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Jerusalem

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Happy they who…having rested in peace, stretch out their hands to Him, who must lift them up, and make them stand upright and firm in the porches of the holy Jerusalem! There pride can no longer assail them nor cast them down; and yet they weep, not to see all those perishable things swept away by the torrents, but at the remembrance of their loved country, the heavenly Jerusalem, which they remember without ceasing during their prolonged exile. – Pascal, Pensees 458

We too were Jews, we here in Bethlehem
When Herod’s men with steel and daggered eyes
Believed in everything they saw. Each hem

And tunic sleeve, red as winter sunrise,
Repeated endlessly upon the flat
And edge of sword’s empirical emprise—

Potential trickles like driblets of fat
And greasy flame reshapes dispatching arms
That thread entwined through meat and sticky guts,

And turn the muscle’s issue into worms.
We too, subjects of a place-keeping pawn,
Were chosen for this cradled land. No storms

Could lull our cries, no Babylon could croon
Our lullabies so well…. Oh, Jerusalem,
Why could no angel stop your hand again?

Not living, you survived our Bethlehem—
Our braziers warmed your hypotheticals:
We come as one and yet alone, Shalom!

We come, shalom! assuming you—who else?—
Would tell us why the star that’s out of place
Now leads us to this place where power dwells….

Our mothers—bleeding milk and motherless—
Behold the shattered flesh. These bodies, curled
As severed tongues upon the ground, confess

Such tiny holocausts, such piercing cold.

Instability

               It is a horrible thing to feel all we possess slipping away – Pascal, Pensees, 212

The winter churns away above the stars
And thunderstorms divide the falling snow
Like pulverized domains of Venus, Mars….

The only difference between what they know
(By which I mean the gods above and worse
Below) is wind and snow, how both renew

The chilling grudges either side of time—
And time is all we’ve got to make the few
Mistakes that take us out beyond the game.

Detested earth beneath my feet and breath
Within my chest indict these bones I claim
The same as draughts on squares that jump for death

Or life. The Herod name, so old, so full of gold
And rusting all the same…. I wish the earth
Would swallow whole the price that fame foretold

In blood. Intestinal politicos
Like Caesar can negotiate the cold
And haunt Jerusalem’s dunned porticos

But kings affixed with templed crowns insist
When thunder whispers names in swirling snow
It means that children die with all the rest

That vanity deletes. In general,
When word goes out, the world will not resist.
They say I am unstable, illiberal—

I say a word that’s canceled can’t exist.

Hosts

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

                                        [Three hosts.] Would he who had possessed the friendship of the King of England, the King of Poland, and the Queen of Sweden, have believed he would lack a refuge and shelter in the world?
                                         -Pascal, Pensees, 177

Did such snow ever blanket Bethlehem?
It falls as final as the time of year
Across the crop or rocks that crown and hem

The outskirts of the village. Winter claims –
Definitive – irrevocable – some
Bizarre prerogative tonight. But rooms

Are filling up – so paying silver states
Its terms against the naked cold, which names
Its own price: in my bed a woman waits –

A Memphis slattern drawing ten percent,
Each random lay she scores for me. Our rates
Have risen since these hungry hoards that bent

Their pilgrim way – tremendous clouds of dust
Announced their mad arrival. Money spent
On taxes ought not strain rapport of guest

And host, ought they? So profits make as much
About the Law as Caesar’s laws can trust
The prophets’ words – though caves would gape at such

A prosperous teat to fete the Lupercal…
A steady wind is reaching out to touch
The embers in my hearth. I smell the stall

Across the dooryard but, by God, I’ll take
The whore (or who and when I want!). The inn
Abides. My board is blessed by holy luck,

Discerning honey from the turpentine.

