In an television interview nearly a decade ago, Malachy McCourt explained why he had given his then just-published memoir – A Monk Swimming – such a enigmatic title, “As a boy I used to go to Mass and there the priest, with upper body swaying, would incant:
Haillll Mary, fuuull of graaace,
The Looord is with theeee.
Blessed art thouuu…a monk swimmin
And blessed is the fruuuit of thy womb
In first grade I learned my first patriotic songs. Among the earliest was “America.” I sang it with these words for years:
My country, Tisafee,
Sweet Land of Liberty,
Of thee, I sing…
Decades later in graduate school a fellow student told me of his shock upon learning as an adult that the expression he had always thought and spoken as a “doggy-dog-world” was actually a “dog-eat-dog-world.” For most of his life he had lived with a benign, cuddley, and shaggy-dog image of the world that had suddenly been replaced by something Darwinian.
Misrememberings, misnamings, misunderstandings. The late novelist Walker Percy called this class of errors “metaphor as mistake.” They are serendipitous encounters with authentic poetic experience. As a child learning the mythos of my country, the strange name “Tisafee” was evocative. Its mystery was an invitation. Seeing this song written for the first time years later as “tis of thee” instead of “Tisafee” replaced wonder with a banal certitude. “Tisafee” had captured my inner feelings as a child towards a huge country that I had just learned had “purple mountain majesties” and “amber waves of grain.” “Tisafee” personalized these vast and remote distances.
McCourt’s “a monk swimmin,” functions in the way that good poetry does: it takes one by surprise. In the midst of what would otherwise be a rote prayer uttered frequently as penance, “blessed art thou amongst women,” one’s attention is suddenly arrested. The prayer is rescued from routine and from priests and pulpits by the sudden apparition of a monk swimming. Can he manage to swim in his long robes? Is his hair flowing or is he tonsured? Wearing shoes or discalced? The image is whimsical and refreshing. But it also begs many questions that may take a lifetime to answer, and many of which are undoubtedly unanswerable.
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