I am the man who has seen affliction…
His portrait would have him
serenely contemplating a garden,
one hand raised beatifically
like the saints of old.
Often I would have my days like that,
passed in that perfect serene of green,
spirit quiet within like the waters without,
no trouble straining pastoral brow.
But poems and pastors are not made like this;
the cure of souls is the work of the broken,
and contemplation is fuel for deed,
the quiet where turmoil turns to seed,
and the man who knew thoughts that were all cases of knives
was no doe-eyed dreamer but a brother to affliction,
and in earth’s pulley his grief pulled upward
and poems sprung from the love-mended rhyme.
So many ways to wash feet:
the posture, not the precise nature of the action, matters – poised
at ground level, familiar with the dust
and grime of the day’s streets,
outer garments shed to throw off all show,
the creak in the knees accompanying the splash
and the mess of the self washing off in the bowl.
So many ways, yet I
am more comfortable to be Peter:
between pride and gung-ho humility,
reserved and haughty in equal measure,
more at home with excuses
than the flagrant shame of love.
If I would be a disciple, I need only start
with the crick in these old, ossified joints
as I teach them to get love’s job done.
I shame at mine unworthiness, yet fain would be at one with Thee: Thou art a joy in heaviness, a succour in necessity.
(Sir William Leighton, 1614)
Shame and joy move in polyphonic sway:
the vision delights, augments, and yet
diminishes the confidence.
How can I, with unclean lips,
hymn praises without minor chords?
Must burning lips be always scorched
for worthiness to drive the heavy soul?
The quavering voice, the riddling Me?,
the scroll that makes the sinner frown.
Seraph brings the cleansing coal,
while heaviness lags and leaves.
I missed the flames that day,
was at my books, learning the whys and wherefores of Law,
determined that every subscript iota
would not be neglected when I stood before God.
The Spirit blows wherever it wills.
Mine was the letter, not the wind.
When, years later, I clutched letters in hand,
I held every one that spelt, I am right.
I missed the flame, but the wind still arrested;
and the Son spoke assaults on my well-crafted name.
The Spirit caught, sent me – though crooked –
blown by its wind to the street they call Straight.
To Cleopas and his friend,
the revelation and its impact no doubt stuck.
Their paradigm, irremediably shifted, could hardly go back.
Such things as resurrections we don’t
forget in any hurry.
Yet for those serving at table, I wonder:
did the light dawn so quickly, so decisively?
More or less a normal night’s work,
and that constant attempt not to eavesdrop
or at least not be seen doing so.
And then, some vague but growing sense
that here was a light altogether different in quality,
such that everything else was jet in the background,
that here was a customer who transformed the meals he ate
and left behind more than he took.
Perhaps, on the table,
after he left, as though spirited away,
in place of the customary tip a piece
of bread leftover, and a cup of wine,
and with the skeleton of the fish course lingering on the plate,
a parchment asking silently,
“Shall these dry bones live?”
History has few exemplars to be proud of.
The Greeks did well with Priam, at least,
willing to face “iron-hearted,
man-slaying Achilles” for the sake of a son.
My own culture’s replete with absent men,
“bronze Anzacs” taught from birth not to cry.
The Biblical witness, too, leaves something to be desired:
most too busy with wives in multiples to see
sons ganging up on sons, hurling into ditches,
covering many-coloured garments with blood.
Some simply could not hear, over
the chewing of fruit, the sound of the older
saying to the younger brother, “Come for a walk.”
One king learnt too late that all
the years at war, or watching rooftop baths,
did not teach a son to trust or respect his old man.
Only this cry rings out as a lesson: “Absalom,
my son, my son! Would that it were me instead of you.
Absalom, my son, my son. Absalom, my son!”
Perhaps the polygamists, war-mongers and liars
have this to teach us: the insufficiency of one
man of dust to be the all, the end, of the home.
In his frailty and deceit he clears the way
for another tale, another sight:
the wealthy man embracing pig-stained rags,
the fattened calf killed,
the Father’s arms stretched.
This witness alone can teach the twisted tongue
the meaning of our faintly-voiced, “Father.”