EUCHARIST AND THE POETICS OF FAILURE.
One way of summarizing this line of thought would be to say that sacraments function as sacraments only by failing--that they intimate or imply a fullness of divine presence which they themselves cannot fully deliver. Even in the Catholic view, as Denys Turner has noted, the communication of Christ's presence in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist, necessarily "fails of ultimacy" simply because the "Eucharist is not yet the kingdom of the future as it will be in the future" but instead "points to it as absent" (157). In a certain sense, the fact that sacraments work in this manner is a function of their status as signs. Paraphrasing a standard medieval definition, Jacques Maritain writes that "the sign is that which renders present to consciousness something other than itself" (2: 98). The point moves in two directions. On the one hand, because signs work by evoking something "other" than themselves, they are inevitably markers of absence. Because signs "stand in" for absent objects, their presence implicitly underscores the absence of what they signify. So it is also with the Eucharist--one celebrates the Eucharist not because the Kingdom has come but precisely because it has not, and so the Eucharist itself always and only takes place in the absence of the thing of which it is a sacrament. And yet, on the other hand, because signs work by evoking something "other" than themselves, the very act of signification always reveals an implicit openness to transcendence, a latent desire to pass beyond the sign itself to the reality it signifies. And so it is again with the Eucharist: as Aquinas suggests in his famous eucharistic poem "Adoro te devote," it is precisely because Christ's divinity lies "veiled" (velatus) beneath the figures of the bread and wine that the Eucharist itself fires the poet's desire (sitis) for the full "unveiling" (revelata) of that divinity in the eschaton (68).
In a moving and sophisticated poem called "Poem of the Eucharistic Bread" (1946), the Argentine poet Francisco Luis Bernardez (1900-1978) meditates intelligently and perceptively on these questions within the context of a poem that takes as its central theme not only the significance of the Eucharist as "failed communication," but also the relationship of that failure to the poetic medium in which the writer's own meditation is framed. Like so many other twentieth-century Argentine writers, Bernardez lived and wrote in the shadow of his much more famous contemporary Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), a fact that has served to obscure not only Bernardez's considerable poetic talent but also the degree to which his explicitly theological poetry might be attractive to those of us interested in the relationship between literature and theology. Born in Buenos Aires to a family of Galician provenance, Bernardez spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Spain. Upon returning to Argentina in 1925, Bernardez dived headlong into the Buenos Aires avant-garde, but the romance was short-lived. (1) During a 1926 visit to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the poet experienced what he took to be a vision of the Virgin Mary and thereafter began not only to write almost exclusively religious verse, but also to participate in the broader Catholic Renaissance which, in the aftermath of World War I, had taken root in parts of France and Latin America. (2)
"Poem of the Eucharistic Bread" is neither Bernardez's best poem nor his best-known poem, but it does perhaps represent his most overt attempt both to give voice to his own self-identity as a Catholic poet, and to articulate the centrality of the Eucharist to that self-identity. (3) Further, "Poem of the Eucharist Bread" is not merely a poem about the Eucharist, but also a kind of allegory of the Eucharist, one whose poetic diction frames the process of poiesis as itself eucharistic. Perhaps even more importantly, the eucharistic character of Bernardez's poem lies in the dialectic of failure and transcendence that I described earlier: just as the Eucharist itself fails to make the Kingdom present and thereby fires the believer's desire for its full eschatological realization, so Bernardez's poem likewise fails to make the Eucharist present and thereby invites us to move beyond the poem itself to the sacramental reality of which Bernardez's text is a poetic image. In this sense, so I shall argue, "Poem of the Eucharistic Bread" is not only thematically but also rhetorically eucharistic: the very process of poetic meaning-making obeys an implicitly eucharistic logic. I make this argument in two broad movements, beginning with a sketch of Bernardez's account of the Eucharist and then moving, in the second part, to show how the poem's rhetoric implicitly recapitulates its content.
