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Published: Sat Oct 15 2005
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Saint Catherine in an O: A Song About Knives

On a page of vellum—Saint Catherine in an O—within
a letter made of vine-sprawl, imbricate bulbs, & the scarlet
interlaced whorl of petal cupping calyx cupping stem, a woman

offers her neck. It’s a kind of ready-made scene—the saint kneeling
on a cropped wedge of earth, someone with a crown in a tower,
& a swordsman who is only a frocked booted boy pulling back

his robe for his work—& seems carelessly done, as if the illuminator
chose death to be a kind of afterthought to vermillion. To leaf-curl,
areola, awl-shaped stems, his blossoms’ dazzling tangle. As if

this were response enough. O, omphalos. Meaning center & navel,
meaning the first time a blade touches flesh. And meaning here
a frame of plenitude through which we witness again.

There are no limits to our verbs, our forms:
_                                                                              _think of the knife
that slits an orange or bundled iris stems, the one strapped
to the rooster’s varnished spur. The dagger, poniard, dirk.

Edge that snips the line, whittles an owl, juliennes, traces a lip.
A cut, an incision, a gouge. In Sudan, the story goes, when the slogan
of reform was The Future’s In Your Hands, men scavenged the streets

waving machetes, hacking off hands above the wrists, asking
How will you hold the future now? The stiletto, the skean, the scythe.
The choosing, the mark, the tool. Beneath a concrete bridge,

shirtless & drunk, a boy works his way through the swallows’ nests,
slashing until each mud cone-shape drops into the river, dissolves.
Yet to say so is hardly enough. To say pigsticker, bayonet, shiv.

Because in Waco, behind Benny’s Gas & Go, a man plays slide guitar
with his pocketknife, accompanying the words of his songs—
one about light, the Lord moving on water, about what will be

by-&-by; how blood, he knows, will make him whole, & blades
that changed into doves.
_                                            _ Or because this splendor of color ends
on the parchment in a burnished gold resembling a cluster of burrs,

the kind of thing that would have snagged in a cow’s mottled hide
as it grazed on grass tufts or slogged its way home. Staring,
_               _bewildered,
in the stillness, it may survive this way for a few days more

before it is bled & flayed & turned, as was always its purpose,
into the page of this psalm. Here, near the margin, are traces of
_               _it still:
patterns of skin, a texture like velvet, follicles, the throat’s scalloped
_               _curve.

See what's inside AGNI 62

Matt Donovan is the author most recently of The Dug-Up Gun Museum (BOA Editions, 2022), Rapture & the Big Bam (Tupelo, 2017), the collection of lyric essays A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape: Meditations on Ruin and Redemption (Trinity University Press, 2016), andVellum (Mariner, 2007), which won the 2008 Levis Reading Prize. His poetry and nonfiction have appeared in journals such as Poetry, Black Warrior Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny ReviewAGNI, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He has received a Rome Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Pushcart Prize, a Creative Capital Grant, an National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a Whiting Award. He is director of the Boutelle-Day Poetry Center at Smith College. (updated 10/2022)

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