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The Calling.

The Calling

(Martinique, 1680)

 On muleback from the harbor, Pere Bellaine
 returns to his parish of plantation
 masters. The moon on the mission's tin roof
 says chastity, poverty, obedience.
 And supper? He forgot to bring in the fish
 that dried all day on the roof,
 gutted and rubbed with sea salt,
 and now lost to lizards and insects.

 Holy orders in the New World, Jesuits
 in the French Antilles--his dream, lost
 because today a letter summons him to Paris.
 "Pere Bellaine, you have failed your calling.
 You have the holy maxims of the apostles
 yet faith no longer drives your desire."

 Last week in his garden planting root crops
 he heard slaves in the sugarcane dancing
 the forbidden calenda--that whirling footwork
 and clashing of bamboo poles, an Ashanti rite
 for summoning the spirits of warriors.

 While a hollow tube kept time against the ground
 for their call-and-response chanting,
 under his breath he intoned the Dies irae.
 And haven't the planters heard me
 during requiem Masses, he thought,
 sing that warning about the wrath to come?

 He refolds the letter on his desk,
 turns to his journal and enters this:
 "Speak the truth of your motive,
 that I serve at the pleasure of slaveholders.
 Are these Africans not essentially spiritual?"
 Some months ago a runaway, one ear
 cut off, came for mercy to the church door
 and he concealed him behind the altar cloth.

 By the time the bell for evening confessions
 rang, an overseer had fed his bloodhound
 that chattel's testicles at the foot of the altar.
 So Pere Bellaine named from the pulpit
 those among the proud and merciless
 plantocracy who began as indentured servants
 in the sugarcane among slaves.

 "Pere Bellaine, you have failed your calling."
 He closes his eyes, then opens them
 on the passion flower he picked this morning--
 its three stigmas signifying the nails,
 its corona the crown of thorns,
 its ten rays the faithful apostles.

 He closes his annals, pinches off
 the candle smoke. Then laughs to tell himself
 the Order will likely install him next
 as confessor to Norman guano gatherers.

Thomas Reiter is a poet whose most recent book of poetry, Powers and Boundaries, was published in 2004 by Louisiana State University Press. In 2009, LSU will bring out his next collection, Catchment. He is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and the Daily News Poetry Prize from The Caribbean Writer, as well as poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has traveled widely in the Caribbean and written extensively about the culture, history, and folklore of the islands.
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Author:Reiter, Thomas
Publication:Journal of Caribbean Literatures
Article Type:Poem
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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