Damien De Veuster, the leper priest
exiled himself on Molokai, the most
remote of Hawaiian Islands––
designated as quarantine––
to contain the contagion of leprosy,
its victims’ corpses left on the ground
to be consumed by dogs and pigs. Father
Damien reclaimed the land for burial,
to restore the dignity of those dead.
He and the colony built a church
to center community to replace hope-
lessness with joy in a sense of belonging.
He himself succumbed to the disease
and a century later was named a saint.
On his saint’s day, I bring him
the marginalized from mine and others’
families––the drunks, the junkies, the voiceless
ones, who carry a white and tattered banner
to announce they are coming, like Damien’s
congregants, their dignity restored
by recognition of their humanity,
by one man’s sacrifice of his life
that they might know the value of their own.
The winter I had pneumonia
the body-I was teetering. Hanging
between heaven and hell,
I couldn’t move a pinkie finger.
Call Kathleen, I told my husband.
She knew the room between life
and death, and if anyone could
stay the dark angel, it was she.
Through sweat-soaked flannel
of nightgowns, pajamas, day after
day, night after night, weeks
of wild coughing, crazy to catch
some breath between spasms––
water and juice, juice and water
food out of the question, ’til
my husband baked a chocolate
cream pie, and the healing began.
Six months gone, I consigned pneu-=
monia to the rumble seat, and good
health itself took over the steering wheel.
An alien is spending the night with me.
It wants us to sleep in the same bed.
How can I say no to this guest,
hospitality being a rule of the house.
I wring my hands in consternation.
Why did I ever sign on for this?
Too late to change my mind.
This alien is here for all of the nights
of the rest of my life. Nothing to do
but soldier on, remembering the pain
before it moved in with me.
Jesus, would you say “Ephphatha!” to me
as you said to the man whose ears you opened
whose tongue you loosed so that freed from
impediment, he might speak plainly?
Would you say “Ephphatha!”to me?
And while you’re at it, how about the eyes?
They’ll serve you in any case, but if I could
see clearly and hear again, if I could reclaim
those lost senses, I would lay them down
in this body of mine in service to you complete.
I was on my way in the O.E.D. to ephphatha––
Jesus’ command that opened the ears of a deaf man––
when I came upon ephemeromorph, a general name
for the forms of biological life, which are not
definitely either animal or vegetable.
What a find in this age of transgendered people
finding themselves, and who, like the word
ephemeromorph listed as “rare,” have hung behind
a curtain of invisibility for generations, accused
by the O.E.D. itself and by others of being
a manifestation of the lowest forms of life.
In our time the curtain is being rent, and these
ephemeromorphs find themselves
exposed, not as the lowest of the low,
but as something less rare than was previously thought
that defies classification, and so, control, and quite
beautiful really in their own unclassified way.
Someone is in the house. Uninvited.
Not feeling threatened, but uncomfortable
and needing to know who it is because
a young child, full of trust, as children are
is busy in all the rooms of the house
and could easily be discovered
by someone else.
You! What are you doing here?
Why didn’t you leave when the party was over?
This is not your home.
Your quick smile, your red shirt, your evasive
eyes, your glossy attempts to explain
your presence. Your resistance to leaving––
more than that––your insistence on staying
is as clear as your dancing feet that tap
into room after room as I follow you,
with a broom meant for cleaning.
Be gentle. Be slow
until the moment comes
when all is fast, and so will you be
fast, fasted as you are from all detritus
that had clung like barnacles to your psyche
and held you apart from all you would do
and be. Now is the hour to act. Scraped
clean you are able beyond your knowing
to fulfill in the simplest and most satisfying
ways the call on the rest of your life
On this day of destruction, the Word comes down
as bodies came down through the sacred air
as the towers themselves came down in fire and dust
choking those running away in donated sneakers
those running barefoot to Brooklyn, to Bedford Stuy
running, running away to the future, to this anniversary
when we remember the runners, the jumpers
the hostages on the planes; the lovers of fire
who commandeered those planes, those misguided
ones who worshiped death. But a new altar arises
today, when the Word comes down as life, new life
these 17 years gone; new life in the womb
of the present moment. New life that is breath
for those in New York and beyond.