Recital of the Dark Verses is a road novel, a coming-of-age tale, and a raunchy slapstick comedy that tells—in careening, charismatic prose—the (true) story of the theft of the body of Saint John of the Cross.
In August 1592, a bailiff and his two assistants arrive at the monastery of Úbeda, with the secret task of transferring the body of Saint John of the Cross, the great Carmelite poet and mystic who had died the previous year, to his final abode. When they exhume him, they find a body uncorrupted and as fresh as when he died.
Recital of the Dark Verses follows the three hapless thieves as they sneak the corpse of Saint John of the Cross from Úbeda to Segovia, trying not to lose too many pieces of the body to his frenzied disciples along the way. It is the (true) story of a heist, a road novel, a coming-of-age tale, and a raunchy slapstick comedy told in careening, charismatic prose. It is also a witty and wise commentary on the verse of one of Spain’s most important poets woven from the lines for which he is best known—a revival of words written more than four centuries ago, and a centering and celebration of their intrinsic queerness.
Recital of the Dark Verses is out now via Deep Vellum.
From Recital of the Dark Verses
I. Wherein begins the commentary on the “Night,” as penned by Fray Juan de la Cruz, commencing with the first line of the first verse which quietly intones “On a pitch-dark night,” and which, though quiet, disturbs with its echo or with the clumsiness of its recital a distinct and different night, and the silence of that night or the slumber of its silence.
On a pitch-dark night late in August, or perhaps it was already September, in the year of our Lord 1592, at the most secret hour, precisely as he had been charged by the Royal Justice don Luis de Mercado, and unaccompanied except by his two aides—of whom remains no record or memory beyond the fact that they were two, and who may well have been called Ferrán and Diego as no document survives to refute this—Juan de Medina Zevallos or Ceballos or Zavallos, depending on the source consulted, or even, in certain documents, Francisco de Medina Zeballos, Bailiff of the Royal Court, knocked on the door of the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites in Úbeda.
The prior slumbered. The friars slumbered. Slumbered the brethren, each surrendered to the deep darkness of an imageless sleep. One might say their slumber was but an extension of the poverty, abdication, and austerity of vigil for which the Reformed Carmelites are known, though he who ventured such a claim would be gravely mistaken. On the contrary, they slept as if, having staked all on their souls by day, it was their bodies that triumphed at night. For each slumbered whole in the solitude of his flesh, as only those wanting of spirit may sleep. And they snored. Raucously. Even those friars who delighted in the mortification and privation of their naturals succumbed quite naturally, as if all their flagellations, sackcloth, vigils, and penance had been respired into their flesh through a deep yawn, along with their own selves: tamers devoured by their beasts. Even these snored placidly, their cares and resolve quite unheeded. In his solitary flesh, in his solitary cell, each snored and was joined to his brethren in a chorus of snoring. But in that pitch-dark moment even the snoring had ceased; suspended it hung in the most secret hour. Falling thusly silent, the chorus of sleepers was joined to the silent chorus of their departed brethren at rest beneath burial slabs in the church. The porter, who by rights should be wakeful, had too drifted asleep, with rosary in hand; to judge by the beads passed through his fingers, scarce had he recited the Sorrowful Mysteries when slumber with the monotony of the Pater Noster conspired. When the increasingly insistent, so as not to say thunderous, knockings of the bailiff—who endeavored to reconcile, in a single act, his order to arrive in secrecy and the need to make himself heard in order to arrive—finally awoke the man, more than a waking it was a jolted wrenching from amongst the dead that knew neither hour nor place nor reason, such that not even Lazarus must have suffered greater confusion. Yet that was precisely why the bailiff had come: to disturb the dead. Or so surmised the prior, Fray Francisco Crisóstomo, having been awakened by the recently revived porter, and who, still blind, his eyes crusted with sleep, let himself be led down the cloister and into the chapter house where awaited his unslept and unexpected visitor, all papers and writs and official seals. Such yelling, such orders, such demands. Such threats of excommunication. Such a list of princes and countesses and noblemen and prelates did the bailiff unfurl, among which names the prior managed to recognize only that of the most humble and most honorable and most problematic and most dubious and most tedious and most tiresome Fray Juan de la Cruz.
VII. Wherein is recited, in full and in order by the good Fray Mateo, each verse of the “Night,” and are the general qualities of these verses expounded, while also discussed, upon Ferrán’s urging, are several dark particulars of that wondrous night.
