St. Gwynfed’s Parishioner

Thomas Reiter Click to read more...

reiterphotoThomas Reiter’s most recent book of poetry, Catchment, was published in 2009 by LSU Press.  He has received an Academy of American Poets Prize as well as fellowships from the NEA and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.  He is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Monmouth University, where he held the Wayne D. McMurray Endowed Chair in the Humanities.

I’m John Colwin and I call Saint Gwynfed’s
my parish. No tithing. No minister
fashioning pulpit phrases for the pound’s sake.
My theology’s all with the bards
of Holyhead Town, those guardians
of Welsh lore. Some lines I have by heart.
A thousand years ago, hard by hell
young Gwynfed’s revelry placed him,

a poem I’ve heard at those festivals begins.

The greatest wickedness in all of Wales,
until an angel told him in a dream
to search for a white ox with a golden cross
on its forehead, and where he found it build
a chapel as penance. Humble wattle and daub
overlooking the Irish Sea, a latticework
of branches and wooden uprights
enclosed in a slurry of mud, dung, straw.
Vanished but still standing through a bard’s faith
in the language he gives to legends.

Awash in time, on one of my walks overlooking
Holyhead and the Irish Sea, I came upon
this open ground, at its center a boulder,
flat-topped granite hard and beautiful as penance,
an altar the angel told him would appear
where the ox of atonement was grazing.

The ground I’m standing on said, Let this be it.
I call myself Saint Gwynfed’s parishioner,
and that’s not a thing made of nothing.
No matter the scholars, those donnish doubters
who say Gwynfed was merely a hermit.

Ah, the bells. Our new cathedral, Saint Whoever’s,
I call it, named after no one ever local here.
I grant it’s a grand thing, reaching toward heaven
with rigged bids by a vicar’s nephew.
Mortgaged to its bell tower drawing the faithful
with the largest peal in Wales. Add
a freighted-in Norman archway and font.
But O the sermons of saffron-faced

Canon Jones when pledges in a funding drive
fall short. As spiritual advisor he’ll unhook
a load from your soul, then your wallet.
His own salvation—has that any odds?
His stroke that sure as saints is building,
that’s not a patch on what awaits him
in the next world. Amen.

Myself, I’m a widower on pension, civil service.
I come here with my thermos of tea
to be alone with Gwynfed’s bones.
With his fingertip in the slurry, he made
an image on the chapel wall
of that ox trampling the sinner, a harrowing
the young man fixed his eyes upon in prayer.
At his death that creation was borne away
by angels choiring. And another with it,
the Christ child atop the ox now calm and gentle
as a farm animal content in harness.

I see Christ smiling like any child
on a fairgrounds pony ride, like my own son
once. Oh the dear one he was,
whose bones lie with his fishing boat
on the bottom of the Irish Sea,
those waters I imagine the fallen Gwynfed
looking out on, weeping for joy
at the crossing of saints in their coracles.

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