A Slow Church Poem: The Host

A Slow Church Poem: The Host October 5, 2011

The Host
A poem by William Carlos Williams

According to their need,
                   this tall Negro evangelist
                                      (at a table separate from the
                                      rest of his party);
these two young Irish nuns
                   (to be described subsequently);
                                      and this white-haired Anglican
have come witlessly
                   to partake of the host
                                      laid for them (and for me)
by the tired waitresses.

It is all
                   (since eat we must)
                                      made sacred by our common need.
The evangelist’s assistants
                   are most open in their praise
                                      though covert
as would be seemly
                   in such a public
                                      place. The nuns
are all black, a side view.
                   The cleric,
                                      his head bowed to reveal
his unruly poll
                   dines alone.

My eyes are restless.
                   The evangelists eat well,
                                      fried oysters and what not
at this railway restaurant. The Sisters
                   are soon satisfied. One
                                      on leaving,
looking straight before her under steadfast brows,
                                      blue eyes. I myself
have brown eyes
                   and a milder mouth.

There is nothing to eat,
                   seek it where you will,
                                      but of the body of the Lord.
The blessed plants
                   and the sea, yield it
                                      to the imagination
intact. And by that force
                   it becomes real,
to the poor animals
                   who suffer and die
                                      that we may live.

The well-fed evangels,
                   the narrow-lipped and bright-eyed nuns,
                                      the tall,
white-haired Anglican,
                   proclaim it by their appetites
                                      as do I also,
chomping with my worn out teeth:
                   the Lord is my shepherd
                                      I shall not want.

No matter how well they are fed,
                   how daintily
                                      they put the food to their lips,
it is all
                   according to the imagination!
Only the imagination
                   is real! They have imagined it,
                                      therefore it is so:
of the evangels,
                   with the long legs characteristic of the race—
                                      only the docile women
of the party smiled at me
                   when, with my eyes
                                      I accosted them.
The nuns—but after all
                   I saw only a face, a young face
                                      cut off at the brows.
It was a simple story.
                   The cleric, plainly
                                      from a good school,
interested me more,
                   a man with whom I might
                                      carry on a conversation.

No one was there
                   save only for
                                      the food. Which I alone,
being a poet,
                   could have given them.
                                      But I
had only my eyes
                   with which to speak.

“The Host,” by William Carlos Williams. From The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams Volume II: 1939-1962.

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