No 12 - Autumn 2007
Of course I deplore the whole unfortunate incident
but one must view everything, yes, even matters
of life and death, in a strictly objective spirit.
The man was harmless, you say. Can you be certain?
He believed himself a prophet. No harm in that.
Prophets no doubt have existed, though their credentials
must always be scrutinised with infinite care,
for prophets, or those believing themselves to be prophets,
have power to influence the ignorant rabble,
who imagine they hear through them a divine voice speaking.
He was sincere, you say, and of blameless life,
meticulous in his observance of the Torah.
But that was precisely what made him dangerous.
Charlatans can be bought or terrified into silence
but when dealing with a sincere fanatic, I’ve found
neither reason, bribes or threats can influence him,
and a blameless life and observance of the Torah
confirm the mob’s belief in his vocation.
We’ve had too many prophets. There was that fellow –
what was his name? Ah, John – whom Antipas
had beheaded last year in Machaerus.
He’d criticized Antipas’ private life, with reason,
but in such delicate circumstances rebukes
should be uttered privately by a priest to the sinner,
not bawled aloud to an excitable crowd
prepared to seize any pretext for a riot.
So with this Galilean. The lower orders
would have done anything at his command.
He was probably mad. He was said to have talked of destroying
the Temple and in three days rebuilding it.
But once a fanatic’s convinced that he’s a prophet
why should he stop there? Why not the Messiah?
A Messiah and a mob’s a combustible mixture,
especially at Passover, when Jerusalem
is crammed to bursting point with the scum of the earth,
and once fire’s kindled, what may it not consume?
Would Pilate have stood by? What of this Temple,
this city, this nation? Might not all have perished?
It was expedient one man should die
rather than thousands in a crazy revolt.
A word in Pilate’s ear settled the matter.
Of course it went against the grain to surrender
a fellow-Jew to the Goyim for crucifixion
but when have I ever shrunk from a painful duty?
The man is dead and tomorrow will be forgotten
but the Temple’s standing, and will stand for ever.
But listen, comrades, let’s get this thing straight.
You say I ran away and then I denied him,
you say so, you! Fine lot you are to talk!
When the pigs came into Gethsemane to arrest him
I drew my knife and slashed one of their ears off,
but when I looked round to find what support I was getting
I couldn’t see your arses for the dust,
so I ran too. What else could I have done?
But I didn’t hide under the bed like you lot,
no, I followed them right into Caiaphas’ palace.
When the servants said “You must be a Galilean,
you’ve got an accent a man could cut with a knife,
you must be one of his gang”, of course I denied it.
Why hold that against me? What else could I do?
But as they were leading him past he looked at me
and I went out and howled like a kid who’s been thrashed.
Well, I’ve learnt my lesson. I’m going back to Capernaum.
I’ve had enough of Jerusalem’s smart-aleck Pharisees.
It’s back to my wife and my boat, back to Gennesaret
and the clean winds wrinkling the face of the water.
No more Messiahs for me! I’ll breed sons and daughters,
hardworking fishermen and fishermen’s wives,
and having put my three years’ madness behind me
die an old fisherman and rot forgotten.
Judaea’s green, but beyond the Jordan is desert
and I, a sentinel posted on the frontier,
must guard the sown against the desert’s encroachments.
And the wilderness, which has entombed so many cities,
is never far away. I can feel its breath
hot on my cheek whenever a Zealot’s knife
flashes in Jerusalem’s back alleys.
I defend our civilization with what weapons
first come to hand, however crude they may be,
striking out blindly, killing the innocent sometimes.
Scruples are luxuries Rome can’t afford.
When first Sejanus posted me to Judaea
he told me: “There are three things a Jew understands:
a sword, a cat-o’-nine-tails and a Roman cross.
Don’t be afraid to use them.” I took his advice
and have never yet regretted following it.
Take that Galilean I crucified yesterday.
Caiaphas swore he was an agitator
stirring up the rabble to go on a tax strike
and claiming to be the legitimate king of the Jews.