BERNaRDEZ composed two explicit meditations on the Eucharist: "Poem of the Eucharistic Bread" and "Poem of the Eucharistic Wine," published in the Argentine daily La Nacion in 1946 and 1947, respectively. Both belong to a long tradition of Spanish Eucharistic verse: from Fray Luis de Leon's (1527-1591) "Pan de angeles" and San Juan de la Cruz's (1542-1591) "Que bien se yo la fonte que mana y corre," to Luis de Gongora's (1561-1627) "Al santisimo sacramento," Lope de Vega's (1562-1635) Conceptos divinos al santisimo sacramento (1615), and Federico Garcia Lorca's (1898-1936) "Oda al santisimo sacramento del altar" (1928) (Martinez Fernandez 79-80). At least as significant as the Spanish tradition is the French poet Paul Claudel's "Hymne du saint sacrement" (1909), whose long, luxuriant lines seem to have inspired the sprawling 22-syllable lines of Bernardez's poem.
The differences, however, are at least as important as the similarities. Claudel's Corona benignitatis anni Dei is what I am tempted to call a "liturgical epic," an attempt to recreate, poetically, the totality of Christian liturgical experience. Bernardez's much humbler project, by contrast, comprises a series of placid, emotionally restrained texts that no doubt imply the totality of the Church's liturgy yet without invoking it directly. Further, Claudel's poem possesses a kind of frenetic energy, a surplus of religious feeling that stands in marked contrast with Bernardez's preference for the simple, declarative sentence. "This eternal, living liqueur gives us its light from the altar of altars," reads the first line of "Poem of the Eucharist Wine." Here, as Rogelio Barufaldi notes, Bernardez "intellectualizes" the passionate quest for ecstatic rapture normally associated with religious, especially mystical, poetry (22), and replaces it with a quiet conviction in "serene Christian certainties" (21).
The calm, intellectualized tone of Bernardez's Eucharistic poems makes them ideal resources not only for understanding how Bernardez views the Eucharist, but also for spelling out its implications for poetic language. Both "Poem of the Eucharistic Wine" and "Poem of the Eucharistic Bread" might serve these purposes, but since the latter is somewhat more explicit, I will focus my attention there. The opening lines read:
Yo, que lo miro con mis ojos, se que este pan es el Senor de cielo y tierra. Yo, que lo gusto con mi boca, se que este pan es el Senor que nos espera. Se que la forma de las formas vive feliz en este trozo de materia. (1-4) (4) [I, who see it with my eyes, know that this bread is the Lord of heaven and earth. /I, who taste it with my mouth, know that this bread is the Lord who awaits us. /I know that the form of forms lives happily in this bit of matter]
Various contexts overlap here. The first point to notice is that the poem's dramatic context--the poet's meditation on the Eucharistic bread--belongs to the broader liturgical context of the Mass. The speaker is therefore not simply reflecting upon the Eucharist but also participating in it. He is a communicant, not merely an observer. This liturgical context is mirrored in turn by the semiotic model implicit in the treatment of the eucharistic elements. Each of the three opening lines shares a three-part linguistic structure: the subject or poetic voice ("I"); the sign ("this bread"); and the referent ("the Lord of heaven and earth"). This three-part structure then intersects a further distinction between the perceptual and the epistemological: between what the poet perceives and what the poet knows. In the first line, for instance, the poet "sees" the bread "with his eyes" but "knows" that what appears to be bread is in fact "the Lord of heaven and earth." In the second line, he likewise "tastes" the bread "with his mouth," but "knows" that what appears to be bread is in fact "the Lord who waits for us."
The distinction between what appears to be the case and what in fact is the case is central not only to Bernardez's text but to all Catholic reflection on the Eucharist. (5) According to Church teaching, upon consecration, the Eucharistic elements actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ while still retaining bread-like and wine-like qualities. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting the Council of Trent, puts it: "by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood" (sec. 1376). This is the central mystery of Catholic Eucharistic teaching, and theologians have traditionally explained it in terms of the Aristotelian distinction between substances and accidents. (6) Substances, on the one hand, are things that exist independently of all other things of that kind (i.e., all other substances) except their parts. Accidents, by contrast, are things that exist only by inhering in substances. A "horse" is a substance in this sense, while "whiteness" is an accident, since horses exist in their own right, but whiteness exists only as a white something (a white dog, for instance, or a white napkin). Catholic Eucharistic theology has traditionally employed Aristotle's conceptual apparatus along roughly the following lines. Before consecration, both the bread and the wine are substances; both exist as independent entities in their own right. Upon consecration, however, the substance of the bread is replaced by the substance of Christ's body. The bread, to be sure, still looks and tastes like bread, but only because it retains accidental bread-like qualities. At the level of substance, what appears to be bread is in fact the body of Christ.
