For the Prison of Skin (A Prayer Triptych)
By Philip Metres• Matthew 8:5–13
You threw me down, Lord, on the bed
I did not know I was making, unmade.
Your arms held me down until I could feel
the panic of prey, could taste the bitter
of ends, the tunnel stripped of light,
Lord, you pressed your terrible weight
against the length of my indivisible
body, your invisible inexorable weight,
Poet Philip Metres created this meditation on suffering, pain, and release in response to the theme of healing and Matthew 8:5-13.
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5 And when Jesus was entered into Caper´na-um, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, 6 and saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. 7 And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. 8 The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. 9 For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. 10 When Jesus heard it, he marveled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. 11 And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven: 12 but the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 13 And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.
For nearly all of 2010, after a muscle tear, I was flung into the hell of chronic pain. The months of pain felt like a divinely-inspired torment, and I could not understand why it was happening to me. Everything I thought I knew about myself, my body, and life was cast into the fires of that suffering. At the time, I read somewhere that mathematics of suffering could be described as pain, times our psychic resistance to this pain.
My resistance to that pain was Job’s: Why do I deserve this? Why has God done this to me? What is the meaning of this meaningless abyss?
After having written many poems about the War on Terror for the book Sand Opera, I wondered if somehow I had taken inside myself the suffering to which I was mere witness; it was if that now I could no longer separate myself from the physical and psychic torments of the abused at Abu Ghraib or in black sites.
The usual suspects of Western medicine could not help me. I turned to prayer, to meditation, to acupuncture, to physical therapy, to acupuncture, to spiritual direction. I owe my healing to many people—my wife Amy, my kids, my parents, Doctor Lui, Father Don Cozzens—all of whom stroked or stoked me back to me.
The poem “For the Prison of Skin” (an early version of which was published in Poems of Devotion) draws on that particular personal odyssey/theodicy, and also reflects on Matthew’s story of the centurion, a soldier of empire, who asks Jesus to heal his servant; he knows he is unworthy of hosting Jesus, but he believes and is healed.
Philip Metres is the author and translator of a number of books and chapbooks, including Sand Opera (2015), A Concordance of Leaves(2013), abu ghraib arias (2011), and To See the Earth (2008). His work has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2014, he received a Creative Workforce Fellowship, thanks to the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, residents of Cuyahoga County, and Cuyahoga Arts & Culture. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland.