The Awl

Remembering Ferguson

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Founder & Teacher,

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.

                The Awl
    Remembering Ferguson

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
        Of injury.”
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
        In Jericho.”
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.”


John Piper
August 27, 2014