Atomic Essay #2: Missa Solemnis - The Catholic Mass in War Photographer

We talk a lot in English teaching circles about knowledge. Knowledge interrelates and interconnects as we learn. I've been thinking about what role knowledge can play in analysis, asking myself exactly what knowledge I want my students to have, and why I'd want them to have it.

Atomic Essay #2: Missa Solemnis - The Catholic Mass in War Photographer
Photo by Josh Applegate / Unsplash

We talk a lot in English teaching circles about knowledge. Knowledge interrelates and interconnects as we learn. I've been thinking about what role knowledge can play in analysis, asking myself exactly what knowledge I want my students to have, and why I'd want them to have it.

One such example comes with War Photographer. In the first stanza, she creates this image of the photographer in his darkroom:

In his dark room he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.

The reference to the Catholic Mass isn't something that all students would know; in fact, I would argue that most wouldn't. Now, one could simply tell one's students that the Mass is 'a church service' and be done with it. But to take this approach to this knowledge is to miss out, I believe, on layers of meaning. Not all knowledge engenders this; some knowledge is simply about being able to label. But one should look out carefully for knowledge which, when known, can unlock meanings that would otherwise be inaccessible to the learner.

The reference to the Mass, when one knows what it actually is – and what it's doing in the poem – helps to unlock Duffy's meanings. Let's note, first of all, the red light that softly glows. Not only is the photographer cast in the role of Priest at altar, but he is cast as Priest at a particular moment in the Mass: the moment of Consecration. At this moment, Catholics believe that Transubstantiation occurs – the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This doctrine marks Catholicism out from Protestant forms of Christianity, because though the bread and wine remain in physical form the same, their essence is substituted for that of the real Christ in an act of Dualistic prestidigitation. We know that this is specifically what Duffy is referencing, thanks to the reference to the red light – this is the sanctuary light that is illuminated when the consecrated host – the transubstantiated bread-Christ – is present in the Church.

What does this unlock? Let's see first of all the idea of sacrifice. This part of the Mass is a commemoration of how Jesus' violent death redeemed humanity and allowed them access again to heavenly glory. But in the poem this is perversely inverted. Any sense of sacrifice is warped and twisted, bled of any meaning or significance as, later in the poem, the 'stranger's features start to twist ... a half-formed ghost'. 'All flesh', it transpires, 'is grass' – there is no significance to the suffering of ordinary man. There is no Christ, no apotheosis. There is only the image.

This is what Duffy does well: she plays with an image. Note how the priest-photographer's Mass is 'intoned', and the poem's camera seems to shoot him from the back, in a parody of the Latin Mass. We create a ceremony of these things to give them meaning; we tell ourselves the story that we care, that we value others, but all we have images of simulated selves, so all we can feel are simulated emotions. The fragility of Duffy's imagery is in the simile itself – this is not a strong metaphor; the link between priest and photographer is weak, threatening to break. As we take off to the skies, like the photographer at the end, we distance ourselves from others. The poem's transubstantiation fails. The dead man will not rise again; he will be merely preserved in photography forever, his silent scream signifying nothing. The photographer is no priest, after all. The 'blood' that 'stained foreign dust' becomes 'black and white'.

Duffy has no choice: in poetry, she brings the colour back. Is poetry, then, her act of transubstatiation?