candle-rails
Fragile gilt-metal flowers of martyrdom
Or upright mirrors on stands,
For us to glimpse both heaven and memento mori
At once.
And behind
Stood stagnant glass-front armoires lined with still-rich red,
Looking like velvet hangings on the dying wall,
Full of scores of forgotten saints and holy dead, holy living,
Our friends and relatives above,
More real than we are.

Any flowers left here are dead and dried and unremembered,
A profane gift for these forgotten living souls.

(And I heard an infant’s voice ask: How long?)