It is this distinction between the bread's manifest accidental reality and its latent substantial reality that accounts for the dialectic of failure and transcendence I mentioned in the introduction. In one sense, Christ is "really present" in the bread--not merely "in signo vel figura," as the Council of Trent has it, but also "realiter et substantialiter" (Bibliotheca symbolica, Session 13, Canon 1). And yet if Christ is indeed "really present" in the Eucharist, that presence is also interpenetrated by an equally palpable "real absence." Even in those traditions that emphasize sacramental efficacy and "real presence," the Eucharist itself is also a sacrament of absence: one celebrates Holy Communion in part because Christ has not yet come and because the Kingdom of God has not yet been fully realized. The point here is that however present Christ may be in the Eucharist, the Eucharist itself nonetheless also remains a sign of the Kingdom and not the Kingdom itself. As such, it always and necessarily promises a fullness of future presence which, as Eucharist, it never fully delivers. And this, in turn, is just to say that the Eucharist has an irrevocably eschatological dimension: as the bearer of Christ's sacramental presence, it always stretches out beyond itself to point to the full realization of that presence in the eschaton.
Bernardez is keenly aware of this fact, and the greater part of his poem is occupied by a dramatization of the process whereby the Eucharist stretches out beyond itself, sign-like, to intimate the entire sweep of salvation history. The process develops slowly, beginning as the Eucharist draws the rest of creation into its sacramental play:
Se que el oceano sin fondo cabe sin mengua en esta gota que destella. Y que la selva sin orillas esta encerrada en esta brizna carcelera. Se que el volcan inextinguible se manifiesta en esta chispa de inocencia. Y que el amor inenarrable tiembla escondido en esta lagrima serena. (7-10) [I know that the bottomless ocean fits undiminished in this glinting droplet. / And that the borderless jungle is enclosed in this imprisoned wisp. /I know that the inextinguishable volcano is revealed in this spark of innocence. / And that inexpressible love trembles hidden in this serene tear.]
The idea of the Eucharist as a cosmic phenomenon that implicates the totality of the created order recalls Teilhard de Chardin's (1881-1955) famous prose poem La messe sur le monde (1923), where the French Jesuit philosopher describes creation as, among other things, a "Hostie totale" (23). (7) A similar motif also appears in other of Bernardez's own texts. In "Poem of the Eucharistic Wine," for instance, he describes the wine as "the blessed sea of blood [that] offers itself again, / like yesterday, before our eyes" (91). Similarly, in "The Star" (1943) Bernardez depicts the earth as an "altar" and the morning star as a "cirio" (altar candle) that descends at the moment of consecration ("La Estrella" 130). In these texts, as in "Poem of the Eucharistic Bread," the Eucharist transcends its liturgical context and comes to permeate all of creation.
Later in "Poem of the Eucharist Bread," the sense here that all of creation participates in the abundance of divine presence that suffuses the Eucharist acquires typological connotations as the poet's gaze shifts from the spatial to the temporal:
Durante siglos lo esperamos comiendo a obscuras el manjar del viejo rito. Y senalando nuestras puertas con una sangre que era sangre y era simbolo. [...] Quien al mirarlo no se acuerda del que llovio sobre la vieja caravana? Quien al gustarlo no se acuerda del que comimos en la tierra solitaria? (11-12, 21-22) [For centuries we waited, feasting on the food of the old rite. / And marking our doors with a blood that was blood and symbol. /[...] Who, upon seeing it, does not recall the bread that rained upon the old caravan? / Who, upon tasting it, does not recall the bread we ate in lonely lands?]
Typological interpretation of the sacraments was a commonplace in patristic and medieval theology (Crockett 73-77), and here Bernardez follows that tradition by imaginatively reading himself back into the story of ancient Israel: we, not they, ate the bread of the old rite; we, not they, marked our doors with blood. This way of stating the matter raises a host of vexed and controversial questions about the relationship between the church and Israel, but here I would like to set those questions to one side and note simply that Bernardez's imaginative rereading of the "old rite" is but a prelude to the real focus of the poem.