Under cross-examination he talked so wildly
I decided he was a harmless lunatic
and thought of letting the fellow off with a flogging
just for the pleasure of spiting Caiaphas.
Even my wife put in a word for him.
Women are suckers for the latest cult
and will open their purses to any self-styled guru.
Most are content with Cybele or Isis
but a surprising number, my wife included,
find Jewish superstitions strangely attractive.
I didn’t like hurting her feelings, but in the end
I hardened my heart. I can’t afford to take chances –
Tiberius doesn’t forgive errors of judgment.
Agitator or madman, he had to die.
One Jew more or less makes little difference.
Caiaphas may for once have been telling the truth
and by making certain he didn’t cause further mischief
I may have preserved our Roman civilization.
I was sure from the start that he was the Messiah
and day after day I waited for him to confirm it
with growing impatience. I found him strangely evasive,
neither proclaiming nor yet denying his kingship.
Then Passover, Jerusalem seething with pilgrims,
Galileans by thousands, inside the city
an underground resistance eager to strike
and a sea of rumours murmuring everywhere
“The Messiah has come.” He entered the city in triumph
through a wavering forest of palm boughs and multitudes shouting
“Blessed be the king who comes in the name of the Lord”,
and he purged the Temple of bloodsuckers. The people
would have flung themselves on Roman spears at his order.
What orders did he give them? What did he do?
A spur was needed. I went to Caiaphas’ palace.
If he were arrested the people would rise in their thousands
to rescue him. I offered to hand him over.
To ensure the priests didn’t suspect my motive
I asked a reward, thirty pieces of silver.
It all went horribly wrong. They didn’t rise.
“If he lets himself be taken so easily”,
I heard them saying, “he can’t be the Messiah.”
I rushed to the priests and threw down their dirty money,
begging them to release him. They shrugged their shoulders.
“It’s out of our hands now. Pilate’s in charge of the case.”
I knew enough of Pilate to guess what that meant.
I screamed to heaven “Send down your legions of angels,
you can’t let your Messiah be crucified!”
There was no reply. The heavens burned blue and cloudless.
Our God, his God and mine, had forsaken us.
In the bazaar I’ve bought myself a rope
thick enough to take my weight, I reckon,
and I’ve seen a convenient tree in the Potter’s Field.
(v) Mary Magdalene
“She’s possessed by a devil”, people would say
whenever I howled with laughter like a hyena
or wept like a running fountain for hours on end
or danced with my hair flowing loose till I sank down exhausted
singing in languages I alone understood
or rolled on the ground wallowing in my filth.
But others replied “Seven devils at least I’d say.”
And they were right, seven devils possessed me
who often dragged me away into the bushes
and took their pleasure that was agony to me,
and I bore their babies, half human and half devils,
but I can’t remember what became of them –
my devils must have killed them, I suppose.
Pious respectable people drove me out
screaming “We don’t want whores like you in our town”
and as I stumbled weeping from village to village
the boys ran after me hurling dirt and flints
and yelling “Barmy Mary, loony Mary”
till I collapsed on the ground bleeding and weeping
and prayed aloud to my seven devils to kill me
but they only stood round me pointing their fingers and jeering.
And then my beloved came and knelt beside me.
The sweat that trickled down my burning forehead
dried at once when he laid his cool hand on it
and he gave my devils one glance and they fled away shrieking.
So I rose and followed him with the other women
and we walked behind him into Jerusalem
chanting “Hosannah to the son of David!”
And as he sat at table at Bethany
I poured a fragrant oil over his head
anointing him my king and the King of Israel.
But then my devils came creeping out of the darkness
and they crucified my king’s naked body,
that beautiful white body that I loved so,
and stood around him jeering “Come down from the cross!”
Then I knew my devils were stronger than my king.
I watched from a distance as Joseph and Nicodemus
took down my beloved and laid him in a tomb.
Because today is the Sabbath I can do nothing
but weep and listen to my devils jeering
but as soon as one streak of light appears in the sky
I shall go to the tomb in the garden where they’ve laid him
and for the last time I shall anoint my king.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The