Excerpts > Fall 2004
Maxine Kumin

The Agony

He doesn’t know where they are, the demented father
who murdered his children and buried them somewhere
along I-80, in sight of five or six sewer pipes
standing on end and a pile of weathered firewood
in Ohio or Illinois, Nebraska or Indiana, he'd say if he could
but reverently fashioned a cross of duct tape
that he stuck to the chest of each body before laying it down
in a makeshift grave he scratched in a grassy mound
near, best as he can remember, a yellow building...

Still, he sent them off with the cross, that enduring
trope that comes into even a killer's head.
How the crucifixion fascinates, is re-enacted
every Easter at Obergammau where the spectacle
draws thousands of tourists. Sent to kindergarten
next door in the convent of the Sisters of St Joseph, a little
Jew, I saw for the first time, in bas relief and color
a better than life size crucified Christ at the end of the corridor,
a graven clay image time had let set and harden.

Who was he? what had he done? who put him there?
I did not dare raise my eyes above the next child's shoulder
for fear of having to look at that hanging man again
as we lined up for lunch, for recess, the toilet. I did not know
the word but learned it then: his agony became my agony.
Staying inside the outlines of sheep and boy Jesus we
colored and learned to print our names beneath. MAXINE.
The letters wavered, the N kept coming out backward.
We also learned Hail Marys and to make the sign

of the cross to show respect and gratitude.
Can this be what my favorite baseball players mean
when they cross themselves, wet two fingers, blow a kiss skyward?
Tintoretto was paid two hundred and fifty ducats
for his wall-to-wall Crucifixion scene, the Christ of worship
a spike through each palm, left foot over right
secured in place with a third, forming a graceful T
dead center of the painting while the strip-
mall bustle of the rest of the figures surge around him

in the quivering light and all of the other crucifixion scenes
of the Renaissance elders follow suit, but in truth palms would tear
and permit shoulders to collapse in on the chest and the Christ
would suffocate. "I put my hands in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus,"
goes the Baptist hymn, perpetuating the gore, but had they ever
seen an actual crucifixion, these Florentine painters? They
would have observed that spikes must be driven through wrists,
shoulders be roped to the crosspiece to prolong the agony, the agony

that leads to the Passion as it is told in the New Testament
which I never read until my late adolescence
in the Bible-and-Shakespeare course, a benevolent tyranny
exacted at Radcliffe my freshman year, and ever since
Sin. Good. Evil. Obedience. How to get saved from Hell
have travelled around with me, with Jesus and me as well
as with the murderer in the opening line of this poem,
a Nicaraguan orphan adopted at age ten
who will either be killed or imprisoned until he is dead.

May it please the court to appreciate that he is mad
and append a crucifix and a rosary to his name.

Male Privilege

To the younger poets, to be cleansed of envy

Wash from your hearts
all dark thoughts of me,
rinse free all memories
of my young worshippers,
sweet things eager to be bedded,
who would afterward
raise up on one elbow asking
at Bread Loaf or Sewanee,
at Aspen or Park City,
now tell me, what do you really
think of my poetry?

Soon I will fall silent,
my mind will wander,
I will read the same poem
twice in one reading
and fail to notice. I will
consume more martinis
than the fabled number
downed by Nemerov,
I will grow drunker
than Berryman, cruder
than Dickey, I will become
my own myth, they will remember
me for my outrageous behavior
and a few immortal poems.

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