In the following two stanzas he writes:
Su luz que alumbra y alimenta brilla sin tregua en el altar y en la custodia. Y desde el fondo del sagrario se multiplica sin descanso en limpias ondas. Cruza los muros de materia que la separan de los seres que ambiciona. Vence las puertas que resisten a la profunda caridad que la devora. Pisa el umbral de las tinieblas, entra en la ciega obscuridad, busca en las sombras. Y al fin reposa en nuestras aimas, que son estrellas apagadas y remotas. [...] Y a todas juntas las abraza con un amor incomprensible para todas. (31-36, 38) [Its illuminating and nourishing light shines without cease in the altar and the monstrance. /And from the depths of the tabernacles it multiplies tirelessly in clear waves. / It crosses the walls of matter that separate it from the beings it desires. / It vanquishes the doors that resist the profound charity that devours it. / It treads the threshold of darkness, enters into blind obscurity, searches in the shadows. / And at last it reposes in our souls, which are distant and extinguished stars. /[...] /And it embraces them all together in an incomprehensible love.]
The verbal subject in each of these lines is the Eucharistic bread, figured metaphorically as "light," but the passage as a whole takes its lead from the opening verses of John's Gospel. The "light" that "treads the threshold of shadows" and "enters into blind darkness," for example, recalls John's description of the Incarnate Word as the "light [that] shines in the darkness" (John 1:2). That same light's passage across the "walls of matter" likewise echoes the decisive moment when the eternal Logos "took on flesh," while the reference to its conquest of "the doors that resist its profound charity" evokes John's conviction that "the darkness did not prevail against it" (John 1:3). Even the phrase "reposes in our souls" is a delicate poetic paraphrase of "dwelled among us" (John 1:4). For Bernardez, then, the Eucharist derives its power by recapitulating or "re-presenting" the Incarnation. As the concluding line suggests, moreover, the principal effect of this recapitulation is nothing less than union with Christ himself. If the Incarnation unites heaven and earth, the Eucharist makes that union sacramentally present in the poet's own life.
In an important sense, Bernardez's cosmic and incarnational interpretations of the Eucharist are part of the same, broader story. Because it joins Christ to the flesh, and hence to the world of matter, the Incarnation of the Logos at once anticipates, and lays the foundation for, the transformation of the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood. At the same time, moreover, the Eucharist itself, as Michael Figura notes, is a kind of "sacramental incarnation": a repetition or reenactment of the "transformation" that took place in Mary's womb. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr draws the connection clearly. "Just as our savior Jesus Christ was made flesh through the word of God," he writes, "so we are taught that the food blessed [eucharistetheisan] by the prayer of his word is the flesh and blood of the Incarnate Jesus" (428-29). It is thus possible to say, as Bernardez in fact does say, that the eucharistic Host contains within itself the "bottomless ocean" and the "borderless jungle" only and precisely because, through the Incarnation, the divine Logos has already joined itself to the world of matter.
In the following stanza, Bernardez filters this account of the Eucharist's cosmic and incarnational implications through another Christologically charged metaphor:
La luz penetra en los lugares mas silenciosos y en los sitios mas obscuros. Y va llegando con sus rayos hasta los ultimos rincones de este mundo. En los mas frios y olvidados abre con honda caridad su blanco puno. Y de su mano bienhechora deja caer una semilla en cada surco. Luego de haberlos fecundado, vuelve cantando hacia su sol eterno y puro. Y en su reflujo melodioso va cosechando nuestros seres, uno a uno. (41-46) [The light penetrates the quietest places and the darkest spaces. / And its rays reach the uttermost corners of this world. / In the coldest and most forgotten corners it opens with profound love its white hand. / And from its benevolent hand it drops a seed into each furrow. / After fertilizing them, it returns, singing, to its pure and eternal sun. / And in its melodic ebb it harvests our beings, one by one.]