Glory

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                                                                                             Glory – The brutes do not admire each other. A horse does not admire his companion. Not that there is no rivalry between them in a race, but that is of no consequence; for, when in the stable, the heaviest and most ill-formed does not give up his oats to another, as men would have others do to them. Their virtue is satisfied with itself.
                                                            – Pascal, Pensees, 401

One brother took up law; the other trooped
Away to endless war. I stayed home
As a bureaucratic bean-counter, duped

To think that riches played an easy game:
Addition, multiplication – each cooks
The books for future fortunes. All the same,

With squared-off cubits, office duty yokes
Existence to these ledger lines that spill
With columned figures. Fortune’s spinning spokes

Subtract from time, divide with iron will
What irony remainders. Would my years
Be sown in furrowed wax my styli till?

“There’s glory,” Primus said, “in foreign tours
Of duty.” So Secundus sought the heights
Of politics. But Tertius now secures

Them both in one: I poll these client states,
Reconquering for Rome. Hand-picked to lead
The census here in Palestine, I set my sights

On taxing tails for piles of Caesar’s head –
This skin game they’re calling his “Golden Fleece.”
(And who has time to calculate the dead

When the living offer glory’s increase?)
“The catgut of the state,” said Cicero
Describing taxes. Let that be the case –

To string and peg fame’s fingerboard just so.

Flies

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               The power of flies; they win battles, hinder our soul from acting, eat our body.
                                                                          – Pascal, Pensees, 367

I hate the thing I cannot be and yet
I know I’m not wrong for I’m never wrong.
I count the stars and one alone has set

Me going – all the rest can go to hell.
I didn’t make the flies, but I had put
Their song to good employment. Now they dwell

With me – and I should know, being the lord
Of the buggers, they make an easy sell
For cleaning up a butcher’s yard. Byword

Of light itself – I was it! But no more –
I’ve got a kitchen kingdom, fleshy sword
And flyblown maw instead to tend. I’m sore

At heart and hate the Jews – and Romans too.
But they can play very well together, or
I’ll see them die in their attempts. Then, through

The gates I see that star. That goddamn star.
No fly left out, no maggot stranded – no!
So how can stars be any different? Sure,

The cretins eat putrescence put in front
Of them, but never question it. Their care
For me – it knows no bounds! Each accident

Of nature, each festering harlot of
Ol’ Babylon, every mother-loving runt
Of a whoreson tabbed. Then I look above….

I’m not waiting around. No. Time to move.

Egypt

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                                                  Prophecies – The conversion of the Egyptians (Isaiah xix, 19); an altar in Egypt to the true God.
                                        – Pascal, Pensees, 724

My altars are ubiquitous. I touch
The shadows that they cast. Once river mud,
My soul’s basalt is baked and bricked from scratch…

The Greeks had heroes; Rome, its empire’s blood,
But revenant Cleopatra boasts death
As neither myth nor state. So Egypt stood

As proof: my lust and beauty forged its truth
In brickyards, straw or not. The pyramid
And temple praise me. Caesars raise a wreath

Upon my crypt, like writhing asps that bid
My granite-needled will and hang with thread
My womb, an empire’s balance pan, which hid

My heart and raised my feather far above
The reign of Ra. So Serpent Apep’s rule
Commands that woman crush such fleeting love

Upon the open market. Sell a mule
In memory of me, then; buy a colt
To free my soul. When strangers come, the cruel

Indifferent sun still blackens soil, and silt
That bleeds from holy Nile to middling seas
Still shapes my body, bringing to a halt

Advancing Roman altars. Prophecies
Are empty: Take the Jews – they came, they lost,
They conquered nothing. So my enemies

Abjure: I alone renovate this boast.

David

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                         A single saying of David or Moses, such as ‘God will circumcise their hearts,’ is a test of their way of thinking.
                         All their other arguments may be ambiguous and leave it uncertain whether they are philosophers or Christians, but one saying of this kind settles all the others, just as one saying of Epictetus settles everything else in a contrary sense. Ambiguity goes just so far and no farther.

