this story is posted in dedication to Morganne Jones, writer, poet, and dreamer
LOOKING FOR ALEXANDRIA
She bent with the brown and green grasses that bent in the wind off the sea. Sat in the sand and hugged her knees and curled herself into a ball. Her hair lifted and streamed toward the east like robins. You are dying, Mother, you are dying, dying. I do not know what to tell you. I cannot give you shiny cards with pictures of flowers and sweet verses from the Bible. I am the one who must talk to you. It is my words I must use. But I do not have the vocabulary, I do not have the syllables, I do not have the grammar or the syntax, I do not have the rhyme.
She traced letters on her palm with her finger. Part of her mind struggled with the words, another part with the whole pattern that was emerging like a skein of geese unravelling in the sky, another part was conscious of the wind and the grasses scraping against one another, yet another knew the sea was behind her and that it was boiling with whitecaps. No. The word is too long. The sentence does not work. This close to the sea the waves do not sound like wind in the treetops. They are brutal. Another word, this word, is better, all right, come, the rest of you come, tumble over me. Even with this sweater, this thick green sweater, I am getting chilled. I don’t care. I have to write it here. My room has too many walls and its air has no water or salt. That works, that works, that flow works, come on, stream into my arms and fingers. Time for the paper in my pocket and the yellow pencil and the creases I must bump the letters over and the curve of the rock I must follow. The paper is like a whitecap curling out of my lap. I can see the waves behind me breaking open white and clean like this paper I am writing black letters on. Black letters like the bits of debris in the grey ocean, the green ocean, and there is that gull talking again, muttering like Professor Reamings lecturing us about Virginia Woolf. Now my fingers are cold splinters of granite scratching up the page. But I am going to finish it here, Mother, right here, because this was where you took me for picnics. Except you could never turn your back on the sea and the miles of painted air.
“So you wrote this?”
“And you thought it would be appropriate.”
“You never had any second thoughts about it?”
“No. I wrote it for my Mother.”
“You gave it to your Mother before she died?”
“Did she read it?”
“I read it to her.”
“She liked it.”
“How could she like it? A poem about herself rotting out. A poem about cancer.”
“A poem about life.”
“Is that what you think?”
“A poem about love. She understood it.”
“How do you know?”
“She has a way of smiling.”
The pastor took off his glasses and leaned back in the chair behind his desk. The three deacons, one man and two women, took this opportunity to look at him so that they didn’t have to stare at the young red-haired woman sitting in the chair. The pastor blew some air out of his mouth in a gust and glared at the line between ceiling and wall.
“Alexia. When we gave you the church paper to edit it was with the understanding that you’d keep any poetry experiments to yourself. We want inspirational writing in the paper. We want to build up people’s faith. Not tear it down.”
“That’s why I put the poem in.”
“To build up people’s faith.”
“Are you joking?”
“You seem to be making some kind of assumption that faith grows without any struggle. No rain. No darkness. No frost.”
“Alexia, in case you haven’t noticed, people don’t come to church for struggle. They get enough of that during the week. Here is where they come for peace and happiness. This is where they come to rest their souls. They come here for answers. Not questions.”
“That seems very different from the way Jesus treated people.”
“What do you mean?”
“His sentences were like razors, don’t you think?”
“No. I don’t. Alexia, do you have any idea how many complaints we’ve received about your poem?”
“Twenty-six. Twenty-six complaints in a church of two hundred and fifty.”
“Did anyone call to tell you they liked it?”
“That’s nothing. Alexia, we’ve always thought a lot of you and your Mother. We’ve thanked God for you in the past. So we’re willing to give you another opportunity to do it right. Some people want us to take the paper out of your hands. We think Christ would give you a second chance.”
“However,” spoke up one of the women, the one Alexia thought of as Mrs. Watermelon and Cucumbers because of the scent of her perfume, “you need to let us see the paper each week before you print it.”
The pastor nodded. “That’s right. We’ll look it over.”
“Especially the poetry?” asked Alexia.
“Everything. If we like what we see we’ll give you the all clear to print the paper and distribute it to the congregation.”
“What day do you want it?”
“You print on Thursday, don’t you? I’d like to see the proof before the Wednesday night church supper and prayer meeting. The deacons will be there as well and they can take a look at the same time. If everything is fine we’ll give you the green light.”
“And if it isn’t?”
