Mike Aquilina

A Lion of Verse

Sunday August 23rd 2009, 10:09 am

A few months ago I posted about modern poems about the Fathers. The commenters and I came up with at least enough to fill a chapbook — poems by Richard Wilbur (Chrysostom), Phyllis McGinley (Jerome), Percy Shelley (Polycarp), Bob Dylan (Augustine), John Henry Newman (Gregory Nazianzen), and Samuel Hazo (Tertullian).

My friend (and favorite living poet) Jane Greer has me reading Stevie Smith these days. In her Collected Poems I found this gem:

Sunt Leones

The lions who ate the Christians on the sands of the arena

By indulging native appetites played what has now been seen a

Not entirely negligible part

In consolidating at the very start

The position of the Early Christian Church.

Initiatory rights are always bloody

And the lions, it appears

From contemporary art, made a study

Of dyeing Coliseum sands a ruddy

Liturgically sacrificial hue

And if the Christians felt a little blue —

Well people being eaten often do.

Theirs was the death, and theirs the crown undying,

A state of things which must be satisfying.

My point which up to this has been obscured

Is that it was the lions who procured

By chewing up blood gristle flesh and bone

The martyrdoms on which the church has grown.

I only write this poem because I thought it rather looked

As if the part the lions played was being overlooked.

By lions’ jaws great benefits and blessings were begotten

And so our debt to Lionhood must never be forgotten.

And while we’re speaking of poets. Today the New York Times trotted out the ancient denials of Wallace Stevens’ conversion to Catholicism. Here’s the backstory of the final act of a mind “finding what will suffice.”