Greg Wrenn

of Oakland, CA

Winner of the The Writer Magazine/Emily Dickinson Award in 2013

Flagellation

"You remember I asked you for it—you gave me something else—I forget the Redemption."
                           —Letter from Emily Dickinson to unknown recipient

 

Here in the open portico of the imagination,
it's always the Monday

after Easter in a hill town, I'm biting
the inside of my cheek,

I'd pick at my eyebrows
if I weren't tied to this column.

One daddy
and then another's about to whip me. Their blond beards

catch flecks of godlight,
late morning light that allows me

and you, Beholder, Beloved, to commune like this
in an impossible space.

The clouds grazing the temple's dome,
are they motherships

about to harvest our bodies
then colonize the walled city, the whole rain-starved boot?

And this striped
red floor, is it a map

showing the way back
to unshakeable beauty, truth

instead of smut?
His whip and his

stuck forever in the air
above my flab… You've gotten this far,

I'm bobbing in your mind's walleye,
so tease me with just

the knotted end
of your cat-o'-nine-tails,

and the earth will crack in two,
the sun will go dark:

wings falling like iron bars;
seahorses, plastic bags, a rosewood desk

all crusting over with ice.
Won't you enter my realm

and fuck me up?
I never say no.

An empty throne looks on.

line

Brian Teare on Greg Wrenn

Immediately framing its action within "the open portico of the imagination," "Flagellation" stages a drama that is both metaphysical and physical; its imagistic clarity and cinematic movement allow the speaker and the Beholder of the poem "to commune…in an impossible space." In these ways, it is like many Emily Dickinson poems, where what's figurative and what's literal are often indistinguishable and what's important is the how the poem articulates the terms of both communion and its impossibility. Of course it's in articulating such terms that "Flagellation" differs the most from Dickinson: the time is "the Monday//after Easter" and the scene is "a hill town," and the speaker's "tied to this column" like some kind of Saint Sebastian waiting for "one daddy/and then another…about to whip me." It's a kind of metaphysical leather bar, one in which the speaker experiences submission as a potential "way back/to unshakeable beauty, truth//instead of smut." And though smut seems a long way from Dickinson's diction, the poem asks us to return to her epistolary tendency to couch her deepest desires in postures of submission, to re-read her coy invitations as casting calls to participate in her elaborate costume dramas of attachment and abandonment, ecstasy and abandon: "Won't you enter my realm//and fuck me up?" And though I love this blunt question, and I love that it could be a précis of any number of Dickinson poems or letters, I love even more the final line of "Flagellation," underscoring as it does the fact that Dickinson's actors always perform in a theologically precarious space, where God is as likely in residence as on permanent hiatus.  

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