Mother Church Number Ten: Homage to Whitten
Once you were a saddle
made of smoothed wood—
a saddle worn by a stallion—
crab-stepping over the sand
on the bottom of the ocean.
Once you were an omen, ochre
and dusted with rust. Or you were just
gray matter. Sawdust. But still: everything.
You were an alarm clock.
You were linen. You were twine—once.
You were a fragrant black tin
of shoe polish my dead father left, tucked
way back inside a drawer in our kitchen.
Only you can read this.
Black mulberry, marble, glue. Pane
of glass. Copper. Wire. Wax. Wild cypress. Brass.
I’ve placed all the bones
you will ever need inside you.
I challenged every zealous god, and nailed
each one down—here—for you.
Olive tree. A lock
of virgin’s hair.
Outside I am a bird,
but inside I am a boat,
a boat in which I ferry our future back
and forth between the ancient and modern world.
I sleep where Socrates slept: inside
a burning tree, spears rushing the door.
I am trying to make the wood happy.
Every engine in the world depends upon me.
Jack Whitten, Pregnant Owl, 1983–84 © Jack Whitten Estate
Robin Coste Lewis is the Los Angeles poet laureate and a winner of the National Book Award for her 2015 book of poems, The Voyage of the Sable Venus. She earned an MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program, where she was a Goldwater Fellow in poetry. She also earned a master of theological studies degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from Harvard Divinity School. She was born and raised in Compton, California, and her family is from New Orleans.
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