The reference to the light that "penetrates silent places and shadowy spaces" continues the Incarnation motif mentioned earlier, while the subsequent images of sowing and reaping add an additional layer of meaning. Images of sowing and reaping of course run deep in Christian theology. One thinks, for instance, of the Parable of the Sower, or perhaps of the closing verses of 1 Corinthians 15, where St. Paul draws a metaphorical link between the sow/reap binomial and Christ's death and resurrection. In Bernardez's poem, this same motif plays itself out in an unmistakably eucharistic key. Christ's "white hand," for instance, not only signals his purity and love, but also describes the actual whiteness of the eucharistic Host (line 43). In the following lines, the poet develops the metaphor further: after "dropping a seed into each furrow," Christ "fertilizes" the land and then "harvests our being one by one" (lines 44-46). The use of such agricultural metaphors is relatively common in Spanish eucharistic verse. In his "Del Santisimo Sacramento, sobre un amasijo" (1614), for instance, Alonso de Bonilla (1570-1642) presents Christ's life from conception to Eucharist in terms of the lifecycle of grain: from planting and reaping, to grinding, sifting, kneading, and baking (271-72). In "Molieronle en una cruz" (1612), the seventeenth-century Spanish poet Jose de Valdivielso (1565-1638) likewise describes the Eucharist as a grain of wheat that God "plants in the Virgen," and then grinds, sifts, "bakes in the oven of love," and serves as Holy Communion (59). (8)
Given his debt to Spanish eucharistic poetry, Bernardez was almost certainly familiar with these texts and is likely alluding to them here. And yet he also works a telling transformation of his source material. Perhaps most importantly, by presenting Christ as a sower who "drops a seed into each furrow" and then "harvests our beings one by one," Bernardez subtly transfers the image of sowing and reaping from the eucharistic Christ himself to those who participate in the Eucharist. It is they, after all, not Christ, who are planted as seeds, "fecundated" (fecundado), "harvested," and carried away to the "pure and eternal sun." The entire circuit of salvation from Creation to Kingdom is thus rendered not only in explicitly eucharistic terms, but also in terms analogous to the production of eucharistic bread itself. In the poem's closing lines, Bernardez extends the metaphor still further:
Pero esta vez lleva consigo nuestros mas intimos destellos, que son suyos. Bien abrazada con nosotros, entra por ultimo en el cielo sin crepusculo. Y se confunde con el astro que esta escondido en este pan que miro y gusto. (48-50) [But this time it carries with it our most intimate sparks, which are its own. / Embracing us tightly, it enters at last into duskless heaven / And mixes with the star hidden in this bread that I see and taste.]
Here the narrative logic of the poem reaches its climax as the eucharistic Christ at last ushers the souls he has gathered unto himself into the kingdom of heaven. What thus began as an unassuming meditation on the Eucharist has now run the full circuit of cosmic and salvation history: from the bread of the "old rite" through the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Eucharist, culminating finally in the full manifestation of God's presence in "dusk-less heaven." For Bernardez, then, the Eucharist contains within itself the whole sweep of Christian redemption from creation to eschaton, and to participate in the Eucharist is to participate sacramentally in that redemption.
THE key word, however, is "sacramentally." No sooner in fact does the poem complete the circuit of redemption than it returns somewhat abruptly and unexpectedly to its point of origin: "this bread that I see and taste." Bernardez's text thus ends where it began: with the poet observing and tasting the eucharistic bread. The journey from Eucharist to Kingdom circles back to the poet's present, to the liturgical context of the Mass, and most importantly to the unmistakably signlike character of the bread. In terms of the poem's narrative arc, the implication is clear: to the extent that the Eucharist makes the Kingdom present, it does so as a sacramental sign, not as the thing itself, and hence only in the sign's characteristic mode of present absence. The poet's emphasis on the sign-like character of the bread, which frames the poem at beginning and end, is further mirrored by the form and content of Bernardez's poem itself. On the one hand, "Poem of the Eucharistic Bread" is, like all poems, a collection of signs. As a specifically eucharistic poem, however, it is also a sign about a sign: that is, a poetic sign that has as its referent the eucharistic sign. Its form (poem as sign) thus mirrors its content (poem about a sign).
