Thursday, November 02, 2006
Partly Witty With A Chance of Sacrilege
The last time I saw Katarina Witt skate was 1994—her farewell competitive event, I think. She dedicated her performance to the city of Sarajevo, where she won her first Olympic gold medal. The music was “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and she had everyone in tears, not least because of what the question meant to Sarajevo in 1994. She was soulful, elegant, with the most magnificent female body ever to wear ice skates -- but she fell once, and she'd been surpassed technically by the younger skaters. She took seventh place. She later spoke very movingly about her disappointment and what Sarajevo meant to her.
So I was thinking what a miracle it is that a woman like that ever becomes a world-class athlete. And a few years later, I had a rough draft of this very long three-part poem called "Messianica." It’s a mess, alright. A work in progress.
The first part is Jesus walking on the water. The second part is Katarina Witt skating on the ice. And the third part (really long, and nowhere near finished, so I won't inflict it on you) currently features Al Gore in a steam bath with Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane respectively playing soprano, alto, and tenor over in the corner. So we have water, ice, and steam, with a kind of historical progression, and the jazz parts have strict rules about vowel sounds for the various saxes -- Ornette can only use long A's, long E's, and long I's -- and some other crap that's equally boring to describe (and, at present, to read). I'm thinking of replacing Al Gore with Bjork and setting the third section in some steamy, geothermal part of Iceland, but I've been working on this thing off and on for more than a decade and still don't know what it means. Hope to finish before Armageddon.
So here are the first two parts. If I knew how to load music, I’d put "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" on here. First in Hebrew, then in German.
A savior arrived,
walking over the sea, carefully placing his feet,
not yet pierced by iron spikes,
on the surface, through which he gazed
into the depths. He was drawn to depths,
would have to be pulled upward against his human will
in the tractor beam of myth. As seen from vantage points
on far shores, he moved across horizons
like a desert wanderer, which he also was.
Seen from underwater, he left only a mild, sucking swirl
for a footprint, the stirring of a shallow oar.
Scriptural mention is casual, as if the writer
(Matthew, let’s say), having fallen asleep
on the fourth watch, awoke to this sight,
but by now was used to such things.
“Jesus came to them, walking on the sea.”
This followed on the heels of other miracles—
the loaves and fishes cloned for multitudes,
the blind now dumb with light, the lame
running into the waves in his wake,
unable to follow, but willing to drown for him now,
to kiss and wash his feet, fresh from the surf,
come up into prophecy and Palestine.
The hem of his garment dripped
salt water and spit, the ancient broth
of earth kissing sky, tongue of lightning,
breath of vapors, ecstatic grunting from the dust,
the sprawl and din of devotee on devotee,
Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee.
A savior arrives,
moving slowly over the water as if it were frozen,
it is frozen, she skates over the still water
with the sound of sharpening knives
or of diamonds being cut, a sound we have heard
yet never quite like this—the blades of her last name
quick slices into the ice, the mind, Witt, Witt,
into the record book, the list of champions
that tells only the ending, never the story—
yet exactly like this. Born December, 1965,
to no known astronomical fanfare, now gliding
through the compulsory figures of the millennium,
retracing her own path. She is of the old school,
surpassed by progress, early training, extended
practice, tiny ice princesses laced up by five a.m.
to spin and jump and fall toward success—
but she arrives past success, always more artist
than athlete, more fire than ice, more gesture
than technique, which cannot save Sarajevo,
more woman than girl, who could not understand
Sarajevo, more Sarajevo than East Berlin,
more Berlin than any city without sorrow.
But what city has not wept for a savior?
By now we welcome the idea that he is a woman,
we do not care if she is a figure skater,
if she smiles naked in airbrushed soft-porn,
or endorses chocolate pudding. Or we do care,
but accept in a savior the missteps, the falls,
the faults that in skating we wince to witness,
“ohhhh...” our own indignities tumbling
ass over teakettle into our eyes—Witt, Witt,
up from the ice, having fallen,
having sought a perfection beyond our imagining,
or hers—not higher perfection, not spiraling
upward through numbers, but deeper, a laceration
into the world, her long wall of beauty rebuilt
of ice, flesh, and air for beloved Sarajevo, now
marred by the bullet-pock a toe’s errant fraction
of fractions leaves behind—that sad smile,
the one with no dazzle, where we see
that she feels she has let down not just an arena,
but a city already fallen, a nation already split,
a world where the stain of cleansing
will never come clean. A Muslim boy speaks
into a camera, pulls the stump of his arm out
the neck of his sweater, a small lever of flesh,
and smiles, “I can use it. I can work with it.”
He says, “A Serb shell does not have eyes.
It was not looking for me.” He is blond, freckled.
The camera is looking for a Muslim boy.
Eastern Europe is looking to the West.
The skater is looking for the space in the music
she can leap up through, into above beyond,
the double distilled to the single,
now the last circling figure,
Witt, Witt, saving us
in defeat, looking