The cathedral being built
around our split level house was so airy, it stretched
so high it was like a cloud of granite
and marble light the house rose up inside.
At the time I didn’t notice masons laying courses
of stone ascending, flying buttresses
pushing back forces that would have crushed our flimsy wooden beams.
But the hammering and singing of the guilds went on
outside my hearing, the lancets’ stained glass
telling how a tree rose up from Jesse’s loins whose
flower was Jesus staring longhaired from our bathroom wall where I
always wanted to ask if this was how he
really looked, slender, neurasthenic, itching for privacy
as the work went on century after century.
Fog in cherry trees, deer strapped
to bumpers, fresh snow marked
by dog piss shining frozen in the day made
a parallel cathedral unseen but intuited
by eyes that took it in and went on to the next
thing and the next as if unbuilding
a cathedral was the work
that really mattered—not knocking
it down which was easy—
but taking it apart stone
by stone until all
that’s left is the cathedral’s
outline coming in and out of limbo
in the winter sun.
All through childhood on eternal sick day afternoons,
I lived true to my name, piling dominoes
into towers, fingering the white dots like the carpenter Thomas
putting fingertips into the nail-holes of his master’s hands.
A builder and a doubter. Patron saint of all believers
in what’s really there every time you look:
black-scabbed cherry trees unleafed in winter,
the irrigation ditch that overflows at the back
of the house, chainlink of the schoolyard
where frozen footsteps in the snow
criss-cross and doubleback. And now the shroud falls away
and the wound under his nipple seeps fresh blood.
And when Jesus says, Whither I go you know,
Thomas says, We know not…how can we know the way?
About this poem:
"I grew up in a house in a tiny town high up in the Wahsatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. I suppose the image of the cathedral being built around an ordinary house corresponds to the mountain peaks I woke up to every morning—as if they formed the flying buttresses of a cathedral. As to the religious associations, I've always loved the story of Thomas, my namesake, insisting on putting his fingers in Christ's wounds. If you have a romance with experience, the way I do, then you believe with Keats that 'axioms in philosophy are not axioms until we prove them on our pulses.' My older brother throwing a water balloon at Reverend Fox after church and hitting him in the head, made a deeper impression on me than all of Reverend Fox's homilies about sin and guilt. As to building and unbuilding the cathedral, I once worked for a mason who said that the only way to know how to build something was to know how to take it apart."