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Letter to Lyon from the Mission Miserere (Guadeloupe, 17th July 1656).


 My dear brother: When you open this
 your Syrah should be glorious for harvest.
 I wish I were beside you. That granite soil
 is no less suffused with God's grace
 than are the Vatican's marble floors.
 Chateau Rivard, where rainwater becomes wine!
 Father passed those terraces along the Rhone
 to us both but I chose holy orders--
 and got hurricanes instead of the mistral.
 How I loved the clusters' color, like the sheen
 on a starling, which we do not have in the Antilles.
 Your bushel basket and my chalice--there we are.
 Forgive this briary sprawl, this unburdening.

 Phillipe, I have a letter from Rome,
 from the Father General of the Jesuits. It says,
 "Holy Mother Church awaits the souls
 of your savages. They have no laws, books, judges."
 (Or epistles from superiors, I allow myself.)
 "Have you lost your ardor for the Word?
 In three years you have baptized only two,
 and both were old women, dying."

 I want to ask, Is my calling then to give the Caribs
 brandy as some missionaries do, thereby
 tallying souls by the hundreds? I know
 men who have been baptized a dozen times!
 I have witnessed how they greet one another,
 fresh from brandy baptisms: fingertips to forehead
 and then--Lamb of God--to scrotum,
 after which, left shoulder and right. They bow,
 hands placed together as if praying. Then laugh,
 they go weak laughing, they cry
 Father, Son, Holy Ghost in our language.

 When I teach them how original sin
 made their souls black as volcanic sand
 they listen, but do not want a Paradise
 unlike their lives before we came.

 We call them cannibals and take their lands.
 Why then, they challenge me,
 consume the body and blood of Christ?
 When I present the mystery of the Trinity
 they counter they have three spirits in one:
 in head, heart, and arm, because each has a pulse.
 And so our disputations run.

 Ah, Phillipe, I remember fall pressings, the grapes'
 fragrance of pepper, blackberries, plums.
 And Father with his pipette testing
 vintages in the oak barrels. Those days!
 Do you remember the sunburst shrine
 that stood on our mantelpiece? Now your
 mantelpiece, perhaps in view as you read this.
 One time as a child I turned it upside down
 searching for the saint's name
 and the relic came loose, disappeared,
 and I had no way to get in there. How
 would it ever again be able to answer prayers?
 Already the proto-conscience of a priest!

 Likely the Father General's next letter will assign me
 to build a mission on some tiny islet
 like Terre-de-bas or La Desirade, where I'll administer
 the sacraments to Norman guano gatherers.
 Obediently in Christ, your loving brother Pierre.


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Author:Reiter, Thomas
Publication:Journal of Caribbean Literatures
Article Type:Poem
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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