Was your village very Catholic?
Just like most of the German and Hungarian villages. But my parents weren’t religious at all. People didn’t take the priest too seriously, and of course it must have been a very hard situation for the village priests. They had a very lonely life. First on account of celibacy. They didn’t have any families— usually just a cook, but otherwise they lived alone. And they came from somewhere else, so they were strangers in the village. Most of them drank, many were alcoholics, and it didn’t exactly improve their reputation when a priest stumbled off the ladder while picking linden blossoms. Still, we all went to catechism class, mostly because it was forbidden by the state.
Was the church service in German or Latin?
German. They’d say things like God is everywhere, that He’s in all things. So that meant He was also inside a door or a table, or in the plants. And I thought that all these things were watching me. And He was probably even inside me since I’m material as well, so He was probably watching me from the inside, too. That was uncanny. And very frightening. When you’re a child, it can be very scary if you take those things seriously. It feels like a threat. So no matter what I was doing—peeling a potato, for instance—I always thought that God was watching me. And I always wondered, Does He approve? Am I peeling it the right way? Or when I was doing chores— every weekend I had to clean the whole house and was supposed to mop the floor twice, first wet and then dry. But since my mother was at work and my grandparents were somewhere in the garden and no one could see me, I could have easily cut corners and only done it once. But I was always afraid that God would see me. And that He knew everything. And that He’d do something to me or somehow let my mother know. Who knew what might happen.
Another thing they said in church was that dead people were in heaven. So I looked up and that’s what I saw. I looked at the clouds and thought I saw a man or a woman who’d lived nearby, that they were running back and forth, that God was moving them this way and that. Or in the church, during Communion, when the priest talked about the blood of Christ and the body of Christ, and then he’d drink his wine—I thought that was completely crazy. Because I had to butcher chickens once or twice a week, and I’d seen plenty of blood, and as far as I was concerned it was nothing like the wine the priest was drinking. And now and then I’d go inside the church and there’d be a giant plaster statue of the Holy Virgin Mother Mary on the altar, and she was wearing a light blue mantle, and her heart was on the outside, on top of her dress. One time I was there with my grandmother, and I told her that Mary’s heart was a watermelon that had been cut open, because the drops of blood were black like watermelon seeds.
And what did she say to that?
She said you may be right, but you can’t ever say that to anyone.
That was clever.
To read the rest of this piece, purchase the issue.
Stephen Dunn, The Melancholy of the Nude
Ben Lerner, Contre-Jour
Linda Pastan, Consider the Space Between Stars
Frederick Seidel, Aeneidos Liber Quartus
Brenda Shaughnessy, Life’s Work