Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Circle of Bones

As you go ahead of me, yellow steeples silhouetted above you,
through a plaza with its pigeons and little children selling crafts,
through intricate-carved cedar doors, arched hallways,
past walls of holy paintings, reliefs of saints, each covered in gold leaf,
through a courtyard filled with brilliant slow light,
and into the ornate colonial cathedral, I follow,
and as you go down below all this, into half-dark,
small and slender, half-turning to me in quietness and knowing
out of the straight-falling bright black of your hair, I follow.

I go down an enclosed narrow stairway of rough stone,
into a tunnel, crouching but hitting my head, drawing blood --
the air the breath in the mouth of the dry sand and stone --
and I follow farther through the turn of a second tunnel, a third,
until we reach a storage-way, a footledge along a wall,
to the side of us large open wooden boxes that hold stacked human bones,
and after this, open vaults in the earth that hold piled human skulls.
I follow still farther, down more steps, through a final tunnel
until we walk out into the deepest and largest chamber.

In front of us is a white core, a cluster of about a dozen skulls.
Around the core, as if issuing out in every direction,
are leg bones laid side by side touching at the joint ends,
white rays emanating out to a circular band, two skulls thick --
then an extension, an expansion, a second set of bones, twice as numerous,
then a second ring of skulls, the completion of a corona.
You explain to me that it was all arranged in this way
by a discoverer of the catacombs, and kept this way,
with an enclosure built around, and no one can say why.

The mass graves those who would lie in them were told to dig,
the dirt crypts into which the human corpses were bulldozed
tumbling over and under one another like adult rag dolls
but with skeletons sticking out of the starved bodies, dead eyes staring --
images of these come piercing into me, then disappear.
This half-lit cemetery beneath a church, this collection of bone
centuries ago divested of flesh, the flesh vanished into a now-scentless air --
if uncovered and re-excavated with expert care, how is it
it was re-ordered into a radiating sphere if not out of spontaneous love?

It is like a Tibetan monk's container of essences --
that art performed by the devoted and meticulous, that months-long work
placing coloured particles of sand on a design set on a platform,
completed only to be erased, only to be deliberately swept away,
every particle of sand poured into a river or stream.
Except, in the hard, solid substance, in the colour no colour at all,
of its host of skeletal pieces, it is known
as nothing else is in the play between us and what sweeps us away,
and made to stay, and made of what has stayed of forgotten ones.

All these hundreds of eyeholes that flashed in the light
when they held living eyes, when they opened into the blackness of pupils,
have been taken up in an eye radiating in the direction of the sun
that once shone on the skulls' flesh -- and is still burning in this eye,
in its each carbon cell, like an awakening one seeing nothing but the first light.
And as you go ahead of me, and as I come around alongside you,
we stand gazing with eyes that are our only maps, and are the maps
of this eye that has been waiting for us and will gather us in
and show itself to us as us, this bone sun, this circle of bones.

Church of San Francisco catacombs,

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