If you’ve ever taken the Myers-Briggs Personality Test and found your particular personality type (“Introverted Feeler”) wedged into a margin the size of a needle passing through a camel’s eye, then had the test interpreter tell you, “You’re not a weirdo, you’re a visionary,” and all the while you can’t seem to/don’t want to find a “real” job with a “living” wage, like the manager of a department of “Extroverted Thinkers” unlike yourself, and the world (ah, the world) seems so possible outside the window of your cabin on the farthest spit of beach where you’ve gone to contemplate and perhaps eek out a single line of verse—then, and only then, may you begin to understand the affinity between saints and poets.
I don’t really know what makes poets write about saints, although my theories are legion (see above, for starters). It’s true, though, in paintings you’ll often find a saint holding a book (as poets do) or writing in one (as poets used to do). St. Matthew with his writer’s cramp, St. Euphrasia reading while buildings crumble down around her.
One thing I know for certain: a hefty number of poets have written about saints. More than a thousand books came up on Amazon, some about saints who wrote poems themselves—St. Thérèse, St. Francis (I would add Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, also known as Rumi)—and hundreds by our “secular” poets who have been busy being (ir)reverent, historical, and revisionist regarding the term “saint” since James Wright first canonized Judas in 1959.
Contemporary poets have written about hands-on saints, strangers and saints, singers and saints, St. Brendan, St. Babel, South Dakota saints, the lady as saint, men and saints, drowning saints, practical saints, voodoo saints, burning saints, saints of India, saints that navigate the seas, hysterical saints, and the book I can’t wait to get my hands on: (The) Patron Saint of Eyeliner (Jeremy Reed).
Here’s my all time favorite saint poem by the holy-profane Connie Deanovich (Watusi Titanic):
Requirements for a Saint
think of a saint
and you think
of the incredibly dull clothing of a saint
perhaps extreme temperatures
or the difficult terrain they travel
(everything about a saint draws attention to itself)
think of a saint
and your thought is not
of a train thrusting through lightning
but of wind that smells of wood
or a wet disease
(saint world is the world of the empty hand)
breath is sometimes banged out in copper
and so is a saint
often with bell attachments
I’ll make you a saint
from an unblemished code book
that must be read
in a German restaurant
where beer is served in glasses
wrapped in brown leather
when the cuckoo strikes twelve
this will be the moment
“The moment of ascension”: who can resist it? Sometimes the moment is luminous in its truth: “A pope has not/made us saints we neither want/nor need one to do so…” (Myronn Hardy) And sometimes the moment of ascension is luminous in its sorrow:
Remember seas the salt
that preserved those bodies
washing to shore. They are headless
but have learned to walk climb
coconut palms a green sweet harvest.
How holy they are naked born
in a garden without unnecessary knowledge.
From The Headless Saints by Myronn Hardy, on Africans murdered en route to America.
Poets will be the first to tell you they’re not saints (just as saints would probably tell you they’re not poets). Sure, poets are often unusually contemplative, and sometimes revolutionary in the ways they intuit connections or attempt to articulate the ineffable. I can tell you I’d rather read about being human from a poet than anyone else. Still, most poets just want to write. No arrows, virginity, or hair shirts. Just leave them in their cabins with some food, drink, an occasional warm body, and they’re full of bliss.
Lately I’ve been attracted to saint world again, for reasons I find uncertain and/or unreliable. It began when I ordered Stacey Waite’s new chapbook because the title, the lake has no saint, made me hungry and I had to have it immediately (much like the hunger of a saint, I’m told). The poems inside are heretical. The saint that we’re promised will not be there is not there. The moments of ascension in this powerful little book are luminous in their mystery, the glow of a radical human life, the affinity of a poet for whatever she deems holy.
when during the hail storm, no light
i can not find the bread. i can not find the floorboards or their brown handles. sometimes the lake is more sound than voices or more sound than a paddle entering water. i have a dream she says, i should have loved you, and she pulls green stems from the ground and she leans back into the earth and she asks me to pull down the ladder, to walk up into the light.
(from the lake has no saint, Stacey Waite)
–Maureen Seaton, 12/12/10