“You’ll have ample time to make corrections.”
It was Tuesday. Alexia went home to her apartment, fixed supper, sat looking at the wall while she ate. Then she washed and dried the dishes and put them away. It was a warm night in September so she stood on her fifth floor balcony and looked out over the city to the sea. She could always catch a glimpse of it between two highrises. A half moon ignited a flat calm. You are the poet, God. Compared to you I feel like a fraud. You say stronger things than I do. You say it better. But this is what you put in my fingers so I have to do what I can. She went back inside, got into her black robe, brushed out her hair, and tucked her legs up under her on the couch. She held a red spiral bound notepad and a navy blue pen that wrote in green. I wonder if they would agree to all these colours?
Some of her poems game out in a gush. A artesian well of words and sounds. Tonight she scribbled and scratched and balled up sheets of paper and finally gave up in disgust at one o’clock. What is the use in praying if you won’t even help me? She lay under the covers in her bed and stared at the squares and spheres of city light bobbing on her ceiling. I was going to buy heavier curtains to keep out the light. Or vertical blinds. Would this bunch have let you print and distribute Job to the churches of the world? How about Ecclesiastes? Or Psalm 73? Or Psalm 88? The darkness is my closest friend. How did Heman get that one past you? Maybe I ought to try that. Throw Job and Gesthemane and Psalm 88 into one pot and see how the colours mix. If they argue with me I’ll tell them you wrote it. She sat up and turned on her bedside lamp and, not wanting to go out to the living room, opened a bonded leather Bible from the table next to her pillow and jammed words together on the blank pages at the front with a red pen. The more she wrote the better she felt and by three o’clock she swelled with a white light and a white heat. Her mind and heart and the flow of her blood glittered with the purest fire as she finally lay back to rest. When I worship like this it’s easy to think of dying. It’s easy to think of loving you forever. Everything inside me has been rinsed by a stream that is clear and cold and hard and emerald.
The next day should have been difficult. She’d only had five hours sleep. But the bright flames of last night’s creating still licked up and down the veins and bones of her arms. Teaching Shakespeare and Milton and Dante at the college she felt like she was standing in silver rectangles of radiance. She brought the four page church paper to the potluck that evening, contributing three bags of potato chips, the only person who ever brought ketchup and dill pickle and roast chicken and then mixed them all together in one bowl. The pastor and his three deacons ate quickly and left together for his office with the church paper in one of his hands. Five minutes later Mrs. Watermelon and Cucumbers was sent to fetch Alexia.
“All’s well?” smiled Alexia.
“Nothing’s well,” said Mrs. Watermelon.
The pastor was at his desk again. “Alexia, everything is fine except for the poem. It’s one of your poems again, I take it.”
“The Darkness Is My Closest Friend. Good God. What kind of title is that?”
“It’s God’s title.”
“I took it from Psalm 88.”
The pastor and the deacons riffled through their copies of the Bible. “It’s not in mine,” said one. “You’ve taken it out of context,” said another. “When it says the darkness is my closest friend,” sniffed Mrs. Watermelon, “it doesn’t mean the darkness is my closest friend.” “Look,” said the pastor in the manner of pronouncing the final word on the subject, “just because God does it doesn’t mean you can do it.”
“So you’re rejecting it?” asked Alexia.
“Not the whole paper,” said Mr. Sharpe, a lawyer. “Just the poem.”
“You want me to write another poem?”
“Or drop it,” said Mrs. Bland, the other woman.
The pastor took off his glasses. Alexia became a soft smudge and he felt comfortable looking at her. “What time do you print?”
“About four. At the college.”
“If you write a new poem bring it to me here at noon tomorrow. If it’s good I’ll give you two thumbs up. All right?”
Alexia sat through the prayer meeting that night as if she had been calcified. When people shared scripture passages she wanted to stand up and quote from Psalm 88 or Psalm 42 - “All your waves and breakers have swept over me!” - or shout: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani!” She wanted to strike a Shakespearean pose and sweep a dark cloak about her and mutter, “This too is of God.” But she remained sitting with her eyes closed. I am not one of your people. I am not one of your people. Knives worked themselves up under her skin and pried it from her bones. At one point she opened her eyes and read her poem again, creased and crinkled in her lap.
