Published on Academy of American Poets (

The Parallel Cathedral

The cathedral being built 
around our split level house was so airy, it stretched 
so high it was like a cloud of granite 
and marble light the house rose up inside. 

At the time I didn’t notice masons laying courses 
of stone ascending, flying buttresses 
pushing back forces that would have crushed our flimsy wooden beams.
But the hammering and singing of the guilds went on 

outside my hearing, the lancets’ stained glass 
telling how a tree rose up from Jesse’s loins whose 
flower was Jesus staring longhaired from our bathroom wall where I 

always wanted to ask if this was how he 
really looked, slender, neurasthenic, itching for privacy 
as the work went on century after century.

Fog in cherry trees, deer strapped 
to bumpers, fresh snow marked 
by dog piss shining frozen in the day made 
a parallel cathedral unseen but intuited 

by eyes that took it in and went on to the next 
thing and the next as if unbuilding 
a cathedral was the work 
that really mattered—not knocking 

it down which was easy—
but taking it apart stone 
by stone until all 

that’s left is the cathedral’s 
outline coming in and out of limbo 
in the winter sun.

All through childhood on eternal sick day afternoons,
I lived true to my name, piling dominoes
into towers, fingering the white dots like the carpenter Thomas 
putting fingertips into the nail-holes of his master’s hands.

A builder and a doubter. Patron saint of all believers
in what’s really there every time you look:
black-scabbed cherry trees unleafed in winter,
the irrigation ditch that overflows at the back

of the house, chainlink of the schoolyard 
where frozen footsteps in the snow 
criss-cross and doubleback. And now the shroud falls away

and the wound under his nipple seeps fresh blood.
And when Jesus says, Whither I go you know,  
Thomas says, We know not…how can we know the way?


Copyright © 2013 by Tom Sleigh. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on November 12, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

About this Poem

"I grew up in a house in a tiny town high up in the Wahsatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. I suppose the image of the cathedral being built around an ordinary house corresponds to the mountain peaks I woke up to every morning—as if they formed the flying buttresses of a cathedral. As to the religious associations, I've always loved the story of Thomas, my namesake, insisting on putting his fingers in Christ's wounds. If you have a romance with experience, the way I do, then you believe with Keats that 'axioms in philosophy are not axioms until we prove them on our pulses.' My older brother throwing a water balloon at Reverend Fox after church and hitting him in the head, made a deeper impression on me than all of Reverend Fox's homilies about sin and guilt. As to building and unbuilding the cathedral, I once worked for a mason who said that the only way to know how to build something was to know how to take it apart."
—Tom Sleigh


Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh is the author of nine books of poetry, a translation of Euripides' Herakles, and a book of essays. 

Date Published: 2013-11-12

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