Holy Site

In the previous post I gave a link to the poem "Holy Site" by Sarah Wetzel that appears in Boxcar Poetry Review's fall issue, saying it was the coolest thing I'd read that day. Well, a few days later it has pulled me back and I wanted to figure out how and attempt that nearly impossible why. Your help is encouraged.

The poem, not surprising considering the title, is concerned with religion. Though religion is merely an undertone, not an overstatement, which is the ruin of certain religious poems. Doubt and deception, the key tension in religious poetry, seems to be this poem's engine. Here is the first half of the poem:

She tells the boy it's a water tower.
Concrete gray and green, it rises forty feet
on iron legs; egg-shaped, lank and wrapped, the body curves
like a turned bell. The roof rusted through,

it holds water, though only four feet deep, the rest
pours from the metal shell. No one remembers

the year it was built, but its been standing there

a long time. At night, the boy hears the concrete
fall in wet chunks, a low wind whine
through its wide cuts...

The poem begins with telling, and what is being told seems suspect. When I read the first line, I question its truth, the use of the verb "tell" instead of something more direct, perhaps with less possibility of doubt, like "show." From the beginning I am curious to discover what this boy is truly hearing at night and seeing in the day, which later reveals to me that I am complicit in a very interesting phenomenon.

...And he can barely
sleep. In summer, the boy swims
in its dark water. He goes all the way under.
She never stops him, though the water infested
with bird shit and invisible worms
will tattoo itself by winter in small red Os

on the inside of his wrists. And she doesn’t

repeat the whispers: it’s a messiah’s cup, a chalice

disguised as a tower, the water tinged brown
by something other than iron. The barbed wire
fence, the steel barriers, the danger signs
all a hoax. So that no one comes...

The next section of the poem rewards skepticism by creating a larger mystery, where the mother-figure does not "repeat the whispers" of those around her. What has been told to the community, that the structure is a water tower, is false and it is perhaps something much more. This section of the poem goes further than object-relation validity for a community, but more largely shows what can happen when rumors grow: they become myths, and eventually they can grow into religion, or grow to support a religion already in place: see this image for the iconic toast. I can see a spoof of the first line of this poem even: "She told him it was toast." And I realize, that with my skepticism of the first line, I am among the crowd who "whispers."

...What good
would it do? Even if pilgrims appear
with an antidote, even if a single dose could cure
the fatigue and fever, it wouldn’t be enough.

The end of this poem is what has continued to intrigue me. Here, the poem deflates rapidly after the question is posed, as if the rhetorical nature of it was a needle touching a balloon's skin. The speaker of the poem who places us closest to the mother-figure in mind, though closest in action to the boy, is frustrated. The larger comment seems to be, even if a rational answer "an antidote" were given to explain away the mysteries of an object, it would be fruitless; the boy seems doomed to be the object of the next round of myths about the water tower: Why was he sick? What had he done? Is this a punishment?

"Holy Site" does more than present an interesting relationship of mother-figure, boy, and water tower, but comments on human nature, one that is curious, skeptical, and ready to make connections that even an "antidote" will not cure. So what do you think? How do you respond to this poem's message?

*side note, the piece of toast with an image of the Virgin Mary sold for over 20,000 dollars.
image source


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