October 2019

Arts & Letters

East Melbourne liturgy

By Nam Le
A poem



Incarnate Word, in whom all nature lives,

Cast flames upon the earth: raise up contemplatives

Among us, men who walk within the fire

Of ceaseless prayer, impetuous desire.

Set pools of silence in this thirsty land

—James McAuley, from “A Letter to John Dryden”,

engraved on bluestone tablet at St. Patrick’s Cathedral


Really? Really? ‘Impetuous desire’? Your

Pilgrim’s Path, your hard south way, and

that’s what you want your first stone to say?


Pity McAuley. Rock bottom, having already

hatched the mouth that’d swallow his,

            burbling flames now

from beneath a slanted font — for gags, for shame.


Opposite, the high vent seethes volcanic,

spews out saturated steam. Scalding black an

entire storey of grey brick wall. Peter Mac


née Presbyterian St. Andrew’s forced

unto another unacknowledged ontology.

            Lost child looking up to mother.


Right so. Vanquished kneel: wrong needs

its upward face held firm against it — this grace

ain’t just gonna give itself. You’ll learn.


They all do. This schoolboy, standing now on the

tablet (‘No, Josh, seriously!’) knows, shoes parting

the recycled water: consequence: comes and goes.


So suffer the errant not given to see

that body and blood in bread and wine

is how we break open the tender divine.




Bulldog, they called you, call you,

always going for the kill. Collared by

your free hand, free will, rucking Aussie Rules


with Roman Catechism. Gold ring bearer, gold

mine son and — Oxford, Propaganda aside —

always better with dollars than dogma


(full coffers, empty pews). Here’s one, then:

            What is the second sin that cries to the skies

for fire from heaven to sterilise?


A clue: not ceaseless prayer.

Against that fire — as they’ve long known down Ballarat —

you’ve got your pooled silences down pat.


No, nothing so airy-fairy. Not skyward spires

but mundane load-bearing walls, where, look —

another clue — a stone slab’s hung, hand-cut, gold-veined:


And someone’s scraped the ‘P’ off not your name but ‘PHIL’.

(Arch-baddy? Big game decoy? Whipping boy?)

Even now, you see: your name protects your name.




The second sin is Sodom.

Against nature; with a different sex; unwed;

or seed of nature voluntarily shed —


Your rules. Abide. Even in the Secret —

the silent Basilica’s loudest fences —

your sins cry to your heaven for vengeance.




That is, if it’s true.

Of course, there’s process due

Even for you. But if it’s true:

            Let your sin cry to heaven.


Four counts: one, three, four, five

Indecent acts with a child

Under sixteen. If it’s true:

            Let your sin cry to heaven.


You grabbed R’s head and forced it down

To your genital region

A minute or two. If it’s true:

            Let your sin cry to heaven.


You told J to take off his pants

Then touched his genitals with your hands

Then touched yourself. If it’s true:

            Let your sin cry to heaven.


Later, you pushed J against a wall

And squeezed his penis and testicles

Through choir robes. If it’s true:

            Let your sin cry to heaven.


Count two: Sexual penetration

Of a child under sixteen.

You raped J’s mouth. If it’s true:

            Let your sin cry to heaven.


Throughout, you told them both to be quiet.

They were whimpering, in shock, terrified.

They said ‘no’, ‘help’. If it’s true:

            Let your sin cry to heaven.


Annunciation, then ascension,

Adoration, then commission.

Now catabasis, if it’s true.

            Let your sin cry to heaven.


But there’s a chance it isn’t true

And they’re trying to make scapegoat of you

What happened, only three can tell

One dead, one mad, and you in prison

With no sins to cry to heaven.


But heaven knows. Time will tell.

If it’s true: burn in hell.


1 Particulars from DPP v Pell [2019] VCC 260 & Pell v The Queen [2019] VSCA 186




As I directed the jury who convicted you in this trial, you are not to be made a scapegoat for any failings or perceived failings of the Catholic Church.

—Chief Judge Kidd, DPP v Pell (Sentence), March 13, 2019


Two kids, equal in stead.

Cast the lots: one to kill

For the Lord. One to lay

Your hands upon its head:

All the sins of Israel.

Send into wilderness

Or cast off Eastern Hill

For Azazel, for us.


And yet somehow you’re the

Scapegoat? The hand of a

Fit man set you off — whose

Hand but yours? And who’d be

Aaron but you — to choose

Sin or expiation?

