In the Christian calendar, Pentecost celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit into the world. As recounted in Acts 2, the Spirit enabled a diverse gathering of early Christ-followers to hear the gospel simultaneously in all of their languages, healing the disunity of human tribes that began with the Tower of Babel story.
Nancy Craig Zarzar’s prizewinning chapbook Waiting for Pentecost (Main Street Rag, 2007) depicts intimate relationships cleaved by silences, frustrated by communication barriers both psychological and inter-cultural, but capable of being healed by empathy. Divine grace helps some of these characters find the willingness to enter into another’s strange mental world, like the husband who alone appreciates the creative visions of his stigmatized, mentally ill wife. Others remain on the opposite side of the barrier, perhaps because their intentions were not as pure, like the male narrator who is intrigued by his hairdresser’s quiet daughter.
Main Street Rag’s editor has kindly given me permission to reprint the title poem below.
WAITING FOR PENTECOST
I was married beside the river,
to the babble of strange-throated birds.
My husband, whom I hardly knew,
took vows in his language, and I in mine.
How strange, that words are only sounds.
That night his dark hands murmured across my body,
as if meaning were a kind of Braille on the skin.
But he could not find me there.
At last, we grew accustomed to the silence—
my tongue would not hold his language.
When I spoke, he softly drew his hand across my lips
and smiled, as if unwilling
to untangle the nonsense.
Then his mouth came down,
putting out sound like a candle.
In the heavy afternoons,
we passed purple fruit and loaves of bread
across the ocean of our table.
A green parrot in a cage muttered to himself-
a stranger had taught him to speak.
At dusk, when the winds gathered over the water,
I listened for birds calling,
but they seemed to have become mute.
I think the birds here mate secretly,
and live alone.
Once, I dreamed as my husband spoke
his words became colored serpents
whose bellies glistened with tangled markings.
They encircled my throat and hands,
then wound around my head to cover my eyes.
I must have screamed in my sleep,
for when I awoke,
his tentative fingers were brushing my throat.
At last, a sound he understood.
Sometimes in my loneliness
I imagined we were suddenly grafted together at the temples—
a man-woman exchanging secrets through our blood.
One thought could move our four hands.
I am sure there are creatures as strange
wandering in the labyrinth of our woods.
Now I have been married for ten springs.
Each year I wait for a Pentecost that never finds us.
I often dream those tongues of fire
have burned the masks off our words
so we can touch and read their faces.
But in this world, in the shadow of the Tower,
we must choose between babble and silence.
At night, in our attic bedroom,
I sit alone by the window,
yearning for something to break itself with sound.
I am answered by his breathing,
like the brush of nothingness.
I watch as the river darkens,
carrying swans and refuse toward the sea.