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Ellen McGrath Smith

Septina on Light

That winter we lined the drive with luminaria,
some sawdust in a paper bag with votive candle,
we had the new monsignor in the parish whose exposure
to liberation theology in Peru made him glare
impatiently at our complacent ways, a torch
of devotion that burned near-brutal, brilliant
in his heart. His arrival coincided with the disco ball.

Remember dancing underneath the disco ball
installed in the school cafeteria as the mute luminaria
of fluorescent tubing wormed through dark? No brilliant
kissing or dance-moves transpired, no candlelit
romance; we weren't old enough to carry torches.
Adolescent slow dancing is awkward exposure,
gropes chopped off at the wrist by one celibate glare.

We would put bikinis on, feed our pale skin to the glare
of a sun made naked by aerosol tears, a disco ball
slowly strobing on our fears of exposure
for the sin of masturbation, or worse, the real thing. Luminaria:
those who had done it already but hadn't been torched
from their dark hiding places and made to face brilliant
indictment from saints to whom great aunts lit candles!

My favorite sound is the slow burn of candles
in winter and summer, the murmur inside the extremes. The glare
of adulthood is also extreme: I'm not nearly as brilliant
as I thought I would be. Fragmented to disco-ball
flickering faces, my generation passes a torch
but it scorches the wallpaper, douses itself; brief exposure
to wind kicks it up again, sparks parceled out: Luminaria's

only some sawdust in a bag, the stuff of junk drawers. Luminaria
sounded like magic, but were just scentless white candles,
dimestore imitations of that famous star—Christ's exposure.
No wonder my grandmother loved the old Latin Mass; she glared
at anyone who tried to pass the pax tecum torch
by way of an English handshake; she was enthralled by the brilliant,
oppressive, unknowing dead language. Disco balls

were equally loathsome to her. At the 2001 North Side disco, balls
to the wall, guys assessed the feathered blond luminaria.
Did they rehearse the lines they'd try, dream of how brilliant
it would be to have a Trans Am to snare a girl in Candies
spikes, how perfect it would be to get one torched
on screwdrivers and drive her to a fleshy exposure?
That seventies story: a drunk driver's vision shattered by glare.

Four Interactions

1. "Gases That Keep Bodies Afloat Disperse Over Time"

CNN's chyron for the latest airplane disaster
is poetic and gross,
at once tatty and tragic.
In footage, families clutch their own sides, open
and ravaged by the sudden removal of bodies they love.
Air traffic continues to crosshatch the sky.
Time is a mouth we're inside of:
it yawns, coughs, chews, spits,
and for long stretches breathes
steady as a yogi or saint.

2. St. Jerome Writing

Caravaggio's saint extends what's left
of the meat of his arms
to the de facto sockets of his death's head,
his on-duty pen erect and ready to write.
With the book's wide breast between them,
Jerome's nose is level with the gap
where the skull's nasal cartilage was,
a mouse to the hole.
Have you ever seen a black more enlivening
than the background in this monastic cell?
Seeing it scythes my guts
and scoops them out with no pain,
like the whole time they were air

& now they're ether.

3. "The angel flies up again taking us with her" (Jack Gilbert)

but my feet scrape the ground
because they must
I mean they have to
see the lawn as
green and black
but also red because
the spectrum, after all,
exists despite the blatant
smacks the senses serve us,
and my soles are beating yolo yolo yolo—
but can they once include the lives
I could have lived
and might live still
if I fill up on blood
and iron and spark
and some unleaded ether?

4. Lynn Emanuel's "Scene with Two Trees"

This is as far as winter will take you aboard the tin waves of its back:
the place where they ask you to drop all your things off the lip
of an ice-coated cliff. Telephone. The Philosophers: Plato to Sartre (What
was that all about anyway?). The eyelash-curler's derivative wink.
Brooch in which infant's about to crawl off the photographer's table.
None of this is negotiable, or as the lawmakers like to say these days,
all of these things are still on the table. Smorgasbord, chessboard,
board of directors. If you don't toss whatever they tell you over
this cheesewire line, this point where even a liar can get no traction,
they will push you, whole body and the whistle of the soul straining
but failing to catch up to the clear lover of gravity in this potato equation.
Only then do they unhinge the clasp that determines if
what you've spared will live. Who knows what the odds are
against it? I'm telling you this in the place of real feeling.

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