BY MADONNA HAMEL
Triangles are rarely healthy things when it comes to relationships. But trinities can be powerful forces. The most obvious being the Dad, the Son and the Bird. As a child, I had my eye on the Bird because of its ability to bestow languages. The Pentecost is a feast day wherein the dove Bird drops flames of burning intensity and comprehension on the Apostles and Mary, sitting in the middle of a stuffy room on a hot middle eastern Spring day.
The year I went to visit my sister and her Portuguese husband in a tiny village in Portugal I had a dream I turned into a poem called ‘The Mistress of Pentecost’. In the dream, a mysterious woman is crying because the men in the village are skeet shooting and one suddenly turns and shoots down a dove. “Why did you do that?” she wept, in a choking rage. “Who is that women?” the locals turn to each other from balconies overlooking a narrow winding pathway leading into a village built by the Caesar. “She is the Mistress of the Pentecost”, someone whispers. The next morning I took a cab and then a train to Paris and dyed my hair red. I spent the whole day in The Louvre, pretending I was the Mistress of Pentecost who could not only speak in all tongues but read people’s minds.
“She finds”, I wrote, “she can understand what everyone around her is saying, including the paintings: the open-mouthed sylphs, the supple curving mesdemoiselles, the weeping Marys, the satyrs and the martyrs side by side. Everyone is straining against estrangement. In this room alone we are being reminded, in purples and reds, blacks and blues, in gold leaf and gilt edging, the physicality of love, the lovely rough and tumble, roll and rumble of limbs entwining on the grass and in the bed. She understands that the French man pontificating to the two young Belgians: ‘All zees interpretations of zis painting are false!” is actually saying: ‘All zees interpretations of zis painting are true!’
“A poet from Scotland refutes the interpretation that Magdalene was Christ’s lover which is the agreed upon theory standing before La Tour’s painting of the weeping woman holding a skull, doing penance for pleasures. ‘Not possible!’ he bellows, ‘Magdalene was interested in Jesus because he said no to her body. It was his nobility that attracted her. It was his ‘no’ she loved.’ ‘But Christ was all Yes!’ retorts the Mistress. ‘The embodiment of Yes! The Yes that set the universe spinning on its axis, spinning hopelessly into excess and Now. Maybe what attracted her to him was that it never occurred to him to pay!’ The room is full of a quite lively debate concerning the meaning of ‘yes and ‘no’.
“The languages in the Mistress’ fire dance on her head then enter her skull like melodies. She is a radio tuning into a hundred stations at once, she hears them playing our song. The songs of: A young Japanese woman applying a fresh coat of red lipstick in the mirror in Napoleon’s bedchamber. Of Napoleon himself begging Josephine for another go. Of the tourists cheese-caking in front of the Mona Lisa: ‘What a dog. What’s the big deal?’ ‘Where’s the washrooms?’ ‘Is there a bar in this place?’ ‘Ok Larry, we can go! Honestly, you’d think you were at the dentist.’ ‘These women are so fat! And their tits are so small.’ ‘Nice ass!’ ‘Honey, really, we’re in the Louvre!’.
“And then she sees her, in the corner, the huntress Diana with her stag companion. A statue turned toward Paris traffic, a police car, a jumble of well-heeled shoppers, mourners carrying bouquets wrapped in plastic, to be placed in front of the hospital where they took the Princess Diana just yesterday, to the same hospital where, in the early 1600s, young orphan girls were cleaned then shipped to New France to marry colonists and soldiers. Diana, with bow at the ready, silent, waiting for the moon. She says she is good at patience, she never married, she kept seduction at bay. Her last words were: ‘Leave me alone’.”
Twenty years later, looking at my poems about language, I realize I am still enthralled by Pentecost, more than any other feast on the church calendar. I was once reminded by a Quebecker who compared learning a new language to the symbology of Pentecost, that the gift of the flame was about comprehending the single universal language of love more than about keeping up a multilingual conversation.
This morning on my walk along the river, I encountered Maurice checking on his horses after their ‘pedicure’ last night. He was leading them to a patch of grass where the alfalfa is already in bloom. He’s teaching them how to tether themselves. “That’s a skill we could all use”, I laugh. “Yep. Who knows what they are saying about us, running around like chickens with our heads cut off. Watching us mess things up for them.” It struck me how many worlds of languages are going on all around us, all the time. Do horses talking to each other express love? Do they know the languages of mules and zebras? And the birds. Do they tell each other where the bugs are? Last night, all around the bridge out of town, the swallows swept and soared in the dozens. It was just before the thunder, the clouds were stacking up on top of each other, grey tumbling into pink tumbling into vibrant gold. And then, the bugs were gone. Do they hide during a storm?
Our translations are ‘brute’, raw, at best. Misapprehensions, whether between men and women, French and English, bird and bug, might best be quelled with the gift of contented comprehension. I wonder at the endless parallel universes that expand beyond the myopic periphery of human existence. Maybe horse or swallows have smaller fish to fry, but maybe the meaning of my dream of the Mistress of the Pentecost, mourning the loss of the dove, is to tether ourselves to listening.