At home she peeled a banana but only took one bite before putting it down on top of a book on the coffee table. She did not get into her robe. She did not brush out her hair. She did not clean her teeth. She sat on the couch and scrunched her knees up under her chin. I felt so good with you last night. I felt so good about the poem. Now it’s gone. I am not going to do this all over again.
The cover of the book under the banana showed a man sitting on the banks of a blue stream. It reminded her of how she used to put her poems underwater after she wrote them. This was when she was ten or eleven. She would put each fresh poem in a ziplock bag and place it in the creek near their home and weight it down with stones. A full hour was required to make the poem a true poem. She loved to watch the running water slip blue and green and white over the plastic bag and cause her printed words to flicker or elongate or disappear or pop up in big silver bubbles. Finally she would pluck the bag dripping out of the creek and remove the poem. “Now it is yours,” she would say to God as she stood with wet hands under the willow trees. That night she would place the poem in her Bible and slip the Bible under her pillow so she could sleep with God’s words and her words. She was also sure this would give her inspiration for her next poem.
“What did I do with all those poems?” she asked out loud.
It was just past midnight. Another late night. I can’t keep up this poet stuff. Give me another calling. It’s as bad as being a prophet. Always getting caught between the horns of the altar and slain. The title of the paperback on the coffee table was The Distracted Preacher and other stories by Thomas Hardy. Hardy made her think of another Thomas, another T.H., Thomas Hooker, and thinking of Thomas Hooker mader her think of another Anglican, John Donne, which made her think of another Anglican and pastor and poet, George Herbert. A verse may find him, he had written, who a sermon flies, and turn delight into a sacrifice. She tapped her fingernails against her teeth. Which one of them had written about truth coming through the brittle crazy glass of their lives and words? Like sun through the erratic shapes of stained glass? She picked up the remote and pointed it at her TV. Someone came on singing with their dog about a new minivan and she clicked it off again. The pastor did not want her to talk about death. He did not want her to talk about suffering. Perhaps he would let her talk about truth, about all the pastors and priests who had been poets and had invited God to pour hot light through them.
“Why are the personnel managers or the businessmen or the evangelists or the entrepeneurs the only role models for pastors and priests? Why shouldn’t artists be role models too? Why not poets? What is the Bible? A work of art or a Volkswagen manual? Poetry or a spreadsheet?” She said all this to her bathroom mirror where she had gone to splash her face with cold water. Twisting her hair up on her head she thrust several pins through it. Then she went back to the couch and picked up a pen she had been using to underline passages in Hardy’s book. The only paper close at hand was a stack of white napkins. She scrawled on these.
I need a stronger metaphor. Stop doodling. That is a police siren. No, it’s a fire truck. God, help them help. Don’t imitate Hopkins. Write your own writing. Something with an A. I’m starving. I’m freezing. Where’s the red throw that’s supposed to be on this couch? That’s too weak. I hate it. This is better, let it come. I should have had some coffee. It’s too late for coffee now. Light, patterns of light, shadows, long shadows in the afternoon and small shadows when the sun is overhead and no shadows when the sun is obscured. Deep lines etched in a deep face. Faith chiseled in skin and bone. I need another syllable. That word is no good.
She hurried from a staff meeting to the pastor’s office at noon the next day. He was eating a tuna sandwich with sprouts. He leaned back and closed his eyes and chewed. His glasses sat on the desktop. “Read it to me,” he said. She pulled the crumpled napkins out of her purse. It was a good thing she had numbered them all at breakfast.
The sunlight coming through the venetian blinds made stripes on the pastor’s face as she read. His eyes were closed. He had stopped chewing.
“I was inspired by other pastors when I wrote this,” she said when she had finished. “Donne. Herbert. Hopkins.”
He finally spoke. “Who are Hopkins and Herbert and Donne?”
“Ministers. Hopkins was Catholic.”
The pastor’s eyes blinked open and he looked at her.
“No darkness,” she smiled.
“Hard to talk about what light is if you can’t define what darkness is. They play off each other.”
The pastor drummed his fingers on his desk. “English wasn’t my strong suite in high school. But I did well with Math. At seminary I won the Greek language prize.”
“Can I print this poem?”
“It’s not as bad as the others. But it’s still not good enough. Why do you make this so hard, Alexia? Go down to the store and pick out a couple of cards. That’s all the poetry you need.”
“You want us to have a Coutts-Hallmark faith?”
