Medieval Bestiary Poems by Jane Beal

screen shot 2019-01-29 at 4.10.53 pmMy poems ‘Kyrios,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Star,’ ‘Unicorn,’ ‘Pelican,’ ‘Lamb,’ ‘Phoenix,’ ‘Lion,” and ‘Logos,’” now appear in Integrité: A Journal of Faith and Learning 17:2 (Fall 2018), 77-80.

EXCERPT:

A medieval bestiary is a manuscript book that contains “scientific” descriptions of creatures alongside “spiritual” interpretations of those creatures; these derived from an older text called the Philologus. In the Middle Ages, the traits of certain animals were associated with Christ’s life, the Devil’s threat, or the Christian’s spiritual progress. Five entries in medieval bestiaries were particularly associated with different stages of the life of Christ:  the unicorn with the Incarnation; the pelican and the lamb with the Crucifixion; and the phoenix and lion with the Resurrection.

The Unicorn was associated with Christ’s Incarnation because of the myth that a unicorn could be calmed and captured by a virgin’s purity. The Pelican, because of belief that this bird pierced its breast to feed its young with its own blood, and the Lamb, because of the descriptions of the atoning sacrifice of the lamb found in Scripture, were associated with the Crucifixion. The Phoenix, because of the myth of how it rises from its own ashes, and the lion, because of the story that it roared its cubs back to life again, were associated with Christ’s Resurrection. In addition to these meaningful connections, many medieval people associated Light (“God is light, and there is no darkness in him”) and the Star (“I am … the bright Morning Star”) with Jesus because these were associated with him in scripture. In medieval bestiaries, the Annunciation to Mary, which presaged the conception and Incarnation of Christ, was associated with the light that shines on an oyster because light and dew were believed to help create the pearl inside the oyster. In general, the star was associated with Christ’s birth because the Magi followed it to find the Savior.

The nine poems below were inspired by these images and ideas in the Christian tradition. In the opening poem, “Kyrios,” the speaker sees a collection of animals at a circus and, inspired by their grandeur, wonders if she is hearing from God and asks God for mercy. In the closing poem, “Logos,” the speaker meditates on the sacred name, Jesus, which in the medieval period (as today) was often abbreviated IHS.

Kyrios 

Kyrios, I’m curious –
did I hear you right
in the dark?

Cirque du soleil,
and the cabinet of curiosities,
is still spinning in a lost memory in my mind …

But now, the little boy is dancing
with the little girl, casting light with the lantern
on the wall, dreaming and singing

of a future better than the past:
will you embrace them,
will you embrace us?

Kyrios! Kyrios! I reach out my hand
toward the light from your Star,
as I behold the circus animals in the ring

all of them roaring – lion, lamb, unicorn,
pelican and phoenix, bursting into flames –
as a red cardinal transforms into a parrot

and the valley of peace is pierced
by the beak of my lover’s soul, fearful
and yearning for our embrace, our

embrace, dear Lord! Have mercy,
Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison –
his mouth is so sweet against my mouth.

Kyrios, I’m curious –
did I hear you right
in the dark?

jb

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