04 September 2011

Incident in a Tavern at Bristol

Joachim Gans was a Jewish copper smelter headhunted by Elizabeth I and brought from Bohemia to the English lake district to supervise mining works in the 1580s. Five years later he was one of the first settlers in Virginia. When the colony failed he returned to England, where, in 1589, following a chance remark, he found himself the subject of an antisemitic attack by Richard Curteys, bishop of Chichester.

And do you believe in Jesus Christ, the son of God?

A flash on the oak. Curteys has no knife,
but his eyes are keen as an Erzgebirge owl’s,
and his sharp questioning tongue so keen to stab

Then do you deny Jesus Christ is the son of God?

Having concealed so much so far,
in that one second, Gans recoils ten years:
the years in Krušné Hory, the wild west as he knew it,
the furnace-lit streets lined with childish wooden cribs;
and five years ago, among the English fells,
the gentle herders moving on sunlit Sundays
up Kirkstone pass to the church,
Somehow content.

And then the shipwreck on the fatal shore
Ralegh’s crew cursing in his name.
The Lord’s prayer offered up on board the Tiger
And he, silent. The first Jew in America.

And the ghost of Roanoke, following him
back to Bristol, like the Erl King’s shade.
And all that time, silently denying.

Someone kicks the doorplate; Gans
sees Curteys touch the pewter cup as if to bless the wine -
and at that moment knows that transubstantiation is a lie.

Curteys’s owl-head cocked to the side. Gans fingers in his pocket
a Virginian coin – his first, his last, and only dollar.
It is pure gold. There is no alloy here.

He looks the bishop in the eye - a Deptford stab -
and clearly answers:

'What need Almighty God a son? Is He not himself almighty?'