“These Lenten weeks are wordless, gray and slow.” It takes poet Elizabeth Spires four verses to get to this line. Before this, the poem’s speaker imagines a more colorful and lively season, as the church garden’s peacock “spread its glorious tail.” The feathers remind the speaker “of doves descending, the promise of a season yet to come” — that is, of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled the gathered disciples and allowed them to communicate with one another across language barriers. Because the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove, the dove remains the Spirit’s enduring symbol.
Watching the peacock’s display, the speaker and two other bystanders respond with astonishing vitality and joint celebration. The woman applauds; the Spanish man reaches across languages (like the Pentecost disciples) to express love to the poem’s speaker. It’s a moment of joyous communication — which the peacock tries to join by crying out. But, alas, it’s Lent, so the peacock’s cry is unanswered.
Then comes that line, in a plodding iambic pentameter: “These Lenten weeks are wordless, gray and slow.” The only “sign” that ever comes is one of disconnection: unstopping traffic, strangers walking “each alone, … not paying attention,” each in its own world talking on a cell phone.
What intrigues me about this poem is its subtle comparison of Lent to Pentecost: images of wordless separateness versus images of startlingly exuberant communication. This isn’t how we usually picture Lent: there’s no fasting, prayer, almsgiving, repentance. The poem’s picture of our current church season is dark and sad. Lent is the loser here.
— Peggy Rosenthal
March: Saint John the Divine
At noon precisely, just as the bells began to ring,
the white peacock in the garden of Saint John the Divine
spread its glorious tail, making a rippling many-splendored
sound, like a sibilant wind rushing through many leaves.
The tips of its feathers, shaped like tiny V’s, reminded me
of doves descending, the promise of a season yet to come.
Three of us watched. A dark-haired woman clapped
at the spectacle, and a Spanish man asked for the name
in my language, then held out his arms and said, I love you.
The peacock turned full circle, then turned again.
It arched its head and cried, cried out, waiting
for an answering cry. But no cry came.
These Lenten weeks are wordless, gray and slow.
One waits for a sign that never comes, and then it does.
While out on Amsterdam, the traffic never slowed,
and strangers on the sidewalk, each alone,
hurried to wherever it was they were going,
not paying attention, just talking on their cell phones.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.