“Madre Teresa erred not when she said those little bones would make miracles,” said Fray Miguel.
Ah, Teresa, the true fount and motor of all this commotion. Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, the daughter and granddaughter of conversos whose name conceals an Esther and who did fiercely condemn her youthful addiction to chivalric tales, but who found in reforming the Carmelites her purpose, and in her fervor to restore its traditional ways did she find windmills upon which to loose her own knights-errant, and her quill found ink, and her prose material abundant. Many years earlier had Teresa de Jesús met in Medina the young friar who was then Fray Juan de Santo Matía but had ere been Juan de Yepes and who, though he did not yet know it, would soon be Fray Juan de la Cruz, the first Discalced Carmelite, back when, disillusioned as he was by the laxity of the Order, he was eager to abandon it for the Carthusians. But needing holy gents to found the first monastery of the Discalced, Teresa saw what mattered in that priest so young and serious and, so what, so small. “Though he be little, I know him great in the eyes of God,” wrote Teresa in 1568, no sooner had she met him.
“Her exact words: little bones. Not bones. Little bones,” explained Fray Mateo.
“Madre Teresa always got a giggle out of Fray Juan’s modest stature,” Fray Miguel went on, “and indeed was he slight, as you yourselves have seen. ‘Here comes a friar and a half!’ our founder was wont to joke upon seeing Fray Juan approach in the company of one of our brethren.”
“Fray Juan did not find this amusing, but he found humor in few things indeed,” explained Fray Miguel. “He was not one for jokes, unlike our Madre Teresa.”
Slight though it was, great pains had the friar’s body caused the men in their efforts to fit it into the trunk, even after its mutilation. They had also wrapped in cloth and carefully safekept the arm which the Discalced of Úbeda would keep as consolation. The subprior and the bailiff were off composing the clause that would account for their new accord and signing documents of receipt. Meanwhile did the friars improvise for Ferrán and Diego a dinner or breakfast, depending on one’s perspective, of garbanzos, asparagus, and sundry leftovers, that they might not take to the road on an empty stomach, though perchance this hospitality was merely an attempt to delay their departure.
“Scarce half a friar was he, and now without the limb we trimmed is he even less,” sighed Fray Mateo.
“Such a delicate burden shall bless the flanks of your mules!” exclaimed one of the two friars, who were increasingly hard to tell apart.
“Such diaphanous cargo!” exclaimed the other.
“A bird soon to take wing!” exclaimed one. “And like the branch beneath the bird, my heart is by his departure stirred,” added the other.
“How dearly shall we miss him!” they concluded in unison.
“Delicious asparagus!” exclaimed Ferrán, tempting to shift the conversation, weary as he was of so much Fray Juan this and Fray Juan that.
“Asparagus?” asked Fray Miguel, slow to understand. “Ah, yes… Fray Juan enjoyed asparagus, as well…”
“One of the very last foods he craved,” explained Fray Mateo.
“It was a miracle indeed to find them so far out of season,” reminisced Fray Miguel. “But God wished to bestow on his servant this gift of flavor.”
“Already was he very ill,” Fray Mateo explained, “and only with the greatest effort could he swallow…”
As if the dead friar himself had regurgitated it, Ferrán let fall the asparagus he had been raising to his mouth. Diego, meanwhile, seemed to find fresh seasoning in the anecdote and repasted with renewed gusto.
“His great pains scarce left room for hunger,” explained Fray Miguel.
“But great hungers did his anguished flesh and the prodigious substance that flowed from his ulcers inspire,” remembered Fray Mateo. “One of our brethren,” Fray Miguel went on in the remembrance of Fray Mateo’s memory, “chanced upon a bowl o’erbrimming with this pus. Given its sweet fragrance, he took it for a tasty pottage and consumed it entire…”
Ferrán felt his stomach turn. He felt nausea. He felt a retching.
“Entire!” squealed Fray Mateo.
Another retching, this time more intense. Diego looked at him perplexed.
“Entire!” squealed Fray Miguel. “And he ate it without revulsion, but indeed with great gusto, as he himself later attested.”
“You see no possible excess in your devotions toward a man not yet enshrined?” Ferrán finally vomited.
“He shall be, my child. He shall be,” replied Fray Miguel. “The countless miracles Our Lord has performed since his death to his saintliness do attest.”
“Though also in life was he famed as a saint,” explained Fray Mateo.