“That’s all our people require. Look, Alexia, if you want to go to Hamlet or Macbeth on Friday nights, go. But our people don’t want to go there. They don’t want a faith built on beautiful language and fancy words. They don’t want to think. They want their faith to be a faith of action. They want things in bite-sized chunks. Concepts they can get a hold of immediately.”
“You mean like bumper stickers and T-shirts?”
“They don’t need a dark night of the soul. They don’t need light that’s too bright to see. And they sure don’t need all your similies and metaphors and distractions. Just tell them the truth straight out. Don’t beat around the bush.”
“You mean no parables. No stories.”
“I mean keep it simple. The people in our church don’t want to be deep sea divers, Alexia. They’re beachcombers. Give them stuff they can recognize instantly and pick up and take home.”
“You want me to write a poem about beachcombing?”
“I don’t want you to write a poem at all. The paper is good as it is. Just print what you’ve got. You can show me another poem next Tuesday. And please. For my sake, Alexia. Could we have something where the sentences make sense and I don’t have to scratch my head? Something where the words rhyme? Make God happy and me happy at the same time.”
She finished typing the paper on her computer at five o’clock. She put a happy face where the poetry was supposed to go. I don’t care. I just want to go to bed early tonight. I’ll write something else next week. A book was open on one corner of her desk. She had been looking up All Saints Day earlier in the week. The word Alexandria caught her eye. Alexandria in Egypt was second only to Rome in importance during the height of the Empire. Its fame as a centre of rich Christian thought dates from the end of the second century AD under the influence of Clement and Origen. It increased in importance under the bishoprics of Athanasius and Cyril in the fourth and fifth centuries. It contained the most important library of its time, a library that was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. The collection of books was damaged by several wars but maintained significance until its final destruction by the Moslem conqueror Omar in the seventh century. Alexandrian theology was profound. It emphasized the reality of the spiritual world and the allegorical interpretation of scripture. It also stressed the divine nature of Christ. There was no hesitation in declaring that when the Incarnate Christ suffered it was God suffering. A great seaport, ethnically diverse and cosmopolitan, Alexandria was one of the brightest jewels of the early Christian faith, providing a mixture of profound faith and orthodoxy along with a marked creativity. It also contained all the challenges to that orthodoxy that the Roman Empire could spawn. Nevertheless, it was here that Athanasius, though exiled five times, made his stand for both the deity and the humanity of Jesus Christ.
Alexia looked at a map of ancient Alexandria which showed where the city walls were located, the dockyards and quays, the amphitheatre, gymnasium, stadium, hippodrome, medical school, hall of justice, library and museum. The lighthouse known as the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, had been almost 400 feet high and stood on Pharos Island, just offshore from the city. Alexia’s imagination was crammed with ships driven by red and orange sails and a blue Mediterranean waterfront teeming with people of every sort of colour of skin and every sort of garment and costume. Chariots rattled over the sunburnt stones and Roman armour blazed in the packed streets. She stood amongst hundreds of thousands of scrolls while dust motes sparked the air. Modern Alexandria, Al Iskandariyah, is the second largest city of Egypt and its chief port. It is built over the streets and the ruins of the ancient city which have never been excavated. Alexia tapped a pen against her teeth. The new was built on the old. Forgotten. But still in existence. She gazed at a colour photograph of Corniche Drive in Alexandria, a street that ran along the crescent shape of the harbour, along brown and yellow beaches, and she looked at the Mediterranean sea and beyond it to the desert over the housetops, the desert that swept and surged a thousand miles to the south, the sands and heats and flies where the desert mothers and fathers had forged their gleaming spirituality out of thin air. Desert asceticism, the book said, brings to life the philosophers’ dream in the midst of ordinary people.
Alexia was alone. All her colleagues were gone and the offices were silent. She opened a can of Coke that popped and fizzed and bit into a multigrain bagel. I can go to Alexandria. It is still there. I can go to its modern streets and tear up some of the asphalt and get down below to the city’s foundations. I can find pottery and bones, maybe Athanasius’ bones, maybe Origen’s, I can find scrolls with wisdom the Christians once knew but have forgotten. I can find the desert where Saint Antony struggled. I can take a boat or a plane and go there. I can find Alexandria. I can find Alexandria’s God. “Only a poet,” she said to the clock on the wall, “could understand enough of the significance of Alexandria to even begin to convey the chiaroscuro of it to the modern ear.” Mumbling Athanasius contra mundum she deleted the happy face from the computer screen and began to fill the empty space with words that came in a jumble and a jangle out of her head. The keys clicked softly under her white fingers. It was two o’clock before she had printed 75 copies of the paper and returned to her apartment. She stood in a sea breeze on the balcony for a moment before collapsing into her bed. It’s just as if you had kissed me.
