Orvieto. A hilltop town between Rome and Florence, but so what?—good for you, Orvieto, enjoy your exotic hilltop self, but why would I go there? I already did the pulling-up-stakes thing, and am now settled in the dorm where God has shown me. Besides, they don’t speak English there, they mangia in Italiano cuesto. (Which actually means “they eat in Italian this.”)
Hey, I, Mark Wacome Stevick, teacher of poetry-writing in Orvieto, get you. Example?
First time I’m there, my feet are fondling the firm cobblestones when a shiny Norwegian couple swings up and hits me with, “Mi scusi, dov’è il duomo?”—(“Where’s the cathedral?”)—Ok, good—but I, because I only listened to the “Sing Your Way to Italian” CD twice, can’t really break bread with them—so what do I do but don my Apology Face and explain:
“Non PARLI Italiano”—which I later realize means, “YOU don’t speak Italian.”
“I’m so sorry, you don’t speak Italian…”
So that’s why they went away snickering.
A funny story, and true.
But is it valuable?
* * *
M was a student from Messiah, a Mennonite. She wrote this poem about the crucifix that hung in the convent library where we had class. Here it is.
To the Crucifix
Jesus Christ I must confess
I’m staring at your chest again,
Your naked hairless body hung
Here on this wall again
Good God and don’t you know it’s
Got to be indecent.
High Christ I’ve cried so long for this pierced
Passion but popping up here
Now and again and forever
For Christ’s stake
An indecent eternity you bleed
One has only so much hair to
Bathe your feet in.
Christ I wonder if to relieve you
One took out one solid nail
That held your hand,
If your right arm dropped
Heavy across down the face
Of the sad glass clock
That fixes you,
The minute hand towards the
Swung a circle that would
Move you once
So we could look away.
K went to Houghton College. Most afternoons at 5:00 she walked to a service at a convent where the nuns are cloistered and silent but for the singing and prayers of their services. Once she took me. She said the Amens right with the sisters, and afterward they smiled audibly at her through the bars in the chapel. She told me those services might be saving her faith.
W was a Gordon guy, and he was constantly arriving home noisy and happy after some dinner or service or concert with his friends the Lardanis and the other charismatic Catholics—people who were so salty, so irrepressibly incandescent that the new Bishop of the entire region invited them to hold services in his private chambers.
And a couple days before that semester ended, something took me to W’s room. He was in there among a heap of clothes and books and scraps of poems, crying fat tears. And he didn’t kick me out, and I said something like what you’d try to say then, and after a while he said, “In my life I’ve never felt such belonging.”
In his life.
M’s poem is one that I’m glad got written. It’s honest and surprising and maybe a little worrisome. Honest like the woman at the well: “That chump’s not my husband.” Surprising like the woman who said, “Yeah, but even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.” M’s poem reminds me that God loves problem children like Jacob and David.
—and like M, K and W, who were learning a new faith language in Orvieto. Or maybe adding new words and sentences and silences to the language they already speak. How do you get to the place where you fall in Love—where the Amens are finally true and truly meant? For them it was by pulling up stakes again and wandering, not commuting like Americans, but wandering like foreigners—
into white rooms pinned with crucifixes,
into chapels of communicative nuns,
or into homes where, though you hardly speak Italian, the table is laid, and you’re made to understand: Mangia. Eat. Mangia!