Poetry

JOSEPH
for Tania

She goes to sponge wine to the lips of men hanged to dry
On the crosses, to bring them their final taste of life
Before the sun picks them from the bones of Eden.
I say to her: “Those men are dead; it happens.
“Leave them be and save yourself for the living,
For the hungry.”  But she can’t see it my way, won’t
See the dust rising and settling in the corners
Of the Earth and let it fall,
But every day trudges out to the desert alone,
Donkeyed under a too-full urn of wine that bears her shoulders down
And threatens to press her heart into the ground . . .

I have my dream:  she walks beside me, through a forest of cedars
Grown old and wild along the banks of a tender, nursing stream:
I fell two trees with a whisper, gently carve their trunks
Into the smooth and oiled planks of our table,
Into the beams of our home, the lintel of our door,
Into the caressing palm and fingers of our bed–altars
Where we can come together as husband and wife and sacrifice
Ourselves to ourselves alone.

But dreams are a sign of drought, of emptiness in the world,
In oneself.  There are no forests here, no cedars, no streams,
Only my wishes distilled to vinegar and spilling out from me.
I sit on my stool, strapped tight to the house
Where I was born, watching the lovers glance and touch and proclaim
Their passions to each other in lawful silence.
“Strip yourselves,” I spit as they float past me;
“Lose your self in every sin known to man.  Quickly! Quickly!
Become unclean.  Before He sees you, before He casts His eyes down
Longingly and sends his angels after you.”  They think I’m crazy,
Circle away as if, like a mad prophet, I had stripped away my robes,
Shown them the future, their soft thighs and kisses and tender passions
All turned to bone.

But I’m a carpenter.  Not even a carpenter:  a box-maker.
I work with my fists, mutter over the tremors and the knots,
The slow cake of blood inside this heart, these hands.
My fingers scrape at the wood like slaves in the fields
Of an insane master, content to keep the peace, resigned
To the single shape I have allowed them:
I dream of our home, and it becomes a box;
I dream of our table, and it becomes a box;
Our bed, another box still–this, as if to say to me, “Of course, Master;
There can be no greater need in all the world
Than for one more dry and empty box.”

In the evening, I wash the dust from her cheeks and lie with her,
My arm thrown like a shutter across her heart.
She sleeps like a leper, open to the world, clutching at herself,
Murmuring the words and burning passions of her disease.
But in the morning she leaves my grasp:
She hobbles, already big with grief, to the window
To watch the dawn’s march of bruised and perished souls,
Then dresses and takes the urn up once again,
To have it filled along the way from some hidden well or spring
That God has given her and which I cannot understand.
When she’s gone, I lie in bed and repeat my litany:
I curse the God who drove us into the desert;
I curse the Child who feeds upon her innocence,
Who grows His destiny like a fever inside her womb;
I curse the Almighty Voice that burns its jealousies into stone,
“Thou shalt not covet . . . ,” and then lies
With my bride to be, whispering long, glorious nothings
Of His paradise to come.

I sit by the door and carve my boxes.  I watch her shadow
Move between the crosses silhouetted on the hill:
A dark, tiny moon braced against the mammoth sun.
There is no God here, I think; there is nothing
But what has always been, the earth and sky and hunger
For what does not exist–everything else we have imagined.
But my thoughts are false:  the sun is His jealous eye,
Each cross His beckoning finger.  She goes to Him as a child
To her father, as Isaac to Abraham, hopeful and trusting;
She bears the urns like sons upon her back, gives every last drop
In sacrifice to the wide, parched mouths of these dead.
She has always done this, will always do this;
For in our sacred moments I’ve looked into her eyes,
Into the scars of her prayer-torn hands, the trembling of her lips–
I know that the wine flows from her blood, that every man
After the nails and the lashes, after the burning sun,
Has taken her life into his mouth and clung dearly to it
Before falling, light and brittle, into her arms.
This is the truth, the burden of her soul.
And though I fight to change it, there is no power
Great enough, in her or I, to shield us from this life,
No comfort softer than our sad and weary arms.

And so this is what I do, what every lover must do:
Each night, while she sleeps, I tear the crosses down;
I bear them back the way they came.  And through the days,
I carve them into these small, wooden boxes,
The endless cradles of my love.

Originally published in The Southern Review, Summer 1990 issue.

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