Human Cathedrals by John Sweet
(Ravenna Press, Washington, 2002)
Crucifixions Without Crosses, Resurrections
Under the steeples of John Sweet’s Human Cathedrals
Human Cathedrals assumes a certain firmness of tone, one that can be mistaken as mournful deliberation that precedes rebellion, or rebellious action. There are many passages that can illustrate this argument; but one particular passage stands out, because of the intertwined vein of courage and casualness that flows beneath its rhythm: “[o]f all the/words i own/the one i refuse/to say is/god” (58). The strongest phrases in this stanza, at least for me, are ‘i own’ and ‘i refuse’; the phrases are declarations of ownership, and a categorical declaration of something toxic in religion. The subject in question is contained in three-letter word: god. It’s crucial to underline the number of letters in the term ‘god,’ because three in Christianity stands for Holy Trinity, the sacred trio of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, summed into one Godhead.
Now quite coincidentally -- on the book’s cover -- in the black and white photograph of an old art deco building in Seattle is a suggestion of this trio; it’s a carved image in the building’s façade, of what appears like three stems: in the middle is a taller stem and to its left and right are two identical stems. On the other hand, while this image of three-some is, unavoidably, loaded with religious connotations, its presence above the title creates an ironic and un-iconic relationship with the title, because the idea of ‘human cathedrals’ presents a subversive platform; cathedrals ought to be juxtaposed on equal hierarchy with holy elements, not the one element that is beneath the sacred: the human.
Thusly, this image of three-some in the cover and the tension it creates with the title presents a gesture that frames the collection’s imagination: that the spectre of organized religion hangs over this collection like halo, not halo of sainthood, but rather that of moral introspection. In this regard, the poems in this collection become a sort of journey into the circulatory system of emotive introspection and examination, a system that doesn’t necessarily constitute or structure unified cathedrals of a specific community but rather distances itself -- as opposed to creating barriers of resistance -- from the notion of cathedrals, of structured and organized belief systems.
In many ways though, the poet’s sense of distantiation from these belief systems -- quite confidently suggested in the refusal to say the word ‘god’ -- can be viewed as the kind of distantiation hoped, exercised, or even forced among members in a family caught in a state of falling apart out of each other. Injecting the idea of family in this discussion is not incidental nor modestly relevant but rather critical, because when one discusses moral intimacies that implicate religion and religious beliefs, one steps into realms wherein the familiar becomes familial. In organized religion, belief functions as blood-line among believers; belief then, becomes critical indicator of kinship.
Now representations of distantiation, in the context of family, are often easy to recognize in amplified and theatrical simplifications: movement from one geographic location to another, absence in usual social gatherings, refusal to accept certain phone calls, refusal to assume connection with certain organizations, or, of course, explicit confession and iteration of commitment or non-commitment on something. On the other hand, when one asks to what extent these representations measure depth of separation, one starts to talk about degrees of separation, because of complexity in the process of separation. Members from any form of family-unit severing membership from that family are often aware of this complexity, because memories about being part of that unit cannot easily be severed.
The voice in this collection comes from that sort of family member, one who has tried to sever ties from a family called Christianity. This collection’s first poem convincingly takes us into that mind-space in “waiting for the day to begin”; and there are, at least, two families suggested that are intertwined here, that of the author’s and Christianity itself:
this is three degrees below
and waiting for the
day to begin
am waiting for the baby
to wake up
for objects to solidify
cast shadows and i am
waiting for christ’s name to pour
like black blood from the
mouths of priests (2)
Something about this passage is almost like a chant for Christmas celebration without lights, or perhaps one transported along the River Styx. Christmas, as we know, celebrates the birth of the Christian messiah. In this birth a Savior has arrived, whose too-familiar story resists biography and history, but rather prefers to define doctrine, one that frames and colonizes world-views.
Now the gothic beauty painted in this passage rests not so much on the stand-in for baby Jesus, but rather on the baby’s duality, both as baby Jesus and the author’s son. But baby Jesus doesn’t wake up here. There is a wait, a long wait, a very cold one that takes us into the number three again, the trinity: “[…]three degrees below / zero”; this temperature somehow suggests the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are submerged below zero: frozen, powerless. No promises of messiahs here; baby Jesus appears dead. But what seals or unifies the darkness in this passage is the voice’s aspiration: “I am / waiting for christ’s name to pour / like black blood from the / mouths of priests.” The scene summoned is now the Holy Communion, the heart of Christian-church services, wherein the priest delivers the body and blood of Christ to the congregation, to God’s people, symbolically, through bread and wine, the ritual of transubstantiation. Furthermore, the idea of Holy Communion is not unique to Christianity; it has a secular dimension. Symbolism has, indeed, preserved the idea and drama behind the secular origins of the Holy Communion, sanitizing the bloodiness and violence involved in the culinary ritual: the taking in of body and blood of a human subject: cannibalism. Thus, the Holy Communion as simulacra of civilized and highly-dramatized cannibalism is holy because the body involved is not that of an ordinary human subject but that of God in human-form: Jesus; his body is the cleansing agent for the bodies and souls who take him. But then when one associates or equates the name of Christ with ‘black blood’, one stops thinking about blessings, but rather contamination, of something viral about the sacred. The equation of Christ and ‘black blood’ flowing out of the ‘mouths of priests’ further emphasizes the vampiric element and nature of the Holy Communion, not from the context of congregation but among priests themselves. Instead of being able to drink the blood of Christ first, before sharing that blood to their congregation, the priests reject Christ’s blood, and vomit it out. The vomited blood is black. The voice in the poem is waiting for this impurity, somehow expecting its flow as form of celebration; it’s not a nice vision of Christianity, because it renders Christ’s blood as toxic, and that the men who preach his gospel somehow have had enough of him, and cannot ingest and digest him anymore in their souls.
John Sweet walks on dark terrains, in this collection, without blinking. Released in 2002, within a year after September 11, 2001, Human Cathedrals can stand as epitaph for things in the human condition, too many to enumerate.
Michael Caylo-Baradi lives in Southern California. His work has appeared in Eclectica Magazine, elimae, Kartika Review, Mannequin Envy, Otoliths, Underground Voices, PopMatters, and forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle.