About three years ago I was at one of the Met's small exhibits: European art, Christian, precious pieces, all small. One was a crucifix of black alabaster. I am, as I may have mentioned, a preliterate Christian, to quote Bill Moyers in conversation with Campbell (I love the art; cantatas and other sacred music; the complexity and generosity of the Sermon on the Mount; a spirit that transcends church, Church and personality).
My mind was in its usual place, which means I was probably having arguments with myself about doctrine or politics, or wanting to scold a museum patron whose earphones buzzed. There was nothing sanctified about me that afternoon except I was looking at what I love to look at, studying it, moving on eye along every surface, sopping color and texture.
The black crucifix (I know--I have friends who don't even want to hear the word--what does death have to do with kindness and helping the poor?) alone--or the three crosses on Golgotha, was small enough to need to be in a case. Anyway I studied it and I had a sudden flash, Martin Luther King, Jr. I'd read Dreamer, Charles Johnson's novel about Dr. King's last days and two people who are near him--read and recommend. Dreamer is a perfectly flawed book--an imperfect novel that is so beautiful, its imperfections are the scar making the lovely exquisite.
I have trouble talking about Christianity, even though I'm baptized. That may be because I'm half-Jewish and very much so, and it may be for other reasons. I have trouble writing about MLK. That may be because I'm white, and may be because I have common sense, the two being too often exclusive to the other. So whatever. Here is the poem. I'm not sure it's done, but tributes should be in the world, not in my computer.
By the way, I was in northern New Mexico when Dr. King was assassinated. I was a young woman and can't claim to have known a lot, but felt devastated. My memory is of walking along an arroyo in the sunset. It was still cold. I was numb.
A Day to Wear Layers
Me: April cold in dumb dusk
watching the sun’s oxidized carmine rays
crawl a cradling valley.
A day to wear layers
in pretense of self-protection.
Surrealism. Headlines; dispatches.
sculpted graceful beneath your body
stretched black on an ivory cross.
Forty-one years later. Art of the Middle Ages. I see it.
God betrays everyone.
Has, all along.
Hope as skill for living.
And in an icon across the gallery,
a mother lowers thick eyelids.
Lamentation hid from the observing world.
PICTURED: Black Madonna, Spain, not in the exhibit.