That Sunday she stood in the church foyer and handed out the paper just as she did every week. The pastor came up behind her and patted her on the shoulder. “Mind if I take one?” he asked. “Here you are,” she said. He walked away but was back in a minute, his face flushed.
“Give me the rest of those,” he demanded in a whisper as people came through the door.
“No,” she whispered back.
“You are finished, finished here,” he grated. “You will never edit this paper again. You will be given no leadership responsibilities in this church.”
“Did you read the poem?”
“I don’t have to read the poem. It’s there and it’s not supposed to be there.”
“I can’t believe you wouldn’t like the poem.”
“That’s not the point. You didn’t pass it by me first and you knew you were supposed to do that. I’m responsible for what goes into these people’s heads.”
“Well, I would give you the rest of the papers but there aren’t any left. I’m afraid the poem has already gone to the people’s heads.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Alexia stood at the back of the church as the service began. After his opening prayer, and before the choir sang, the pastor smiled and said, “You were all handed the church paper when you came into the sanctuary this morning. Unfortunately, we need to ask for the papers back. Their distribution was premature and there is some misinformation that needs to be corrected before we can return them to you. If you’d like to hand your papers down to the end of each pew the ushers will collect them. Thank you very much. I’m sorry for this inconvenience. We’ll get them back to you just as soon as the problems are sorted out.”
There was a rustling as the papers were handed from person to person. The choir began to sing Amazing Grace and Alexia turned and walked through the doors and down the concrete steps. Elms were yellow torches up and down the street. She paused and wondered which way she ought to go. Someone called her name. Mrs. Marsh was coming slowly down the steps using her cane.
“What is it?” asked Mrs. Marsh, squinting at Alexia from behind her thick glasses. “Something you wrote again? One of your poems?”
Mrs. Marsh had been a high school Math teacher for forty years. She handed Alexia her copy of the paper. “Go ahead and read it to me. I can’t be bothered fishing out my magnifying glass. It’s so big and clumsy.”
“You want me to read it to you right here?”
“No better place. But let’s walk down the street a ways and settle into a bench there. The one under the tall elm.”
They sat together on the green iron bench. Cars and buses drove past. A few yellow leaves landed on the round navy blue hat Mrs. Marsh wore over her stiffly permed white hair. “All right, my dear,” she said. “You go ahead.” Alexia leaned close to her so that she wouldn’t have to raise her voice.
“Well, fine, that’s just fine, that’s lovely,” said Mrs. Marsh when Alexia had finished. “I don’t know what they get excited about. Morton wasn’t that good at Math and that’s why he can’t understand poetry. It’s about rhythm and metre, isn’t it, my dear? No, he had a hard go of it in Math and Mrs. Williams told me he was no good at all with the English language. I expect that’s why he went into the ministry. Well. That wasn’t kind of me, was it?”
“Perhaps he’ll still read the poem. I think he almost liked my last one.”
“Perhaps. Who knows? I don’t imagine he believes poetry has anything to do with God.”
“Not my poetry at any rate.”
“If he got a proper translation of the Bible, one that didn’t hide all the poetry in paragraphs, he’d soon be seeing God’s world in a different light.”
“I did mention Donne and Hopkins to him.”
Mrs. Marsh snorted. “Morton would think they played for the Mariners or the Seahawks. Now. Enough of that. Did you bring your car? Why don’t you come over to my apartment for lunch? I’ll brew some tea. I have some fresh scones from my daughter.”
“I’d be happy to come over, Mrs. Marsh.”
“Well, help me up and let’s get on about it.”