Perhaps we can get a better handle on the importance of this point by attending carefully to Bernardez's language. Consider again the poem's opening line: "I, who see it with my eyes, know that this bread is the Lord of heaven and earth." What is the poet doing here? At least three things. First, he sees a piece of bread. Second, he interprets that piece of bread as a sacramental sign of the "Lord of heaven and earth." Third, he transmits both the experience of seeing the bread and the interpretation of it as the Lord of heaven and earth to the poem's readers in and through the poem. The result is that what the poet experiences as sacramental sign (the eucharistic bread itself), we readers experience as poetic sign (the linguistic signifier "bread"). Where the poet, in other words, experiences the actual Eucharist, we readers experience a kind of "poetic Eucharist," a Eucharist made of poetic signs. And this means that our relationship with the poetic sign is precisely analogous to the poet's relationship with the eucharistic sign. The poem itself is thus a kind of allegory of the Eucharist: a Eucharist "spoken otherwise" (the literal meaning of "allegory"), one that makes present to us as poem what the Eucharist itself makes present to the poet as sacrament.
But how does this "allegorical Eucharist" work? And what exactly does it reveal? Part of the answers lies somewhat earlier in the poem. In a line from the first stanza, cited earlier, the poet writes: "I know that the inextinguishable volcano reveals itself in this spark of innocence. / And that inexpressible love [amor inenarrable] trembles hidden in this peaceful tear" (9-10). The key word is inenarrable, a term that generally means "inexpressible," "ineffable," or "unsayable" and whose corresponding verb, enarrar, means simply to "say," "tell," or "relate." In the context of a poetic meditation on Eucharist and Incarnation, however, Bernardez's use of inenarrable strongly evokes the Vulgate translation of John 1:18: Deum nemo vidit umquam unigenitus Filius qui est in sinu Patris ipse enarravit (John 1:18: "No one has ever seen the father: the only begotten son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him"). Here the key term is enarravit, echoed in Bernardez's phrase "amor inenarrable," and the point is straightforward: to the extent that the Incarnation is the Son's "ennarration" or "exegesis" of the Father, and to the extent that the Eucharist is a sacramental recapitulation of that "ennarration," Bernardez's text is a sort of poetic reinscription of both: an attempt to "ennarrate" Christ's incarnational and sacramental presence in and through poetic language. (9) But--and this is the central point--if Bernardez's poem is indeed an attempt to "ennarrate" Christ's eucharistic presence, it is also a manifestly failed attempt. In fact, by its own explicit admission, the poem as a whole is an attempt to do what cannot be done: to narrate the "inenarrable," to say the unsayable, to put into words what cannot be put into words.
The explanation of this failure lies along two distinct but related axes. The first part of the explanation has to do with the unspeakable mysteriousness of Christ's presence in the Eucharist itself, which, as Aquinas remarks in third part of the Summa, "cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone" (3, q. 75, a. 1). But the same failure also has to do with the nature of Bernardez's text as, precisely, a poem. Where the poet sees bread on the altar, and tastes that bread with his mouth, we readers, by contrast, see only a string of linguistic signs: "taste," "bread," "eyes," "mouth," and so forth. And whatever else these linguistic signs might do, they manifestly do not permit us to see the bread with our eyes or taste it with our mouths. They do not, in other words, make present to us as readers what the Eucharist itself makes present to the poet. Taken in this sense, moreover, the poem's failure is not merely accidental, as if it might have succeeded had the poet only tried a bit harder. It is instead a failure constitutive of the poem as poem. To the extent that a poem is a thing made of language, and to the extent that something made of language seeks to describe something insusceptible of linguistic description, it will not only fail but necessarily fail.
