“Tell the beads
of the chromosomes
like a rosary, Father.”
– Kathryn Kysar from her poem, “Coyote Addresses Science”
We tell the string of chromosomes
like a rosary, follow, finger
by finger, the coiled helix home,
count mitochondria for the Mother
of God. We bear each mutation
to the cross as if we trail another
time to Golgotha. Your faulty
genes, my distorted DNA, bad
seed or ovum, no matter, only
the twisted proteins, the blood
slow to clot, the child, small as
my hand, too soon in the world.
Five times tenfold, here at the tomb,
“blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”
In February of 2015, poet Kathryn Kysar of St. Paul, Minnesota came to Watermark Books and Cafe in Wichita, Kansas to read from her book, Pretend the World. Before her reading, she put on a workshop entitled “Writing Connections.” Always ready to learn from others, I signed up for the event. The title of the workshop was, it turned out, quite prophetic.
In that workshop, Kathryn used a common technique for kick-starting a writing exercise. She handed out a list of quotes and give the participants ten minutes or so to write a poem inspired by one of those lines. I glanced down the list of quotes, looking for something to grab my attention. One literally jumped off the page at me:
“Tell the beads of the chromosomes like a rosary, Father.” – Kathryn Kysar
Why did this line strike me? I didn’t think about it at that moment, but in hindsight, it was tailor-made for me. I grew up a Catholic, went to parochial schools, and earned my undergraduate degree at a Jesuit-administered school (St. Louis University), so the rosary metaphor was perfect, even though I am no longer the devoted and devout practitioner of Catholicism that I was then. The term “rosary” denotes both the prayer beads used by Catholics and the associated set of prayers, which involve asking the Mother of God to intercedewith her Son for those doing the praying. At the heart it is comprised of five sets of ten beads, each used to count off repetitions of the “Hail Mary” prayer, and each separated from the next by one bead used to recite “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Then there is that connection. The beads of chromosomes. I am an aeronautical engineer who, on retirement, got involved in research into the evolution of flight in nature, particularly in the first animals that took to the sky, the insects. That interest ultimately led to some fairly extensive reading in molecular and developmental genetics. So Kathryn’s metaphor hit me hard; the image it conjured up in my mind was a rosary composed of DNA helices studded with bead-like purines, pyrimidines, and wrapped around a hand.
A third connection that contributed to the shape of the poem arose from my on-going work on my family’s genealogy. I had been looking through grave-marker data-bases a few weeks earlier and had come across information on my sister, Mary, who had been stillborn when I was a toddler. My mother had never said much about her. Even though my siblings and I were naturally inquisitive, the subject was always too sorrowful for her to talk about. Thus a second image, the stark words of a newspaper death announcement about my long-dead sister, was also floating there in the back of my mind.
Connections, connections, these thoughts and pictures meshed and words fleshed themselves onto the page. I ended up with a narrative, free verse poem. This first draft was raw, but seemed to work fairly well; it had inklings of real power and emotion. I revised the words and structure many times over the next year, and ended up with the “modern” sonnet, reprinted here – comprised of lines of mixed length and meter (i,e, not in iambic pentameter), and with an unconventional stanza scheme to make up the fourteen lines: four enclosed tercets and a terminal couplet that made up the volta or turnaround.
The narrative is in the voice of a father addressing his wife as they accompany the funeral cortege for their child, dead at birth for some genetic abnormality. I use the rationalization of the father using the scientific terms as a way of him trying to deal with the anguish, agonizing and at the same time trying not to agonize over who was “at fault.” His recitation of the rosary was a way of asking the Mother of God to intercede between him and his wife and God, in his thought that Mary, as a mother who lost a child to predetermined death, would understand, and perhaps find a way to assuage, their grief.
The judge of a contest to which I submitted this poem saw this tugging of reason and faith, saying in his comments: “ – the reserve with which the poet told the story increased the emotional power of the poem. The form was handled nicely with natural speech and formal properties in synch. The poem had a certain learnedness that seemed fitting for the solemnity of the event and the learnedness was in the service of the poem.”
The scattered references of the protagonist of the poem to DNA, chromosomes, genes, mutations, reflect my own personal response in times of stress and heartache. I attempt to rationalize, bring all the secular science I can find to bear, as if knowing the mechanics, the scientific basis of the “how” of a tragedy might somehow help to ease the inherent senselessness and sense of loss. The referrals to religion all tie to Mary: her following her son to the place of his crucifixion, her knowing, His entire life, that He was destined to sacrifice Himself. There are attempts to tie the rational and religious aspects together, e.g., in the phrase “count mitochondria for the Mother of God” – mitochondrial DNA is genetic material passed from mother to child through recombination – more connections. The entire poem has become a reflection of how I imagine that I might respond to this kind of loss, attempting to understand, alternating between that and falling back on faith I thought I had long abandoned. In the end, the turnaround, the final couplet, the poem turns back to the calming repetitiveness, the meditative nature of the rosary: saying the “Hail Mary” over and over, each time coming to those words of blessedness, the words and thoughts that might, eventually, bring peace.
In this poem of imagined mourning and loss, then, I have recovered something, made old connections new once more: found, again, the long forgotten consolation of faith.
“Rosarium Threnody” first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Dappled Things.
Roy Beckemeyer, from Wichita, Kansas, has had poems published in The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas City Voices, The North Dakota Review, Dappled Things, and I-70 Review. His debut collection of poetry, “Music I Once Could Dance To,” (2014, Coal City Review and Press), was selected as a 2015 Kansas Notable Book. He won the 2016 Kansas Voices Poetry Award.