“Tunnel of Cloistered Refuge” by Dan Masterson

~after Anselm Kiefer‘s painting, “Sulamith,” 1983~

“Once again, reports have surfaced of a holy woman sequestered in the city’s subterranean world of storm drains and tunnels. The location of her heavily guarded sanctum, a haven for hundreds of homeless, is unknown to authorities, who debunk her existence.” –The Underground Weekly, 1999

Mother Shulamite, her ashen hair in shroud,
Dismisses the threats, but those she tends
Make sure she’s never alone. They are
The throwaways found in alleys, bent
Against crack-vents & curled atop gratings:
The Croakers, the Grunts, the Crattles,
Geezers & Floppers, dozens of Loogans,

Bawdies & Scavengers tucked in with
Tipplers & Hooligans, Snarlers & Bumpers,
A flail of a Rager here, a Defrockee there,
A Prophet who once straddled the curbs for
Bands of minstrels stomping their muddy time
For the only Elegante tapping his wooden way
On a dog-headed cane. All finding themselves

Here thanks to her main runners led by Yves
& Catherine & Fournet who brought them to this
Baggage tunnel long dead beneath Park & 72nd.
Brought here for their greatest comfort,
Bundled up for safekeeping far below blizzards
Overhead, together in awe of the woman who
Raises her hands in a hint of blessing,

Enthroned in a lanterned perch of steel fencing
Strung flush with sponge-rubber slabs,
The high-back Cathedra, its armrest removed
To make way for bench slats & struts & hinged
Relies cut into blocks & screwed to stump-wood
To receive & support her sprawling weight beneath
Layers of burlap robes gathered & draped & sewn

To enhance the dignity she wears as lithely
As a princess at a garden party, but the only
Gardens here grow limestone rosettes arranged
By seepage bubbling up along the jagged curves
Of decaying walls enclosing the shallow platform
Where she sits over damp ground kept warm by
The steam pipes that do their hissing only inches

Away, while she intones her prayers of her waking
Hours for those in her care, fondling the rubbed
& knobby beads she reveres, carved from knuckles
Of nuns long dead in the Convent of Lost Emilia.
This evening she has the company of those most
In need, who watch as she watches over them,
Her lips forming the prayers they feel healing

Their sores, bringing them back from the frigid
Gutters of their dreams. Thirty in all, laid out
Before her, the canvas slings of their pallets
Propped above the wet floor, layered with plastic
Sheets wrapped with newspaper batting: a warmth
Unknown on the streets overhead. She rises &
Descends the ramp to the suffering, allowing

The beads of her rosary to drift across each body,
Her own hands emitting light as soft & blue
As that seen in a child’s eye, leaving a halo
Hovering in place above the brow of those touched,
A sound like muted litany flowing from their throats
In praise of the woman moving about them, her
Fingers magnified to splendor, knuckles inexplicably
Flayed, sculpting themselves into rosary beads left
Unstrung, the gasp of prayers as quiet & holy as bone.

 

Dan Masterson, professor and poet,  was elected to membership in Pen International in 1986. He is a recipient of two Pushcart Prizes and the Bullis, Borestone, and Fels awards. His fifth volume is nearing completion. The Dan Masterson Papers are housed at Syracuse University.

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