“And well known was his skill at exorcising demons,” continued Fray Miguel.
“And several nuns claim to have seen him levitate in the throes of prayer or upon receiving the Eucharist,” added Fray Mateo.
“And his verse…” managed Fray Miguel before he was interrupted by his own elation.
“Ah, his verse! Such celestial coplas did he compose,” finished Fray Mateo.
“Coplas count neither as miracles nor as proof of saintliness!” Ferrán rejoined.
“These do,” replied one of the friars. “I assure you, my child, it is as if they were dictated by God himself: so divine is their craftsmanship, so elevated their depth.”
“How extraordinary their music!” exclaimed one, turning their colloquy into a tournament of praise.
“How harmonic their inflections!” ventured the other.
“How their doctrine trills!” advanced more forcefully one of the two.
“A lesson in love the likes of which you never heard!” triumphed the other.
Whereupon Fray Mateo rose with candle in hand and, adopting manners, postures, and gestures less reproachable in an actor than in a Discalced Carmelite, began to recite with great affectation:
On a pitch-dark night,
by love’s yearnings kindled
—oh wondrous delight!—
I slipped out unminded
for my house had gone quiet.
In darkness, without fright,
down hidden stair I snuck
—oh wondrous delight!—
in darkness, with fine luck,
for my house had gone quiet.
Out into that wondrous night
I stepped unseen and stealthy,
with not a thing in my sight
nor any light to guide me
but one burning in me bright.
That lone flame did guide me
surer than the midday sun
to a place where awaited he
who could be no other one,
and where no one could I see.
Oh night! You that guided,
night kinder than the dawn!
Oh night! You that united
Beloved with his lover yon;
a lover into her Beloved transformed!
Soft upon my flowering breast,
which I kept for him alone,
his slumbering head he lay to rest,
and as my fingers traced its crown
a breeze did spread the cedar’s zest.
From the turret a zephyr fanned,
as his fine locks I stroked,
when with his ever placid hand
he left a wound upon my throat
and all my senses did he suspend.
With cheek pressed to the Beloved
did I stay, and myself forget;
all ceased and I ceded,
leaving earthly worriment
among the lilies quite unheeded.
Fray Miguel and Diego erupted in cheers and applause. Ferrán, for his part, applauded only enough to avoid accusations of bad manners butnot so much as to leave any doubt as to his discontent.
“What say you, good sir?” asked Fray Mateo of Ferrán, flecks of affect still clinging to gesture and voice.
“I know not…”
“You know not what?”
“I know not… I know not. The coplas are not bad, but neither are they good. They are… strange.”
“And how are they strange, my child?” asked Fray
Mateo, adopting anew the role of friar.
“Fray Juan speaks with the tongue of a woman,” blurted Ferrán. “Moreover—and I beg pardon should this strike thee as coarse—in this voice does he moan as a woman with a man. Which would not be so bad if…”
“‘Tis the sound of a soul delecting in God thou hearest in that darkness…”
“Why bring God into these coplas?” rejoined Ferrán. “Nowhere in the poem is He mentioned.”
“Art thou not, perchance, familiar with the great King Solomon’s Song of Songs?” Fray Miguel managed to interject.
“I am not and know not and trust not…”
“It is hardly strange that they should be strange to you,” countered Fray Mateo with the patience of an aged confessor. “The strangeness of both miracle and verse appeals not to our comprehension but rather to our capacity for wonder…”
“And quit likening poems to miracles!” thundered Ferrán. “These coplas move me less to wonder than to mistrust. Verses deceitful as a woman and, worse still, voices misleading like those women who wander the night and later, denuded, prove to be the counterfeit concealment of men. Mark that he himself… in that feminine guise, taking advantage of the dark… how brazenly…”
“Lo, thou hast understood nothing,” interrupted a weary Fray Mateo.
“Ere have you set foot on the road, already are you lost,” judged Fray Miguel. “But we trust that while finding your way in the night you will stumble upon the truth of these verses.”
“Silence!” the subprior shouted quietly upon entering the kitchen, if such a thing were possible; rather, gesturing a shout he shouted without shouting, emulating great volume in great quiet. “What hubbub is this? Numbskulls, do you wish to wake the brethren? And you: ready your mounts, your master waits impatient. You must set out in all haste, for the hour most secret draws nigh.”
Recital of Dark Verses by Luis Felipe Fabre, and translated by Heather Cleary, is available via Deep Vellum.
Translated by Heather Cleary