Home > Poetry > The Priest’s Confession
by Ai
Published: Fri Oct 15 1982
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
The Priest’s Confession


I didn’t say mass this morning.
I stood in the bell tower
and watched Rosamund, the orphan,
chase butterflies, her laughter
rising, slamming into me,
while the almond scent of her body
wrapped around my neck
like a noose.
Let me go, I told her once,
you’ll have to let me go,
but she held on.
She was twelve.
She annoyed me,
lying in her little bed—
_tell me a story, Father.
Father, I can’t sleep. I miss my mother.
Can I sleep with you?
_ I carried her into my room—
the crucifix, the bare white walls.
While she slept,
she threw the covers back.
her cotton gown was wedged above her thighs.
I nearly touched her.
I prayed for deliverance, but none came.
Later, I broke my rosary.

The huge, black wooden beads
clattered to the floor
like ovoid marbles
and I in my black robe,
a bead on God’s own broken rosary,
also rolled there on the floor
in a kind of ecstasy.
I remembered when I was six
how Lizabeta, the witch, blessed me
rocking in her ladder back chair,
while I drank pig’s blood
and ate it smeared across a slice of bread.
She said, eat, Emilio, eat,
Hell is only as far as your next breath
and Heaven unimaginably distant.
Gate after gate stands between you and God,
so why not meet the devil instead?
He at least has time for people.

When she died, the villagers
burned her house.
I lay my hand on the bell.
Sometimes when I ring this,
I feel I’ll fragment,
then reassemble
and I’ll be some other thing—
a club to beat,
a stick to heave at something:
between the act and the actor
there can be no separateness.
That is Gnosis. Heresy.
Lord, I crave things,
Rosamund’s bird’s nest of brunette hair
barely covered by her drawers.
I want to know that you love me,
that the screams of men,
as loud as any trumpet,
have brought down the gates of stone
between us.

The next four years,
Rosamund’s breasts grew
and grew in secret
like two evil thoughts.
I made her confess to me
and one night, she swooned,
she fell against me
and I laid her down.
I bent her legs this way and that.
I pressed my face between them
to smell ‘Our Lady’s Roses’
and finally, I wanted to eat them.
I bit down, her hair was like thorns,
my mouth bled, but I didn’t stop.
She was so quiet,
then suddenly she cried out
and sat up;
her face, a hazy flame,
moved closer and closer to mine,
until our lips touched.
I called her woman then
because I knew what it meant.
But I call you God, the Father
and you’re a stranger to me.


I pull the thick rope
from the rafter
and roll it up.
I thought I’d use this today,
that I’d kick off the needlepoint footstool
and swing out over the churchyard
as if it were the blue and weary Earth,
that as I flew out into space,
I’d lose my skin, my bones
to the sound of one bell
ringing in the empty sky.
Your voice, Lord.

Instead, I hear Rosamund’s laughter,
sometimes her screams,
and behind them, my name,
calling from the roots of trees,
flowers, plants,
from the navel of Lucifer
from which all that is living
grows and ascends toward you,
a journey not home,
not back to the source of things,
but away from it,
toward a harsh, purifying light
that keeps nothing whole.
While my sweet, dark Kyries
became the wine of water
and I drank you.
I married you,
not with my imperfect body,
but with my perfect soul.
Yet, I know I’d have climbed
and climbed through the seven Heavens
and found each empty.
I lean from the bell tower.
It’s twilight;
smoke is beginning to grey the sky.
Rosamund has gone inside
to wait for me.
She’s loosened her hair
and unbuttoned her blouse
the way I like,
set table
and prayed,
as I do—
one more night.
Lamb stew, salty butter.
I’m the hard black bread on the water.
Lord, come walk with me.

See what's inside AGNI 17

Ai (1947–2010) was the author of seven books of poetry, including Vice (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003) which won the National Book Award for Poetry. She was the recipient of awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and others.

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