The Cloisters

Will Brewbaker

Whether grace is merely a posture of

             the heart, like pity or love,

or whether, speaking ontically now, grace

possesses a kind of material, even liquid, existence—

which would, you claimed, explain the scholastic trove

             of watery words (the case

of “Thomist structures” enlightens): the persistence

of words like pouring, effusion, and streams. . . . All this,

             and not much else but this,

we discussed at quiet length on the northbound A,

hurtling below a hundred wintry Manhattan streets

on our way to the strange museum—which, perched as it was

             on the rocky, eastern quay

of the freezing Hudson, resembled a granite

eagle, with wings the height of an apartment story—

             majestic, aviary-

freed—and talons sunk deep in the bank’s soft gut,

as its stone-carved back (the building’s front) stayed always turned

on the very fact of Washington Heights, like a quarry

             it long ago forgot;

or rather: that it once knew, then spurned.

Then we were inside—where, pace Borges,

             time’s unruly fleet of horses

merely found another, a different, order:

the way we glimpsed, through the roundels’ stained glass (which depicted,

in a stream of liquid yellow and blue, the various

             and shameful swinish ordure

with which the Prodigal Son was afflicted)

—how we glimpsed (I got, get, so off track),

             through that glossy laque,

the turgid hulk of Washington Bridge. Or, to say

the same again: how the suspended Christ, swaying

in death from the chapel’s curving vault, blocked,

             from our squinting eyes’ assay,

the mandorla in which the Virgin was praying.

We wandered those quiet rooms and monastic towers,

             you and I, for hours,

speaking only to note, with a nod or word,

the oddest things: the severed horn of a unicorn

(“only the horn of a narwal,” explained the dour

             guide); or that crumbling bird,

which had stored, we read, a thorn

from the Crown of Thorns; or (my personal speed)

             a brittle rosary bead,

which, when opened at the hinges, disclosed

a wooden city—tiny cathedrals, intricate huts,

horses a hangnail’s size—disclosed, indeed,

             a world that, if closed,

would fit in your palm like a hazelnut.

Upstairs, stepping outside from shade to vista

             (“Credo che non exista,”

the Italian woman, years before, uttered

before the unicorns’ gaudy tableaux), we shivered

in sun. Below, the peopled world—baristas,

             bankers, stonecutters—

crossed without us the freezing river. . . .

Our “spot of time” was ending. We’d been, that day—

             to the very, almost, day—

married a single year: imperfect, whole.

Hours prior (should I have led with this?), when we first arrived,

I stood before a Spanish fresco, gray

             from age (“Late Medieval”),

and which, I learned, had barely survived

its international restoration. Despite,

             though, the wear—how the whites

and, curious, the reds colluded—and despite, too,

the way his wailing friends (I should have named the painting:

from Berlanga, The Raising of Lazarus . . . a slight

             mistake)—despite these few

mourners, I could just make out, running

like a dried ravine across the painted bier,

             a wooden staff—or spear,

which (whichever it was) Christ seemed to be

using to haul His friend from death to life, from hell

to here. . . . Although, of course, His elbow’s angular

             bend and bending knee

suggested the opposite passage, as well.

Will Brewbaker is a Ph.D. student in English at Duke University. His poetry has appeared in Narrative, Gettysburg Review, and Washington Square Review, among others.
Originally published:
December 6, 2023


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