The ruined cathedral wept into my flesh
because I held nothing within me with warmth
enough to deflect it. I flattened a hand
against its relief to imagine the hand
that had carried it out—the cuff, the garment,
scent of limestone struck into shape
and the whimper of cooling.
I carried myself with all I imagined
down to a lake, letting
are you are you
loose over water, out in the air—
being has been to me
from the beginning—and back
to the rock, laying all of it
down—slant wood overhead
that would moulder away,
the cowl, the calling, I can hear
the voice carried back to me,
lessoned, my own
blown voice, blowing there there.
“Monastic” possesses what I am more and more interested in calling ‘gnosis’ in poetry—reach-towards-γνωστικοί, but with more mysticism than the Platonic use would imply. We note a rarefied reflective power in the opening stanzas, and one that seems likewise interested in psychical relations to the physical, or how imagined physicality translates into a kind of psychic shock: ‘the ruined cathedral [weeps]’ into the speaker’s flesh, the blocks of which ‘whimper’ in cooling. While the latter transfer is far more potent (perhaps because it is immediately sensible, while ‘wept into my flesh’ has the whiff of pathos), both set stage for the draw-and-repulse conflict the speaker experiences in his encounter.
It’s not happenstance that the poem begins to deepen considerably after the vulnerability at ‘whimper’ has been realized. ‘I carried myself with all I imagined/down to a lake’ is not so foreign to the scene that that it vaults us into a disconnected dreamspace, but it does indicate a revelatory field: Donnelly does the job of an expert collagist, blurring the boundary between monastic builders themselves and the speaker’s method of ‘carrying.’ How satisfying the vision of this speaker is, then, taxed with the happy load of his imaginings (as we all are) in the act of walking to the lake; and what breadth the lake assumes, privy to a question that implies the workaday rhetorical (as any shout over the water might) and the unquestionably epistemological. The following ‘[H]ow incomprehensible//being has been to me/from the beginning—’ reads as beautifully modest and honest.
Re-reading the poem, we see how imperative that moment of modesty is, since the speaker’s tonal bent has its risks: there is, I think, both the sentimentalized move of ‘wept into my flesh’ and the punning at ‘lessoned’ to contend with. Yet gnosis in “Monastic” does a great deal of work towards rewarding such risks; because a reader realizes she is privy to a moment of real reflective rectitude, a move like ‘lessoned’ feels earnest, not cute. And the poem, therefore, nets the echo effect it seeks to earn in lines 10 and 22.