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Incense

I cast my words aloft this way and that,
Imagining they’re incense offered sweet
And fragrant, curling in their brief conceit,
Their wisps as agile as an acrobat;
And think of priests the Covenant begat,
Who when they did their solemn God entreat,
The incense was a carrier concrete
Of prayer beyond our earthly habitat.
And yet the smoke another purpose met,
Obscuring sight lest God should show His face,
Which unobscured would mean the viewer’s death.
My words are incense-like in this sense too:
For if my smoky words don’t fill this space,
I just might let the face of God peek through.

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Jeffrey Essmann is an essayist and poet living in New York. His poetry has appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals, among them Agape Review, America Magazine, Dappled Things, the St. Austin Review, U.S. Catholic, Grand Little Things, Heart of Flesh Literary Journal, and various venues of the Benedictine monastery with which he is an oblate. He is editor of the Catholic Poetry Room page on the Integrated Catholic Life website.


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8 Responses

  1. Evan Mantyk

    Thank you, Jeffrey, for this fascinating and well executed piece. It reminds me of Adam Sedia’s poem on incense: https://classicalpoets.org/2021/08/02/incense-by-adam-sedia/#/

    It also reminds me of the Chinese tradition of burning money, sending it over to the other realm to pay off expenses. The Greeks held similar beliefs, as I once edited a book with this story from ancient Greece:

    Periander had a wife whose name was Melissa. Melissa died and was buried; but her garments, for some reason or other, were not burned as was usual in such cases. Now, among the other oracles of Greece, there was one where departed spirits could be consulted. It was called the oracle of the dead. Periander lost an important item and asked the oracle to consult the ghost of Melissa to see if she knew. The ghost appeared, but refused to answer the question asked of her, saying, with frightful seriousness, “I am cold; I am cold; I am naked and cold. My clothes were not burned; I am naked and cold.”
    When this answer was reported to Periander, he decided to make a great sacrifice and offering to satisfy the restless spirit. He invited a group of women of Corinth to witness some spectacle in a temple, and when they were together, he surrounded them with his guards, seized them, stripped them of most of their clothing, and then let them go free. The clothes thus taken were then all solemnly burned, as an offering to the ghost of Melissa.
    When this was done, a second messenger was sent to the oracle of the dead. The spirit, now clothed and comfortable in its grave, answered the question through the oracle, informing Periander where the lost item could be found.

    Reply
    • Jeffrey Essmann

      Evan: Thanks so much for taking the time for these kind–and very interesting–reflections on the poem. I was unfamiliar with the story of Periander and Melissa, and love it. Such a great Happy Ending: she gets a new wardrobe and he finds his car keys (or: chariot keys, I guess).
      Since I’m here, I can clarify some of the religious aspects of the piece, which, even though they’re Judeo-Christian, would nonetheless be unfamiliar to most practitioners.
      “Priests the Covenant begat” refers to the Levitical priesthood established by the Mosaic Covenant that, many years after Moses, was the priestly caste serving at the Temple in Jerusalem. At the center of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, revered by religious Jews as the Dwelling Place of God and, by extension, the Axis of the World. As such, its importance in the Jewish religious worldview cannot be overestimated. Once a year the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to burn incense and offer the prayers of the people. The incense served the symbolic function of carrying the prayers to God, but it also had an eminently practical function as well: as much as the Psalms and other prayers reference the desire to “see the face of God”, it was also held that anyone who actually saw the face of God would be so overwhelmed by it that he would die. (One of Moses’ great distinctions as a prophet was that he “spoke with God face to face”.) So the incense also served as a protective screen. On the off chance that God did indeed reveal His face, the incense would protect the high priest from a direct view of it, thus saving his life. The final two lines, then, reference the built-in ambivalence/tension of a poet trying to limn spiritual experience while words themselves necessarily keep it from slipping through.

      Reply
  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Jeffrey, I am not sure of all the underlying meanings woven throughout this poem, but your words have intrigued me enough to do a bit of research on the subject of incense. In fact, your words have wrapped me in their mellifluous splendor and carried me away on waves of linguistic wonder to ethereal places of intrigue… the mark of a fine poem. Thank you.

    Also, thank you, Evan, for your interesting observations and a perfect picture to frame Jeffrey’s art.

    Reply
    • Jeffrey Essmann

      Thanks so much, Susan. I explain some of the spiritual aspects of the poem in my response to Evan (above).

      Reply
  3. Cheryl Corey

    I don’t quite grasp the religious aspect of this poem, but I appreciate the way you carry the imagery of incense and smoke throughout.

    Reply
    • Jeffrey Essmann

      Thanks so much, Cheryl. I explain some of the spiritual aspects of the poem in my response to Evan (above).

      Reply
  4. Stuti

    Jeffrey, Thank you for this read! I love that you’ve chosen to hero incense almost as a character in the piece –

    “Imagining they’re incense offered sweet
    And fragrant, curling in their brief conceit,
    Their wisps as agile as an acrobat;”

    These lines are so evocative and sharp in imagery. Also weaving your words around incense is so clever because it is common to so many different cultures and I think almost anyone will relate to all or parts of the essence of this piece. I am definitely not aware of all the references this piece makes, but you have tickled my curiosity on the subject. Thank you again, for the read!

    Reply
  5. Jeffrey Essmann

    Thanks so much, Stuti. I explain some of the spiritual aspects of the poem in my response to Evan (above).

    Reply

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