(And who ransoms, Father,

The loss of your two sons?)


Uh oh — you’re in trouble.

Before Christ the tiger

Came Christ the fish. Christ lamb,

Christ scapegoat, He who spilled

Sour wine from a hyssop branch

Upon His last word. Finished.

Like you. Who dare hang your

‘Small suffering’ on His.


In Attic times, they chose

The most maimed, the ugliest,

Deformed, degenerate

To be their pharmakos —

Ordained holy vestments

Upon them, burned them, stoned

Them, whipped them with green sprigs

So their city might atone;


Romans made brotherhood

With wolves. Blooded and milked,

They flayed the lesser canines,

Hacked out hairy thongs; disrobed,

Then prowled old Palatine

Walls looking for women

Asking to be whipped. Who felt

The pain might quicken them.


So again: Are you goat? Or

Compelling hand? Or what’s

Yanked from the wet hide to whip

Others? Offering or

He who offers? who sits

On the mercy seat and sends

To death and wild lots

Children of other men?




East Melbourne liturgy – 4. THE SUPREME COURT




What’s unnatural is a boy

Of nine, or ten, or even thirteen

Made to sit in a crucible of rare, named rock —

Red Emperor, Alicante, Rosa Aurora —

Charged with flawless discipline:

Stand, silence, sing — in time, in key, (breathe), hold

When all around him intervals flex and flow.

            To incantation make

The chroma and beauty of which confuses him

(The place resounds with joy)

And he feels — for that breath — actual, involving

And perfect for the space he takes

But don’t forget: a slipped quarter-tone, a quaver off

And everything’s wrecked.


And it’s all his fault. Who wouldn’t wag?

Lash for a sneaky swig?

I’ve been there, both choir and chancel —

Call it sanctuary —

Known the spells of voice where no voice dreams

Under vaulted space of hammer-beam

Higher than any shopping centre roof I’ve seen.

            They should get hanging baskets

For the bells, broad lamps of chlorophyll green

For the paned yellow light. Instead, stay

Put. Pay mind: The altar boy cleans up after himself.

The ding and outer whoosh of the 109.

The personal hawkings of Chinese tourists.

The body on the cross like a dying vine.


Carnal on the black elm bough,

Milky irises mesmerised

By Aunty’s logo oscillating still

On our Mary’s breast.

It never stops. Traffic banked round

The Sienese’s crown of thorns, St. Francis

Of the pelican — high Apocalypse bowl.

            Set a watch, O sentinel,

For past the happy-snapping Asians

Are ranks of white coaches delivering kids

On school excursion, farmed whippersnappers

From Archdiocesan reservoirs, ocean groves, yea,

Its manifold heights, endeavour hills, now

Home, in the very heart of the catchment zone.


But I was telling you the ways of yellow.

Morning honey — raw, athrob,

Bacterial with citrus light, through chartreuse,

Arylide, all the urgencies of amber

Till now the nave blazes full conquistador gold.

Till you have seen this you cannot know how

Time slows, and song.

            And ordinary time — that you ended — becomes

Time majeure, time monstered.

No child should be subjected to such a time.

Forced to terms with such stained light,

Sapping the eagle, turning canary to sepia,

The secret of the cuttlefish. But all that was then.

In truth, I’d be glad to be in that light again.


Once I was a child. (Were you?)

One of yours, in fact, baptised Catholic

To vouchsafe scholarship

At an Anglican school. (Immigrant insurance.)

All things to all people was my name

(Ora et labora). A choirboy too,

I learned to loll dead tongues

Over ancient staves

In unbroken voice, diminished harmonies.

There are rooms and there are rooms.

How many times did master come sit by me?

I made room for him, that’s what you do at nine.

I was not afraid (nolite timere), and lucky

That I needn’t have been. For I wouldn’t have known.


Carnal in the sacristy

Engorged by his own solemn mass

Made his robes to part —

(Grave matter, grave matter)

Superhuman feat — wee bit of space —

Chasuble, alb, cincture, and stole

A face, a name, the immaculate love

(That hadn’t been, now could never be)

Blotted out. Then blotted out again.

A shadow steps into the room

A silence cries to heaven

(That they’d believed in, now could never be)

Your gown the great dark rock that moved,

The sacristy a tomb.

Nam Le

Nam Le is a writer based in Melbourne.

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