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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 11: January 2022
Poem: 263 words
By William Heath

Augustine’s Erections


Q: What did God do before he made heaven and earth?
A: He was preparing hell for those who ask too many questions.
—St. Augustine’s idea of a good joke
 
When Augustine is sixteen 
sometimes his penis stiffens 
at the public baths. One day 
his father notices, smiles, 
tells his wife. The prospect 
of grandchildren pleases 
his parents. He is mortified. 
Why does his dick disobey? 
Why isn’t willpower strong 
enough to suppress unwanted 
erections? The same problem 
at night—impure notions, 
carnal emissions minus consent. 

He finds himself stuck fast 
by the viscous birdlime of lust. 
For many years he indulges 
his desires, wallowing in 
sensual and shadowy loves, 
delighting in the body 
of his beloved, relishing 
her inheritance from Eve, 
sullying clean spring water, 
walking in darkness down 
slippery paths. One time he 
prays, “Lord, grant me chastity—
but not yet.” The question is: 

if God is all good, but sex 
is bad, where does desire 
come from? How can Jesus 
be a man of flesh yet pure? 
He concludes that evil 
resides in infants, we are 
the devil’s spawn, conceived 
in the womb of iniquity, 
deserving of damnation. 
He sees how greedy babies 
glare with jealous hatred at 
rivals for a mother’s milk; 
only their feebleness keeps 
them from mutual harm. 

In sum, from birth our will 
is not our own, only God’s 
strength and grace can save us. 
What happened at the public baths 
had profound consequences. 
St. Augustine’s thought shapes 
Christian practice and belief. 
Who knew so many sins 
fit on the head of a penis! 

 

William Heath
Issue 11, January 2022

is a poet, novelist, historian, and scholar. More than a hundred of his poems have appeared in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies; the finest are collected in The Walking Man (Icarcus Books, 1994) and in his chapbook Night Moves in Ohio (Finishing Line Press, 2019). His most recent chapbook, Leaving Seville (2020), comprises poems from his time in Seville and time he spent in Catalonia with his wife, Roser, a native of Barcelona.

Heath is also the author of three novels. His first, The Children Bob Moses Led (Milkweed Editions, 1995; paperback, 1997), about the civil rights movement in Mississippi, won the Hackney Literary Award for best novel, was nominated by the publisher for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and was nominated by Joyce Carol Oates for the Ainsfield-Wolf Award. In 2002, Time magazine online judged it one of the eleven best novels of the African-American experience. In 2014, it was reissued as a twentieth-anniversary edition by NewSouth Books.

His second novel, Blacksnake’s Path: The True Adventures of William Wells (Heritage Books, 2008; ebook, Argo-Navis, 2013), which tells the story of an unsung hero of the American frontier, was nominated for the James Fennimore Cooper Award for the best historical novel and chosen by the History Book Club as an alternate selection in 2009. Devil Dancer (Somondoco Press, 2013), Heath’s third novel, is a neo-noir tale about the shooting of a stallion in Lexington, Kentucky.

In addition, he is the author of two nonfiction books: Conversations with Robert Stone (University Press of Mississippi, 2016; paperback, 2018); and a work of history, William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015), the latter of which won two Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America for best Historical Nonfiction book and best first Nonfiction book, and was a finalist for the Ohioana Award for best book by an Ohioan and/or about Ohio as well as the Jon Gjerde Prize for Midwestern History.

Heath’s reviews and scholarly essays are published in The Massachusetts Review, The South Carolina Review, The Kenyon Review, The Texas Review, Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, The Journal of American Studies, The Indiana Magazine of History, and Northwest Ohio History, among others.

He taught American literature and creative writing at Kenyon, Transylvania, Vassar, and the University of Seville, where he was a Fulbright Professor for two years. In 1981, he began teaching at Mount Saint Mary’s University, where he served as faculty advisor for the college’s award-winning magazine, Lighted Corner; in addition, he edited a national literary magazine, The Monocacy Valley Review. He retired, in 2007, as a professor emeritus in the English Department.

Author’s website: www.williamheathbooks.com

 
 
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