Sometimes a story, a poem — a poem-story — can capture some of what social and political analyses can’t. How might you say in a story — flowing in the banks meter and rhyme — that life is never simple? Human experience is always deep, always ambiguous, always multilayered. How would you say that a kid can be harmful and dangerous, on the one hand, and wounded and broken on the other? That he can be hated by some and loved by a few? That symbols of love can become weapons of anger? That assumptions of knowledge can cover realities of ignorance? That selfish Samaritans can become heroes of mercy? That racial divides can become bridges of compassion? Well, we probably can’t say it. Not sufficiently. Not deeply enough. But that’s why we write poems. We try.
I saw a good Samaritan
Slow down and stop.
“This is that kind of road; and none
Of my sweet business here.” Atop
The hill just to the east he saw
The restful spires
Of Jericho. “There is no law,”
He thought, “no statute that requires
My bother, let alone the chance
But conscience rose and put a glance
Of his own son for him to see
Before his father-eyes. He crossed
The lonely road,
And whispered to himself, “The cost
Of this assault is not his load
Alone. Perhaps his father waits
He knelt. “Such are the fates
Samaritans endure.” Then, “No!
This is a Jew!” And worse, much worse:
The man was dead.
“Now what?” he thought. “It is a curse
To die and rot without a bed
Beneath the ground. And he is young.
His father will
Be searching soon, perhaps.” He clung
To one small metal awl until,
In his dead hand, it pierced his skin,
As if to say
To highway thieves: “Not this, not in
My life will this be snatched away.”
The good Samaritan put him
Upon his beast,
And set his face to do the grim,
Bleak work of bearing the deceased
Up to Jerusalem to find
A leather row
Where some young tanner had been signed
To take a load to Jericho.
He stopped at the first shop, “Can you
Say if a man
Was sent with leather goods down through
The road to Jericho?” “I can.
But hardly yet a man! In age,
Or worth, I think.
For all I know, his grief and rage
Drove him to steal the lot, and drink
His sorry way to Gerasa.
His father’s sick
With fear. There was a bruhaha
The night he left. He tried to stick
A man because his mother’s name
Was smeared. He slashed
Him with a tanner’s awl. He came
By here to get his load, and lashed
It to his mule and disappeared.
His mother died
Last year. The old man with the beard,
Down at the corner, right hand side,
That’s his dad.” “Thank you.” Hesitant,
And burdened down
With death, he waited at the front,
Until the old man, with a frown,
Said, “What you got for sale there, sir?”
“It’s not for sale,
Or trade, or deals. But if it were,
You’d pay me anything. This veil
Lies on the treasure of your life:
Your son. And in
His hand, unstolen in the strife.
There is an awl thrust through his skin.”
The old man lifted up the cloak,
And put it back.
“I found him on the road.” “Your folk
Hate Jews, my friend. And there’s no lack
Of corpses on that road. What do
You want from me
For this?” “I want to know from you
About the awl. And I would be
Obliged if you would tell me what
It means.” “All right.
A year ago, tonight, we shut
His mother’s eyes. And every light
Went out for him. But just before
She died, she called
Him. It was early, and a score
Of birds were singing. So enthralled,
She seemed, then said to him, ‘My child,
With singing birds,
I give you now my awl.’” He smiled,
“She always had a way with words.”
August 27, 2014
More poetry from John Piper:
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