As is the case for many poets, I began this poem not knowing where it would end. I have strong sense memories of attending chapel in grade school—the rough texture of the pew upholstery, the heat of sunlight streaming through stained glass, and, of course, the smells, which open this poem. I was fascinated by the church calendar as a child, especially the liturgical colors, which change according to the church season. The liturgical color for Lent is purple, a penitential color.
chapel smelled like body odor
bible paper & the faint tang
of communion wine, which wasn’t wine
but white grape juice in tiny plastic cups.
the youth pastor preached sacrifice & forgiveness
but forgiveness wouldn’t come until the end.
for lent, he told us to remember. to think
of jesus in gethsemane, so afraid & forsaken
he’s sweating blood, a jesus
who knew what was coming for him.
i knew then i didn’t know
what it meant to suffer.
when i thought of gethsemane or golgotha
or god, all i felt was small & uninhabitable.
so much sunday school & i still didn’t know
how to pray. i found it impossible
to keep my eyes closed when, years later,
we found a lump in my throat
& every pastor i’d ever known prayed over me.
instead i’d watch the fleshy movements
of their mouths, their hands clasped tightly together.
that’s when i learned the violence of surrender.
i wondered if god needed my forgiveness
for giving me more than i could bear.
i learned to pray the same way i learned to suffer.
one day, there was nothing left to do.
Caitlyn Alario is a queer poet from Southern California. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and works as a Teaching Fellow and doctoral student at the University of North Texas, where she reads for American Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Third Coast, Vallum Magazine, Annulet, and elsewhere.