Original Poetry: The Mary Variations

incarnationGoing through some old notebooks, I found a sequence of poems I wrote about five to seven years ago. I didn’t title them collectively at the time; I now call them The Mary Variations. I was inspired by a statue of a strangely exultant Virgin Mary I saw in front of a church on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles in 2012; a photo I took of this statue can be seen at left. The first poem, “An Incarnation,” was published in the literary journal Atomic in 2015; you can still read it here. I never sought publication for the other three. The concept of the sequence is that Mary returns to earth, to the flesh, and lives essentially the life of a humanities graduate student in Los Angeles. The speaker of all four poems is the Devil—also a lumpen intellectual—who keeps encountering her around the city and either draws her into debate or is inspired to reflection by her presence. I post the entire sequence below (I’ve altered the lineation of “An Incarnation” since its appearance in Atomic), and I hope you enjoy!

The Mary Variations

by John Pistelli

1. An Incarnation

The Blessed Mother stumbled off
a pedestal on Wilshire Blvd.
She lowered arms once raised
in hysterias of praise.
A band of schoolgirls
bought her Korean barbecue and
pink drugstore flip-flops
for feet no longer stone.
She told me all this the other day
when I found her sitting alone
in the back of a café, drinking
black coffee and then chai tea.
She snaked a pinkish strand of hair
around one God-pointed finger
while staring at her phone,
trying to bring into focus
a a text of Saint Paul’s. She said,
“I’m just crashing from the Adderall.”

2. Portraiture

Whoever draws the devil
does the church’s work.
The Queen of Heaven was drawing me
across the aisle of the city bus:
I could tell from the swing of her hair
over her furtive eyes
and the shake of her gold leaf
earrings on her painted cheeks
as she crossed and crossed again
the rough paper grain,
weaving a net of her own
to catch the curve of my spine,
and the flecks of fire in my eyes.
She swore quietly after
a pothole jostled her line.
“Sister,” I wanted to say,
“Don’t catch what you can’t keep.
Your wish for city strangers
will later appear naïve
when you learn what I found out
years ago, but which, alas,
the church has yet to learn:
looked at with the proper eye,
that which you have already
is already every kingdom.”
Taking no more pleasure
in being made a mere example of,
a horned reeking horror
meant to scare the wary,
I pulled the cord and
stood up straight to go, or tried to,
swaying in the wavering aisle.
“Wait!” she screamed and also stood,
a pendant lemniscate
shaking out of her hair and collar
to glimmer in the hollow at her throat.
I waited for her to explain
what she could want
with me in this late age.
We rocked together over pitted streets.
She tore the sheet from her book
and presented me my portrait.
Her painted lips didn’t smile.
“I give them all away,”
she said and sat back down.

3. The Western Canon

The Holy Blessed Virgin
was earning her degree.
I saw her again in the atrium
of the central public library.
My mood was low and nasty
because a 10-dollar bill
tendered as change
had slipped on the wind
from my pocket to the street
where it would be used, I was sure,
to inflame the livers of the poor.
This loss inspired me,
when I spied her, to try
her, to defile her, to force her off
her moral balance, her counterpoise
sustained by one foot at rest
on the serpent’s cursed neck.
I trailed her to her carrell
and eyed the spines of her books:
Spinoza and Hegel,
Voltaire and Rousseau.
“Oh sister, whatever do you think
you are trying to do? Learn
all of those things that they kept
from you?” She said, “My friend
John said that education
is the curriculum you run through
to catch up with yourself.”
“But why bother, sister?
Why not just live? Make life
your vocation! You will anyway,
and then devise reasons later:
the curriculum is only ever a justification.”
“What you say isn’t wrong,
though it’s spoken like a man,
and it’s what I used to think too,
back when I was a mother:
get up, get dressed, don’t ask why.
And a mother’s questions, of course,
are driven out by her fears.
But that one son of mine,
oh, you know the one,
the one who didn’t want
your money or your mountaintop,
he gave me the most trouble,
but he was right to say,
as I’ve come to agree,
that it’s never enough to stay
where you are or merely to be.
There is no life without justification:
I’m seeking more life from my education.”
Well! She would clearly never
understand that her kingdom was already
in the palm of her hand, so I said
goodbye and went to go. She said,
“Don’t forget your change!”
I waited until I had reached
the street to feel in my pocket
for my missing 10-dollar bill.
I unfolded instead a page
torn from Kierkegaard.

4. Cherchez la Femme

“You again?” says the BVM.
I nod and go to my table.
Women in cafés dispense
their wisdom all day.
Even the barista is bardic,
singing the song of herself,
she says she’s worked for every cent
and took no help in her life.
Another in business attire
tells her disheveled best friend
that what’s done with passion can’t fail,
while a girl all leather and labret
counsels a sallow old man
to work at nature’s side
rather than wrestling it all his life.
We should each just dig
our own grave and fling
ourselves down in the hole.
Mary, I see you there
in the corner of the room,
in your ankle-length dress,
the pink dye just about gone
from your hair which you still twist
around the tip of your finger.
You’re studying every vision
every man ever had of you.
Your face flits past on page
after page, unseamed, serene,
past wisdom. Not like now,
my maid of the troubled brow,
all creased and lined with learning.
“They grow up so fast,”
says the lady at my elbow.
But you’re not a woman like that.
You know no wisdom to offer:
the more you learn, the less
you know. I look for you everywhere
in this wise, filthy city.
As long as you’re as ignorant as me,
Mary, then beauty is not finished,
and I still have work to do.
“You have to love the work you do,”
the barista tells me. Then
I’m on my way out.