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Editorial Efforts

by Oksana Maksymchuk

My kid asks if God
is omnivorous
or what

God eats everything
like a bear
or a hog, no?

I read him a story
in Old Slavonic
about the human origins

How to spite creation
Satan covered Man
in slime and feces

God turned into a dog
licked him clean
reassumed possession

We love what we’ve made
we can’t bear to see it
blemished, I say

as I wet my thumb and try
erasing a caked speck
off his cheekbone

only to realize
it’s a birthmark

Dog spelled backwards is god–a discovery any child may happen upon as they’re learning to read, and especially if a child happens to be dyslexic. The poem echoes an apocryphal story, dating back to the twelfth century. Part myth, part fable, the story emerges out of an uneasy marriage of the oral tradition of local pagan tribes and the newly imported cult of a singular foreign figure named Christ, complete with its characteristic artefacts, including books establishing the peculiar cosmology and origin stories of that religion. In this hybrid account, intended to explain the imperfection of human nature, God and Satan are portrayed as autonomous agents, both actively shaping the process of man’s creation. Adam, the first human, comes into being through their antagonistic struggle.

With my son’s help, I’ve altered the story a little. In the original, God himself does not turn into a dog. Rather, he creates a dog out of the slime and feces that Satan (“Sotona”) smeared all over the proto-human at the earliest stage of creation, when he was but a heap of flesh lying around, not yet endowed with any perceptual or cognitive faculties. Since God needs to acquire these faculties from different natural elements and celestial bodies, he is forced to leave proto-Adam alone, vulnerable and exposed. Conceived as a guardian against Satan’s future incursions, the dog takes God’s place by Adam’s side. Afraid of the dog, Satan doesn’t dare approach, but he gets his way anyway: taking a long stick, he pokes forty holes in the body of the immobile man-in-the-making, corresponding to forty diseases that will plague humanity. To the annoyed God, Satan explains that humans would likely forget about him if not for their lacking condition. Their suffering ensures that they seek him out.

The problem of evil is thus addressed in a unique way. Humans are imperfect because creation is an imperfect process, overseen by a God who either chooses not to know and not to practice his power, or else isn’t omniscient and omnipotent. Furthermore, instead of destroying the defective creature he’s crafted due to Satan’s unwelcome edits, or fixing it and making it right, he accepts it and cares for it, blemished as it is. Perhaps he sees a point in such defects, viewing them as a mnemonic device and a mechanism of control, allowing for a creation of the best possible world from the perspective not limited by a position in space or time? Or perhaps he loves his creation so much that he fails to see it for what it is, corrupted and badly mangled?

We’re drawn to origin stories because we have a powerful desire to understand what we’re like, and why. Are we good or bad? Free or determined? Does our suffering have a point, or is it meaningless? As a parent, one is constantly confronted with one’s own failure and imperfection–as well as with that of one’s child, whom one nevertheless continues to love. Mothers often groom their offspring, concealing their scent from predators and claiming them as their own. Those of us who have pets are sometimes groomed by them, as a sign of their willingness to treat us as another self, which according to Aristotle is a definition of friendship. And we constantly smooth out imperfections in our loved ones, pretending that these are just accidental wrinkles that could be repaired, fixed.

As for poets, they too engage in obsessive editing, unable to let go of their flawed creations, bespattered as they are in snot, mucus, semen, feces, and whatnot, trying to lick them clean and failing, time and again.

Oksana Maksymchuk is a bilingual Ukrainian-American poet, scholar, and literary translator. Her poetry appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, The Cincinnati Review, The Irish Times, The Poetry Review, and other journals. She is the author of poetry collections Xenia and Lovy and a recipient of Bohdan-Ihor Antonych and Smoloskyp prizes, two of Ukraine’s top awards for younger poets. Maksymchuk holds a PhD in philosophy from Northwestern University. Based in Lviv, Ukraine, she currently resides in Poland.