In one sense, of course, Bernardez's poem is not unique on this point. The failure of language is a characteristic of all poems, indeed of all language use. One need not accept the slightly overwrought linguistic nihilism of post-structuralist orthodoxy to see that, whatever else they may do, linguistic signs do not, under ordinary circumstances, bring about the real, bodily presence of what they signify. But Bernardez's poem is different, and in that difference what I have called its "allegorical" nature comes into yet sharper focus. For if "Poem of the Eucharistic Bread" fails, its failure is analogous to the failure of the Eucharist itself. In fact, if Turner is right that the Eucharist is "not yet the kingdom of the future" but instead "points to it as absent," we may likewise say that the Bernardez's poem is not the Eucharist itself, but instead a kind of supplement, a sign that makes present as poem what for the reader remains absent as sacrament. Indeed, just as the Eucharist, as the sacrament of a future glory, is always a subtle reminder of its own failure of ultimacy, so Bernardez's poem, as a poetic allegory of the Eucharist, is also a reminder of its own failure of ultimacy, its constitutive inability to narrate the unnarratable, to make present, in language, a reality that always and ultimately resists linguistic description.
It is in this sense, finally, that Bernardez's poem is not merely a poem about the Eucharist but also a eucharistic poem: that is, a poem whose diction doubles or recapitulates its eucharistic content. For in the process of describing the Eucharist's failed attempt to bring to presence the Kingdom of God, the poem likewise fails in its own attempt to bring to presence the Eucharist itself. Just as Bernardez's poem ends where it began--with the liturgical context of the Mass and the unmistakably sign-like character of the bread--so our experience of reading the poem also ends where it began: with a string of linguistic signifiers that, for all their poetic and rhetorical power, can be neither touched, tasted, smelled, or consumed.
But this is only part of the story. For if Bernardez's poem fails, as indeed it does, that failure is also a provocation. By attempting, and failing, to bring the Eucharist to presence, "Poem of the Eucharistic Bread" functions, to adapt a phrase of Stanley Fish, as a kind of "self-transcending artifact": a performative invitation to its readers to set aside the poem and to experience sacramentally what it itself offers only poetically. (10) Or, to put the point in a slightly different way, "Poem of the Eucharistic Bread" is not merely an expression of the poet's desire for the Eucharist, nor even simply an expression of the poet's desire for the eschatological kingdom that the Eucharist promises. It's also an expression of desire for the Eucharist designed to provoke the reader's desire for the Eucharist. Here Aquinas's "Adoro te devote" provides an instructive model. The opening stanza reads:
I devoutly adore You, Hidden Deity, Under these figures [sub his figuris] concealed; My whole heart submits itself to you, For, seeing you, all else must yield. (68) (11)
The second line is key, where the term figurae refers not only to the bread and wine as sacramental signs of Christ's body and blood, but also to the poetic figurae that compose Aquinas's poem itself. In the same sense, moreover, both Aquinas's and Bernardez's poem are analogues of the Eucharist itself. Just as the risen and glorified Christ lies hidden beneath the "figures" of the eucharistic elements themselves, so also the Eucharist itself lies hidden beneath the poem's rhetorical figures. Perhaps even more importantly, just as, for Aquinas, the hiddenness of Christ's divinity in the eucharistic elements is designed to provoke the communicant's desire for the "unveiling" of that divinity in the beatific vision, so the hiddenness of Christ in the poetic sign is likewise designed to fire the reader's desire for Christ's presence in the sacrament. In both cases, moreover, the measure of success is failure: only by failing to make Christ present as he will be present in the Kingdom does the Eucharist stir the poet's desire for Christ's presence in the Kingdom, and only by failing to make Christ present as he is present in the Eucharist does Bernardez's poem stir the reader's desire for Christ's presence in the sacrament.
HERBERT McCabe once remarked that "poetry is language trying to be bodily experience" (138). This seems right, as far as it goes. In Bernardez's case, however, one might be more inclined to say that poetry is language trying to be sacramental experience--that is, language that seeks to render the Eucharist present to us as it is present to the poet. In one sense, naturally, "Poem on the Eucharistic Bread" fails on this score: as a poem, it delivers not the Eucharist itself but a poetic substitute, a Eucharist made of poetic signs. And yet, in another sense, precisely because it fails, Bernardez's poem might also be understood as an exercise in eucharistic mystagogy. If Denys Turner is right that the Eucharist is a "communication of the risen kingdom" given only "on the condition of its ultimate failure" (153), then Bernardez's poem, by dramatizing the dialectic of failure and transcendence that characterizes sacraments as sacraments, also enacts or performs part of the meaning of the Eucharist itself. The poem's failure, like the failure of the Eucharist, is therefore not failure tout court, but failure as prefiguration or foreshadowing. In fact, just as the Eucharist stretches out beyond itself to promise a fullness of meaning that, as sacrament, it can prefigure but never fully deliver, so likewise "Poem on the Eucharistic Bread" invites us to participate in language's own self-transcendence--its quest to reach out beyond itself, to become something other than what it is, and thereby to suggest, imperfectly, the reality of the Eucharist without yet fully enacting it.
