Iconic Truth

Seeing Resurrection Through Tears

With the year-in-year-out cycle of holidays—sacred and secular alike—it’s easy to think of Easter, and the resurgence of life that it celebrates, as a foregone conclusion. I remember going out to play one Good Friday afternoon when I was about 10; we kids were gathering junk in the woods to build some kind of fort. At the top of a ravine, I stopped and thought about what was happening in the Christian imaginary at that time. I remember feeling that maybe it was wrong to be out having fun. We were young and full of energy. Though I was unclear on what it would mean for the curtain of a temple to be torn in two, I did look up at the sky for an eclipse.

This Lenten season, I found one.

Last year, Pittsburgh, my city, lost one of its great poets. His name was Peter Oresick. He’d grown up in Ford City, about 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where his family worked in glass manufacturing. At the University of Pittsburgh, he met his wife, Stephanie Flom, and began to develop his great talent as a poet. While still in college, he published a chapbook called The Story of Glass, which celebrated his working-class heritage while at the same time marking his movement away from it. He stayed in Pittsburgh, where he was a teacher, publisher, mentor to many, and devoted husband, father, and grandfather.

Peter’s fifties were a time of struggle with brain cancer. He had more than one surgery. As he fought for his health, he continued to write—and to paint. Having Carpatho-Rusyn roots, he was fascinated by icon painting and eventually studied the art form, producing compelling religious and secular icons. In the fall of 2015, I was fortunate to see these brilliant paintings displayed in a gallery at his son’s house: Saints, baseball players, steelworkers, and literary figures like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson at once illuminated and simplified.

I’d been raised Catholic and had seen icons all my life, but it was only when looking at Peter’s paintings that I really understood what Jesus might have meant when he said, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). The simplification of the figures in icons made sense in that we must sort through all of the misleading idols life throws at us to find what it is that we truly treasure and keep it close to our hearts.

… we must sort through all of the misleading idols life throws at us to find what it is that we truly treasure and keep it close to our hearts.

The University of Pittsburgh Press published Oresick’s iconoscope: new and selected poems 10 months before Peter’s death. Here is a poem, “When Icons Weep,” that brings together his love of the icon, his searching verbal intensity, his own fears about mortality, and his complicated sense of what resurrection is:

When icons weep, you are already dizzy
from sin & an urge to run, the gift of tears
seeping up through the hard varnish,

pooling, streaking in rivulets the Virgin’s cheek.
(You feel the crimson in your face.) Tears that lack
water or basic salts. Oil-like & redolent. Like myrrh.

 Like the chrism given off by the incorruptible
corpses of certain saints. Balanced & sober
in the composition of this icon, despite the massive

left hand. Her face displays a grief contained. Bending
forward, your face a shamanic terror. You’re drifting
again … toward your own death? Change subject.

What year? Which parish? Why do icons weep?
They’re hung under onion domes, the priest grins.
Eta pravada, it’s true, from the hour they are blessed

the blest mourn. Hers are the genuine tears of lament.
This church reeks of sweat & lilies & the chicory blue
cloak of the central angel simply radiates

vividness & purity, & when joined with wings
the color of ripe corn, you weep too. This may be your last
time before such a spectacle, & you had dreaded it

because you knew
that when it’s over,
it’s still not over.

The speaker of the poem is in conversation with himself as he views the icon, but that self—that “you”—includes the reader and allows us inside the “onion dome,” which also contains the sense of dread and terror Oresick must have carried during his last years. There was so much to live for. There was “sweat & lilies”; there was “chicory blue” and “ripe corn.” Any encounter with the sacred centers around the iconic admixture of grief and joy. We grieve because of earthly suffering, but also because the earthly pleasures we know will not last. We find joy in the knowledge that we are not alone in this fundamental human grief, that the “dome” represents a larger realm that we cannot see, a realm in which we will somehow be all right.

In the instance of this poem, the speaker’s complex situation intensifies that experience. We are all encouraged to value our experiences—as if each and every encounter in this world may indeed be our last time—but here it takes on a poignant urgency. Earlier in the poem, the speaker has caught himself “drifting / again … towards [his] own death”; so, near the end of the poem, the recognition that this may be his “last / time before such a spectacle” feels like much more than a speculative spiritual exercise. The fact that this recognition is accompanied by dread reinforces the urgency. The reason for the dread is the paradox of death-in-life and life-in-death:

“you knew / that when it’s over / it’s still not over.”

When teaching poetry writing, I often talk about the pull of inevitable endings. There are “arcs” to the way we tell things that have the force of gravity. One potential arc to this poem might be that it moves through close attention to detail, reflection on the icon’s meaning, emotional tremors relating to the speaker’s own serious illness—all culminating in an epiphany that reinforces Christianity’s basic belief in resurrection and triumph over sin and mortality. This is the arc we follow during Holy Week. It’s also an arc you can see in completely secular contexts—even in films about unlikely heroes enduring trials, frequently failing, often losing, until finally arriving at unambiguous glory.

Any encounter with the sacred centers around the iconic admixture of grief and joy.

But the epiphany at the end of this poem is ambiguous and ambivalent. The paradox is simultaneously reassuring and, as the speaker notes, dreadful. Why is that? The speaker’s humanity grieves the fact that the “it”—possibly life on earth itself—will go on without him when he is gone. The intense pain of knowing this is seen elsewhere in Peter’s work—near the end of To a Museum Guard at Shift Change, a chapbook he published with his photographer son, David, after his first craniotomy in 2012. The poem “The Middle State of Souls” closes with this mix of joy and grief:

dashboard radio carol stirs

me bar stool to her bedside
me shotgun remain heir

deserving all my pains
in christ & shadows shall

rise great amen day all saints
still in body say amen amen

& the random god shall rule all
repeating all without me world

without end without me finally
repeating amen amen repeating

amen

Holy Week retraces all of Christ’s steps to resurrection, including his great doubt and suffering in Gethsemane, when even God the Father might well have seemed, momentarily at least, “random.”

The fragmentation of the language in “The Middle State of Souls,” like the ambivalence of the paradox at the end of “When Icons Weep,” underscores the agony that precedes resurrection: the “middle state” of a soul that is simultaneously human and spiritual. It doesn’t end, the world; it doesn’t end, life. But something does end. Oresick’s late-life poems resist the easy arc because his own arc, like the arc of the Virgin’s, included the “genuine tears of lament.”

We see the resurrection through these tears.

Image credits:

Cover – Peter Oresick, Icons of Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville. Photos by David Oresick and Didi Mance. All rights reserved.

Inside – Peter Oresick, “Messiah Over Pittsburgh.” Photo by David Oresick and Didi Mance. All rights reserved.

Ellen McGrath Smith

Ellen McGrath Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. Her writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Los Angeles Review, Quiddity, Cimarron, and other journals, and in several anthologies, including Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Smith has been the recipient of an Orlando Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3 magazine, and a 2007 Individual Artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her second chapbook, Scatter, Feed, was published by Seven Kitchens Press in the fall of 2014, and her book, Nobody’s Jackknife (West End Press, 2015) explores alcoholism and yoga through poetry. She has written on poetry as prayer for Talking Writing.

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