Wormwood Commentary (Irreverent Version)

When I was a theology student, my favorite subject to study was the Hebrew bible, in Hebrew. Working out the phrases was a lot like deciphering a really long text message by an ancient teenager (no vowels), which was especially fun given the phrases were delightfully ordinary. And real sounding.

For example one might say, “we walked ten steps to this well, turned left, went on five more steps to that well” et cetera, where the English would read “We sauntered ten fathoms to a place of libations, turned toward the setting sun and journeyed hitherforth five fathoms to the next quencher of thirsts.”

Okay, perhaps the translational differences were not that dramatic, but it felt such.

I have nothing against the complicated, poetic-dramatic. In many cases it’s a beautiful way to evoke or relieve emotions. Painting Wormwood, for example, required a certain amount of seriousness. I haven’t painted in a while and needed to focus quite seriously to make sure it came out right. Writing my thoughts in a flourish-filled style was a natural way to step down from that, with sounds and thoughts like brush strokes fanning through many of the things my mind wandered over during the long hours spent staring at wood.

That being said, words in all their lacy glory should be accessible to people who are at least mildly interested. If you’ve seen my painting but happen to be more of a “ten steps forward, five steps left” sort of person, here are a few explanations to help get you to the monastery.

Weathered frame on a junk pile,
Laced in spiders’ webs,
Destined for a landfill.

//I saw the panel on a pile of junk, caked in dirt & spider webs. I thought it was a frame.

There are marks on its side.
Secret panel with hinges?
In a library, perhaps,
Or monastery?

//Lets give this thing a story.

No, a door.
Solid wood
Where trees are scarce.

//Well, look at that; it’s actually a door. Solid wood is not that common here.

Beautiful wood.
Chips of paint
And graying timber—
The kind that crumbles
And rots.

//It’s gorgeous, but it’s really damaged… And it was painted? Why… just why?

I sand away the crumbs,
Disturbing the worms
That crawl from its holes.
Sad; they are losing their home.
And angering.

//Oh look at that, there were also bugs living in it.

How could the reverent neglect such a wood
In a place where wood is scarce?

//Seriously though, wtf? We’re a stone’s throw from the desert. It’s not like trees just magically pop up around here.

How to explain the careless?

//Why must people be so stupid? Okay, I should be nicer. Maybe they were just having emotional issues. Bad day perhaps?

The lament read at funerals:
“The thought of my homeless poverty
is wormwood and gall,”
Elevated in the recesses of grief,
Set apart and made holy.

//Worms… wormwood… that’s a funeral reading… I’m thinking of dead people again… and pictures. Icons. Worn away by time. Let’s make this thing an old icon.

An icon.

//That’s what I said.

On rotting wood once the home of worms.
Is this clastic or philic?

//Normally religious icons are made from the best materials as a sign of reverence, so does using something less fancy mean I’m being irreverent or hateful? Then again elevating the mundane is one of the more merciful sides of religion so yeah… getting deep here…

Jasna Gora, Czstochowa:
Struck by an arrow,
Two blows from the sword.
Bejeweled and beloved.

//The icon in the Jasna Gora monastery in Czstochowa pretty much embodies the war between loving and hating icons. It was attacked a few times (you can still see the scars). Now it’s covered in jewels and inspires a nation.

Rebellious, Resilient.
A roadmap for the dead.

//The historical icon was a political symbol and is also used as an image on funeral cards, which give the location of where a person is buried in the cemetery.

Olive, dark, and burnt sienna.
Corpse enlivened by yellow,
Red and gold.

//The underpainting or base coats under the face were super dark and kind of corpsish-looking. It got better.

So much impractical gold
For a broken door.

//Gold paint is quite fancy fance.

Or is she an icon?

//Is this a door or an icon?

Painted on rotting wood once the home of worms,
Pointing to…

//In the historic icon, the woman is the hodogetria, “showing the way” to the child. Coincidentally (and unintentionally), the child points to the slashes on her face. But the icon I painted doesn’t point. I did not want any pointing here.

Does a woman reside here?
Does a question?
A dare:
What do you see?
Which would you save?
(Does woman need saving?)
The icon? The door?

//What is this thing? I’d prefer not to offer an opinion, so you tell me. It’s been left half painted, half destroyed. Which way would you take it? Would you save the painting or the fix the door? Can a painting be more than a painting? Who knows?


//Named literally for the worms in the wood, though there are a few other meanings there as well. For example, the name Mary (Our Lady of Czstochowa) means “bitter” and wormwood often symbolizes bitterness. The rest is up to the religious imagination…