The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

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“The Day Zimmer Lost Religion” is composed of three seven-line stanzas of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). The poem’s tone is strongly colloquial as the adult speaker, or persona, recounts the events of a particular day in his childhood when he tested God by missing Mass “on purpose.” The phrase “on purpose” focuses the poem on the idea of the test. The child Zimmer assumes that God will punish such behavior immediately, and when no such thing happens, the child concludes that God has evidently recognized that Zimmer is too mature to be frightened by his threats. That day becomes the day named in the title: “The Day Zimmer Lost Religion.” Like many poems by Paul Zimmer, the persona of this poem shares the author’s name, but it would be a mistake to assume that the two are exactly the same. The Zimmer of this poem, like that of the many other Zimmer poems, is a character created to relate and react to this set of events.

In the first of the stanzas, the persona looks into his past to remember how he expected God to punish him for missing Mass. His fantasies focus on some painful experiences of childhood. He first expects that Christ will show up like a flyweight boxer to pummel him for his failure to attend Mass. The boxing scene is extended as he remembers imagining the devil “roaring” in the stands to cheer his painful humiliation. The second stanza looks back further (“a long cold way”) into the speaker’s early life to the time when he served as an altar boy, wore a cassock and surplice (a black gown worn under a loose, white, knee-length robe), and assisted the priest during Mass by giving the appropriate Latin responses. In those days he evidently attended a Catholic school; his experience there was permeated by his sense of God’s presence so that he imagined the eye of God overlooking all the activities of the school yard, ready to accuse any wrongdoing. The third stanza restates Zimmer’s expectations of punishment; this time he imagines Christ as the “playground bully” who might arrive to beat him up for his betrayal of his faith. God’s failure to deliver any of Zimmer’s imagined punishments seems to confirm for him that God has met his match and is giving up, perhaps because Zimmer is now too old for religion. That, at least, is the young Zimmer’s conclusion, although the adult Zimmer who narrates this poem implies something more.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

The world of this poem is the world of the Catholic schoolboy, and the imagery of the poem grows out of the details of the boy’s life in that world. It is a world of grubby little boys who admire boxers and who sometimes do their own share of unofficial fighting in the school yard (particularly if they must defend themselves against the school bully) regardless of what the priests may say to warn them against bad behavior. The boxing and the reference to the “dirty wind that blew/ The sootacross the school yard” suggests that it is an urban school.

Boxing establishes the first set of images for the poem as the child Zimmer waits for Christ to “climb down ” from the crucifix on which the child usually sees him and to appear as a “wiry flyweight” boxer. Zimmer expects Christ to “club” him in his “blasphemous gut” and his “irreverent teeth” as if they had been sent into the boxing ring together. This imaginary fight even has a spectator: the devil himself. Like a spectator at a boxing match, he sits in reserved seats, roaring with delight at the rebellious Zimmer’s punishment. The fighting imagery is extended in the last stanza in which Christ is no longer pictured as a boxer but as the playground bully who will appear in order to “pound” Zimmer until his “irreligious tongue” hangs out.

The language of religion also informs the poem, since the child Zimmer’s offense is against God (as well as against his religious instructors who have warned him about the consequences of missing Mass). That is why the poem is furnished with details from the child Zimmer’s religious life. The flyweight Jesus will drop him, he says, like a “red hot thurible” (an incense container that is swung from a chain, which an altar boy such as the young Zimmer might carry in a religious procession in church while wearing the cassock and surplice). Another example of the poem’s religious diction is the use of “venial” to describe the soot that blows across the school yard. When used to describe sins, venial refers to relatively less important sins, unlike the more serious mortal sins that, the boy’s teachers would have told him, could deprive him of God’s grace. Like venial sins, the soot smudges everything in this tarnished world. Another component of the poem’s diction is its colloquial language. The angry Christ will “wade into [Zimmer’s] blasphemous gut,” the devil roars until he develops hiccups, and Zimmer uses the slang term “mice” to refer to the bruises on the face of the crucified Christ.

One last image in the poem deserves discussion—the reference to God reigning as a “One-eyed triangle” as he glares down at the playground. That image of God comes from the picture on the great seal of the United States, represented on a one-dollar bill, in which a pyramid is crowned by a huge eye from which light radiates. The child has evidently tied the idea of the pyramid to his teachers’ explanation of the concept of the Trinity—God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—which is sometimes represented as a triangle. Tellingly, the child sees the image as threatening.