Sunday, December 05, 2004


... and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head and deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant. But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day, and it attacked the plant and it withered. And it came about when the sun came up that God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah's head so that he became faint and begged with
all his soul to die, saying, "Death is better to me than life." Then God said to Jonah, "Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?" And he said, "I have good reason to be angry, even unto death."


It's a mockery! A mockery! And I'm sick of it.
I want to die.
Why doesn't this molten hot sledge of sun that hammers
my forehead finish me off?

It's a mockery
a curse
and a mockery.
And I have good reason to be angry.
Into the blackest of blacknesses I was interred,
into the gaping mouth and gullet of an enormous
floating grave

deep beneath the waters.
And for three days, under the roots of mountains
under the soil of centuries
I was a sentient corpse in my own coffin:
I saw only blackness,
was confronted by blackness:
my own emptiness, and my own terror.
But I prayed, I prayed to you, Lord,
I prayed until vision came of the flowers round your holy

and I heard Your sweet voice.

It was You who brought me back here
You who coughed me out of the blackness into this blinding
white Assyria

You who said You'd speak with my mouth, my tongue, through me.
And in that city, amid the many ways of its ignorance
its grovel of money, its flash of whore
its cryptic, calculating glances
I cried out
I shouted
as You Yourself counseled,
"Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!
Yet forty days!"
Yet forty days passed, and nothing.
Oh a few heard me, or shall we say, pretended?
In their glittering mansions begemmed and bejeweled
they made a great show of it with sackcloth and ashes.
Then the others followed
as others will always follow
like sheep under King's orders:
half-comprehending, half-believing,
observing their own last rites with occasional jibes
ironic laughter
and toss of bitter lots in back alleys.

Oh they all should have been condemned
as You said they were condemned
to descend, naked, into their own dark graves
into that blackness far blacker than the wombs of their own mothers:
then this light some now claim to have seen
would really be light.

For that, yea, I curse you.
I curse You and everything about You.
I curse the stars, I curse the depths, I curse this earth
beneath my feet,

I curse men, I curse women
I curse my blood!
Now why don't You just burn me up?
Burn us all up in Your wall of flame?

Maybe I'm nothing.
Maybe all this is nothing:
this desert, so vast-horizoned before my sight,
that lost city
and the ocean, so far away, that spit me out like a putrid
thing it could no longer digest:


All my life, I have yearned, thirsted in this emptiness:
even in those swarming streets, surrounded by hundreds,
by thousands
of people,
I was here, in this desert
where my tongue cleaves, cuts the roof of my mouth.
I still see those faces grimacing in laughter
telling stories as hands gesture vainly in air
wager lost shekels or entwine in other hands --
my own face among them,
twisted, laughing with them,
my hands shadow-gestures thrown by flames against a wall --
as my own throat burns within me
my heart runs out like wax!

And in long days and nights alone
crouching in that dim-lit, solitary room
watching the four clay walls
press deeper, ever deeper
into my skull
was I not imprisoned in that same black belly that
sidewinds so far beneath the earth?

It was You who put me there --
You and You only --
there is no escape from the blackness, none,
and it never ends, never!

And those wings, those whispers that graced my eye and
ear in dreams,

what were they? Also nothing?
And that command, that ordinance
that stilled the waters, made me shout
what was it? Again nothing?
It may as well have been.
And You, too.
And me, and all this:

Here by my side,
a green shoot has wormed its way up through the parched
white soil.

It's been two days since I first noticed it:
already it's grown half a hand's breadth.
How ridiculous it is!
Why does it even bother to grow?
There's almost never water here.
Even if it does manage to curl out a leaf
some locust or rot-bringing worm is sure to get it.
Then why does it grow?
To suffer alone in this sandy waste, as I do?
But it's so green,
so supple,
so very, very green.
When the wind blows, it bends, and you can see its minuscule roots
clinging to the soil
clinging to hold on to its tiny life.
How it fights! How it battles!
And there, you can see stem parting into bud
and there, below, another stem
into pale, winsome feathering of leaf.

Why doesn't it too
want to die?

--From the "Genesis" series. First published in Guatemala & Other Poems, 1994

A note on lineation: following the idea in Charles Olson's essay,

"Projective Verse" (The New American Poetry, ed. Donald Allen, New York: Grove Press, 1960 pp.
386-397) that verse should "register the acquisitions of [the poet's] ear as well as the
pressures of his breath", I recorded this poem a number of times with a reasonably
sensitive mike and put the line breaks where I consistently drew my breath or made dramatic
pauses. It seemed the "projective approach" suited a character with so much wind in his throat...

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