(1) For a helpful account of Bernardez's relationship to the avant-garde, see Lacunza and Martinez Cuitino.
(2) For a biography of Bernardez, see Barufaldi. For more on the Catholic Renaissance in general, see Schloesser. With a few exceptions, recent criticism of Bernardez is relatively sparse. Ana Maria del Gesso Cabrera, for instance, describes him as "a 'strange' poet, seldom read and barely mentioned in academic circles" (36). For a recent attempt to situate Bernardez within twentieth-century Argentine religious poetry, see Rodriguez Francia (58-73). Martinez Fernandez has updated Rodriguez Francia's work and attempted to position Bernardez within the broader currents of twentieth-century Latin American poetry (78-120). Among English-language critics, I have two previously published articles on Bernardez: one on the relationship between the Eucharist and music, and another on the centrality of eros in his eucharistic theology. See Glover, "Music" and Glover, "Eros."
(3) Bernardez's self-identification as a Catholic poet is well documented (see Adur 155-56), as is the centrality of the Eucharist to his broader poetic vision (see Glover, "Music" and Glover, "Eros").
(4) Here and throughout I cite this text by line number. Because Bernardez's poetry has not yet been published in English translation, all translations are mine.
(5) As various critics have noted, Bernardez's poetry was deeply indebted not only to Catholic theology in general, but to scholastic theology in particular--and. more particularly still, to the thought of Thomas Aquinas. The influence is so pronounced, in fact, that one critic has remarked that certain of Bernardez's poems read like "the versification of scholastic arguments" (Aragon 42). Bernardez's debt to Aquinas was part of a broader Neo-Thomistic renaissance in early twentieth-century Argentina, spurred in part by the founding in 1922 of the Courses on Catholic Culture (Cursos de cultura catolica), a movement of mostly lay Catholics influenced by Aquinas's thought and committed to bringing the Catholic faith to bear on broader social and cultural questions. For more on the Cursos, see Burdick (30-31) and Devoto (231-62). For more on Bernardez's "Neo-Thomistic formation" and its influence on his poetry, see Gamo (137-42). For a helpful overview of the Neo-Thomistic movement within Argentine theology, see Sciacca (456-59) and Cuy (205-12). I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to make this point more explicit.
(6) For a fuller account, see Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 3, a. 75, qq. 1-8.
(7) Chardin was not widely read in Argentina until the 1960s, and it is not clear whether Bernardez was already familiar with his work when he composed "Poem of the Eucharistic Bread." See Burdick (130-32) for more on Chardin's influence on Argentine Catholicism.
(8) For more on the use of this image in Spanish eucharistic poetry, see Mayo (754-56). For an account of the same image in the broader Christian tradition, see Moreno Martinez (314-50).
(9) For a more detailed discussion both of the Incarnation as the Son's "exegesis" or "enarration" of the Father and of the linguistic implications of this interpretation in the Christian tradition, see Toom (259).
(10) Fish's original phrase, of course, is "self-consuming artifacts."
(11) My rendering of the opening stanza of Aquinas's poem makes two modifications to the published translation. First, in order to highlight the connection between poetic "figures" and the figurae of the Eucharist (i.e., the bread and wine), I render sub his figuris in line 2 as "under these figures" rather than "under these appearances." Second, I render line 3 as "My whole heart submits itself to you" rather than "To you my heart surrenders self." I do this for three reasons. First, I think "submit" better captures the force of subiicit, though, admittedly, the difference is slight. Second, I included "whole" to preserve Aquinas's totum (cor meum totum). Third, and most importantly, while I like the sound and rhythm of "To you my heart surrenders self," it strikes me as perhaps too poetic as a translation of Aquinas's somewhat more prosaic Tibi se cor meum totum subiicit.
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|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
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