The figure of St. Sebastian, the martyr, is the object of an identificatory moment in Richard Howard’s “Purgatory, formerly Paradise” collected in Fellow Feelings. This one line stands out for our purposes:
so that the arrows in us become our prayers
That is a mighty triumph to turn pain into exultation. (Abetted in the case of Howard’s poem by the hint of race privilege: “we are free / to pray, unless we are holding a sword or scrip, / or unless our hands are tied behind our white back / so that the arrows in us become our prayers.”) Still we are puzzled by the transmutation. There is the intimation of an efficacious process at play.
Consider Howard’s description in the light of some thoughts about the power of damaging words. Denise Riley begins the “Bad Words” chapter from The Force of Language with the following:
The worst words revivify themselves within us, vampirically. Injurious speech echoes relentlessly, years after the occasion of its utterance, in the mind of the one at whom it was aimed: the bad word, splinter-like, pierces to lodge. In its violently emotional materiality, the word is indeed made flesh and dwells amongst us — often long outstaying its welcome. Old word-scars embody a ‘knowing it by heart’, as if phrases had been hurled like darts into that thickly pulsating organ. But their resonances are not amorous. Where amnesia would help us, we cannot forget.
So very tempting to consider scar-words as the precursors to prayer: setting the stage for pleading. Before its expression in language, prayer is more like tears.
and we cry when objects penetrate our hide
writes David Bromige in Tiny Courts in a world without scales.
What is prayer? But an apostrophe to a place of power. Before the address to the power that resides there, there is a judgement, an assertion that there is indeed power there. And an apostrophe? A request for channelling some of that power. How can an atheist pray? By engineering the material world, re-enforcing the shields, and aiming the bow for the heart.
And so for day 1044