John C. Mannone
A clandestine group gathers in the hideaway room
below the house. The trapdoor under the thick carpet
will muffle their prayers. Red tin lamps illuminate
faces in pensive expectation. Grotesque shadows
flit in quiet panic along the chalk-white walls.
An old man in a brown tunic, hunched over the podium,
clutches the sacred book with knobby fingers. Opens it.
He stares at the rare delicate pages. Words appear
alive, written on cotton. He closes his eyes and speaks
in a deep, gentle voice, the Gospel of John:
so that in Me you may have peace.
In the world you have tribulation,
but take courage; I have overcome
Occasionally he stops to breathe deeply, smiles
creasing his face; blue eyes reflect the candles.
The penitents, on their knees, chant melodic prayers,
glossolalias echo off the stained glass on the hidden
chamber walls. But the fluence of halleluiahs
is interrupted by stomps from heavy boots and harsh
voices—soldiers searching for us. We are the criminals
of the State. Sounds grow louder. Then the rug
is pulled aside. They storm down the cellar steps.
No escape. We huddle in the corner and remain silent
to the indictments even though the evidence lay open
on the spindled stand. The commandant marches
toward the illegal book with a smirk on his face.
Picks it up…but his elocution of charges is suspended
mid-sentence. In outrageous disquiet, he shuffles pages,
turning one after the other. He lets the book fall
through his fingers. Demands to know the trickery
perpetrated here. The old man simply smiles. Candle
flames flicker in the hurricane lamps, ghost shadows
dance on blank white pages—the holy air quietly stirs.
Poet’s Notes: This poem has its roots in the political sentiment toward sacred literature. In 2009, when this poem was first drafted, it was only speculation that certain works, like the Bible, would eventually be considered “hate literature” by extreme leftists. Apparently, this was already occurring at that time in countries in 2009, and most certainly there is continuing erosion of religious freedoms in our own country today in 2016. I thought of how the Jews had to hide from the Nazis in 1930s/1940s and I drew parallels in this poem’s time period between Christians and the “State” in whatever futuristic world-order system we would be living in in not the too distant future.
The quintet structure of the poem is no accident, but its significance is not likely to be noticed by many readers. In Biblical numerology, 5 is the number for grace—and there is a bunch of that for the penitents in the poem concerning their would-be crimes.