Alexia did not return to the church even though the pastor left plenty of messages on her answering machine about wanting to get together for coffee. Instead she booked a flight to Egypt where she intended to spend her Christmas holidays. And she read more about Alexandria. Euclid had lived and studied there. Julius Caesar had accidentally burned part of the library in the Alexandrian War in 48 BC. Did Mark Antony compensate for the loss by giving Cleopatra 200,000 scrolls from the library at Pergamum, a library that was Alexandria’s only rival? The Roman Emperor Aurelian damaged the library again in 273 AD as he fought to reconquer Egypt. The city planned and built by Alexander the Great was in ruins by the time Napoleon arrived in 1799. At that point it had been used for hundreds of years as a quarry for new buildings. When modern Alexandria was erected on the same site most of the ruins, including those of the library, were eliminated.
“But something, something could still be there,” Alexia told her mug of coffee.
At night she sat up in bed and held the book in her lap that contained the map of ancient Alexandria. She traced a line she would walk. From the lighthouse to the Temple of Artemis and the Royal Palace. Down through the Gate of the Moon, past the army barracks and along the Boulevard Argeus into the Jewish Quarter. Through the Canopic Gate to the Hippodrome and then south along the canal to the Gate of the Sun. Up the Boulevard Serapis and right on Meson Pedion to the Library and the Mausoleum. Finally to sit down at a stone table with two or three scrolls and carefully unwind them. Reading words that had been lost for more than two thousand years, ideas and wisdom and history that no one knew, theology that no woman or man had ever considered. At sunset to hold all she had seen and walk up through the Necropolis, then down to Eunostos Harbour and along the waterfront to the shore of the Eleusinian Sea. Waves and red sun and the dark.
From the history of Alexandria she turned to reading about Origen and Clement and Cyril and Athanasius, especially Athanasius and his books on Saint Antony and Christ’s Incarnation. This led her to read The Sayings of the Fathers which had been written by hermits like Antony who had lived along the banks of the Nile River not far from Alexandria. Then The Conferences of Cassian which recorded John Cassian’s interactions with the desert fathers. She saw herself sitting in the desert and fighting sapphire-eyed demons with prayer and fasting. Every Friday she went without food from dawn to dusk, then took bread and wine in Christ’s honour and went to bed.
An old man said: I never wanted work that was useful to me but loss to my brother. For I have this expectation, that what helps my brother is fruitful for me.
A brother who had sinned was expelled by the priest from the church. But Abba Bessarion stood up and went out with him, saying: I too am a sinner.
Abba Poemen said: Teach your mouth to speak what is in your heart.
Amma Sarah said: If I pray to God that all people might be inspired because of me, I would find myself repenting at the door of every house. I would rather pray that my heart be pure toward everybody.
Every Sunday she had lunch with Mrs. Marsh at the elderly lady’s apartment.
“You ought to let me treat you from time to time,” said Alexia.
“Never mind. This is good for me. People still ask about you.”
“Are you still reading about Alexandria?”
“Still intending to go there at Christmas?”
“Well, there is nothing wrong with that. But if Alexandria can never be here - ” she banged her cane against the floor several times - “right here, then it will not be anywhere.”
“Alexandria can help me understand what it is that is supposed to be here.”
“It can. It might. I suppose you have been reading the desert fathers? Yes. You told me you were. Well, I found something in one of my anthologies.” She picked up an index card from beside a plate that had a sliced muffin on it. The handprinting was large and dark. “Abba Sisoes said: Seek God, and not where God lives.”
Alexia drove down to visit her father in Portland one weekend. On Saturday night after he had gone to bed she clambered around in the cold attic opening boxes and trunks. She’d had a dream of a small red suitcase. It was something she had used when she was a child. She found it under a pink strip of insulation. Her poems were inside it, all the ones she had placed underwater, stacked neatly in piles of twenty and tied with green and blue ribbons. The ribbons were stiff and brittle and broke apart when she tried to untie them. She sat on the bed in her old room and read each of the poems. My God, how can we be so wise when we are ten about rain and beetles and plum trees? And so obtuse when we are thirty?
“We used to be warriors fighting evil in our hearts,” she complained to Mrs. Marsh. “Wrestling dark thoughts and wicked inclinations. We used to be wise women dropping words into souls like stones into brown ponds. We used to be poets. Now it is all about numbers and how we can keep people in our programs and our pews.”
“We are usually more reckless when we are children. More spirited. It is just as true of a young Christianity.”
“And my poetry. I always thought of myself as childlike. But I look at these poems in my handwriting with all the perfectly round ohs and prefectly green caterpillars and perfectly yellow owl’s eyes and I am nothing like that now.”
“The new city is still built on the old.”
“Yes, but what good is that if the old is obliterated? It is one thing to keep some of what is old and work it into the new. But what if none of the old is left at all?”
She walked on the beach in a sunset that was a conflagration. Out there is Alexandria. Out there is our childhood. Our youth. But what is left? What will I find? Broken things. Missing things. New buildings. The old structures razed. Young Egyptians who do not care about hermits or monks or bishops that have been dead for almost two thousand years. If Alexandria is not there anymore, not even under the pavement or out in the desert, where is it? Where can I find it? Is it only in my mind? Or does it still have skin tissue and blood vessels and green eyes? If it is still here, where is it sitting? How does it breathe?
Two weeks before Christmas she had just finished supervising an exam when Pastor Morton showed up in the doorway of the classroom. He was in jeans and a sweatshirt. He smiled.
“Oh. Hello. I’ve just finished an exam with my students.”
“An exam for poets?”
She laughed. “I suppose.”
“Alexia. I wanted to tell you. I read your poem. The last one you wrote. It took me awhile to get around to it, didn’t it? Listen. I had to tell you in person. I don’t understand all of it. But something in me wants to. I think it’s a fine piece of writing.”
“I’m very surprised. But thank you.”
“I want you to come back to the church.”
“Pastor. I don’t think it would work.”
“I want you to write another poem. A lot more poems. I want you to read them to us.”
“I can’t go through all that again. I guess I’ve become something of a hermit in the past few months. Praying. Reading. Struggling. I don’t think I can come back and be cross-examined by you and Mr. Sharpe every Wednesday night.”
“There won’t be a cross-examination. You can stand up and read them from the pulpit.”
“Without you knowing what I’m going to say?”
“I’m going to take a risk.”
“What do the others think?”
“They think the poems you write matter.”
“All of them?”
“Enough of them.”
“I don’t think I can do it. I’m sorry.”
“Alexia. We need God to speak to us this way.”
The pastor’s lips and face jerked as he tried to explain. Alexia thought he was going to collapse. “One of the Benjamin children took ill after you left. You must remember Justin. It was diagnosed as leukemia. I preached and preached but it made no difference. The family withered away as Justin got worse. We all withered away. He died. The way I spoke. The way I prayed. It was like a thick grey dust that settled on everything. I found a poem of yours between the pages of a hymn book. I read it to the congregation a week after Justin died. For a moment it was like a clean rain. But then it was gone. Alexia. We’re drying up. And you’re the only poet we have.”
That Friday night she broke her fast with a small round of bread she had baked herself and a cup of dark red wine. This is my body. This is my blood. Rain clamoured to get into her apartment and, remembering the ten year old she had been who understood storms and showers, she opened the balcony’s sliding glass door and let it gust over the ceramic tiles of the floor and over her face and hair. Tell me what to write. Put into me what I can write. Don’t you come from God? Then she shut the door and smoothed down her hair against her wet skin. She plucked a red throw from the back of a chair, wound herself in it and squirmed into a comfortable position on the couch. What am I supposed to say? Am I suposed to give them back their childhood? Show them the star over Bethlehem? Build each one a hut in the desert? Coax them to put a finger in Hopkins' inkpot?
There was only a stubby yellow pencil on the coffee table, a cold cup of Earl Grey tea from the night before and a book with a red cover entitled Western Asceticism. The rain talked on the glass. She began to print words on the inside of the front cover. There were two blank pages and when she filled them she turned to the back of the book where there were three more. Although she had begun with printing it turned into her written scrawl halfway down the fifth page of the poem. Her face was warm. When she became stymied she rubbed her hand up and down her leg and made vertical lines, up and down and up and down, with her pencil. She always began again in a sudden fury of sentences. When she had used all the blank pages she stopped.
“That’s enough.” she told the rain. “I have nothing more to say to you.”
She thought about placing the book under her pillow but it was too fat so she left it by the bread crumbs and the small ceramic cup with a dark ring at the bottom. Then she brushed her teeth and brushed her hair and got into bed. Her childhood poems were stacked on her bedside table and she thought about turning on the lamp and looking at one or two. But she closed her eyes, suddenly opened them again and glanced around her, then lay her head back so that her hair spread over the white pillow. It appeared as if someone had composed every delicate strand to lie in a precise way.