Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws
— Psalm 119
Canonical hours, hours according to law when the world
stops for a pause that sometimes befalls us. Remember,
it was the ancient Jews who made these hours, hours
that were old before Calvary, those oldest matins, lauds and terce.
Dante invoked these sacred hours. In Inferno, Canto XXXIV
it is mid-terce of Holy Saturday and his “Dante” hangs suspended
in the lowest bolgia, bewildered his descent has brought him
so close to Lucifer’s waist. There, at Hell’s core, antipodal
to Jerusalem and to his slain and risen Christ, in the place
“where weight bears down from everywhere,” he begs Virgil
“lighten my darkness.”
Lighten my darkness–perhaps what is canonical
happens not in hours but in mere moments, in saintly accidental
moments when we swerve into deepest doubt. Today, just
as the Passover began, and seventy years after the event itself,
I heard a recording of the just-freed survivors of Bergen-Belsen
singing Hatikvah. And suddenly, I was outside of what exists.
I felt myself reduced to one enormous sob and could no longer
imagine my life or life on the planet. The rest of that day,
through its vespers, lauds and complines, my salubrious body
was in denial. It had gone into hiding behind itself.
It had fled this deluded world of canonical hours.
It shrank from time, from the unbearable time of that
unbearable singing. The singers sang for the dead,
and what inhabited this body of mine wanted to join them.
The moment had arrived to keep time with those clocks
that kept time in hell and in purgatory. In paradise,
the absent god could not hear those clocks tick.
Nothing that ever existed could time itself to
the beat of that song, that song sung so unbearably.
This story "POEM: 'Canonical'" was written by Michael Heller.