Before beginning the day’s classes
we knelt on our chairs facing backwards
and recited a litany of prayer to the saint of the day.
Then Sister read from Butler’s Lives
the life and death of that day’s saint––
burned at the stake: Joan of Arc;
drawn and quartered: Edmund Campion;
overcome by arrows: Saint Sebastian,
swooning and slumped on a pole.
Captivated by methods of deaths dealt
we recoiled and marveled, recalibrating
the value of being a martyr, of being a saint.
Judith Robbins’ latest collection of poems, To Bury or Burn, sweeps
across the spectrum of life, leaving in its wake moments of joy and
grief, childhood and motherhood, poets and their poems, and the
company and loss of cats, all of it against the backdrop of the
The book is available from Amazon
from the publisher, North Country Press
from Barnes & Noble
and from most bookstores.
Purgatory Chasm in Sutton, Mass.—
a geological anomaly—meant
more than that to you and me
(no scientists we at five and seven)
who had come with parents
to picnic a lifetime ago.
Pictures emerge in my mind
of sharp outcroppings of towering rock
intimidating in their seeming leaning
at a cautionary angle that said, Take care,
and we did, climbing that rocky place
named by Puritans as Purgatory
where the soul is cleansed by fire
before coming into the presence of God
enabled to bear the beatific vision
which otherwise it could not, recalling
Moses, hidden in rock and waiting to see
the glory of God pass by, but only
allowed the hindmost parts, as no one
could look on the face of God and live.
As smoke rose up from our charcoal grill—
hot dogs, chips and tonic ready—
we sat at a picnic table and shared
the family meal before God.
I remember you saying that if Jesus showed up
unexpectedly for an afternoon visit, you would
serve him whatever was on the counter––
chicken soup? apple pie? And you were sure
he wouldn’t complain if one of the younger cats
who hadn’t yet learned the social graces
climbed up the side of his white robe, maybe
catching some skin along the way.
Now it’s been years since you left to meet
the guest of your vision, who sipped his soup
and ate his pie, unbothered by the cat who
gained the table and began to share soup
and pie. Jesus rose to give over his seat
while he moved closer to you for coffee
and you to him to share your apple pie.
Damien De Veuster, the leper priest
exiled himself on Molokai, the most
remote of Hawaiian Islands––
designated as quarantine––
to contain the contagion of leprosy,
its victims’ corpses left on the ground
to be consumed by dogs and pigs. Father
Damien reclaimed the land for burial,
to restore the dignity of those dead.
He and the colony built a church
to center community to replace hope-
lessness with joy in a sense of belonging.
He himself succumbed to the disease
and a century later was named a saint.
On his saint’s day, I bring him
the marginalized from mine and others’
families––the drunks, the junkies, the voiceless
ones, who carry a white and tattered banner
to announce they are coming, like Damien’s
congregants, their dignity restored
by recognition of their humanity,
by one man’s sacrifice of his life
that they might know the value of their own.
Four children, one tub
no running hot water––
How did she manage to keep us clean?
With pots and kettles on the stove
heating after supper on Saturday night
in preparation for church on Sunday
morning. The heated water half-filled
the claw-footed tub, and whoever was
first in the week’s rotation stepped
gingerly into the steamy bath.
My favorite slot was number three.
Like Goldilocks tasting the bears’
porridge and finding the bowl of Baby
Bear not too hot and not too cold
but just right, so it was with the third
slot. Granted I sat in a growing scum
but I didn’t mind, what with the rinse
the warm rinse a comforting caress
after it all. Like animals nuzzling
their fresh hay on a cold winter night
and settling into their clean bedding
with quiet nickers and oinks, we
settled onto clean sheets, murmuring
to each other as we fell asleep.
I grope in the darkness
seeking the lineaments of your face.
My fingers made for handling matter
your divinity passes through untouched
except for my longing, which
registers, I trust, with you.