                                           – Pascal, Pensees, 690

Consult philosophers, what do they say?
Some fiction flinging theories from the void.
So ask the oracles you say? Well, they

Would speak of crows in flight and cooling guts,
Then hide the gods in feathers, plucked away
And squibbed with blood. Enough’s enough. For what’s

The use of being emperor if truth
Has taken wing in ether realms or struts
In toga, scroll in hand, with garlic breath

To wilt a legion? Rather to my mind
Arithmetic’s the thing. So do the math –
An easy thing to lead – but from behind?

At Actium it was so. (Ply the wax
As styli scribble! What these censors find!)
The breezes blow and Antony’s heart cracks –

An egg for augur’s breakfast. Take the win
As lessons in empire: peace prefers a tax
To nails upon a cross. So Palestine

Has made a stink? That crazy Herod writes
About his lack of funds? There’s truth for you!
No David he, but still, his greed indicts

And makes a friend in Caesar. Numbers, Kings
Of Iudaea, never let you down –
So count each coin a friendly thorn that stings

And slays the words your heart might seek to crown.

Caesar

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Caesar was too old, it seems to me, to set about amusing himself with conquering the world. Such sport was good for Augustus or Alexander. They were still young men, and thus difficult to restrain. But Caesar should have been more mature.
                                                                          – Pascal, Pensees, 132

From emperor to god, distinction’s blade
Has cut me loose from earthly care and set
My star within a diadem that made

My shade regret its bloody ways (forget
The fact that I refused the crown with three
Dismissive waves). So three were keen to set

Upon me – brute ambition, envy’s glee,
And tilting pride – my own to think success
A measure tallied by eternity….

I wept at Alexander’s feats no less
Than now I laugh at what Augustus wants –
To valuate the empire’s populace

A victory subtracting weal from chance
In one decisive sweep of columned sums.
I told the pirates I’d be back to dance

Before their crucifixions; Pompey’s drums
Resolved my mettle. “Let Catullus sing
Of plows and flowers,” I said, “Caesar comes

From Gaul and India with arms to bring
About hic novus ordo.” This head
Is wizened, iron-willed, the only thing

That raises me above them all. Include
Among them, by the way, my wretched son
Who counts his greatest triumph as a god

A forced retreat of numbers back to one.

Babylon

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The rivers of Babylon rush and fall and sweep away.
O holy Sion, where all is firm and nothing falls!
We must sit upon the waters, not under them or in them but on them; and not standing but seated; being seated to be humble, and being above them to be secure. But we shall stand in the porches of Jerusalem.
Let us see if this pleasure is stable or transitory; if it pass away, it is a river of Babylon.
                         – Pascal,
Pensees, 459.

It wasn’t much at first. A sagging step,
Exaggerated bend of knee, the way
She’d reach with fluid motion and then stop –

I even caught her once before the well,
The water’s calm the perfect reach and scope
For vanity to hold her gaze… When ill

She’d sit a lot and take her rest instead
Of work – my own affliction could not tell
Of Sara’s lesson: Abraham was dead

And God no longer talks to us in signs.
Tradition filled my mouth but weighed like lead
To trip my tongue. So she would sing the lines

Of David then: God, our king before time,
Hath wrought salvation…
Now my mind inclines
To all kinds of hints: so the steady flame

Within the temple’s precincts trembles at
The shadows. Brother priests do not esteem
My company. Still, incense rises, mute

As priests and fathers suffered Babylon:
Now I too wish to sing with strings and flute,
To dance with timbrel like the halcyon

Who swoops and dives above the river’s flow…
So God’s own messenger, who stood upon
The altar, was pleased to let this father know

He’d be waiting on the porch of Sion.

Advent

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The time of the first advent was foretold; the time of the second is not so; because the first was to be obscure, and the second is to be brilliant, and so manifest that even His enemies will recognise it. But, as He was first to come only in obscurity, and to be known only of those who searched the Scriptures….
           – Pascal, Pensees, 757

They say I wear the scriptures on my sleeve –
Not true. I stitch and sew and scratch my soul
With them – the way that desert winds believe

The shifting sands will move and, on the whole,
That scrub and pine eventually break down.
They break down alright – and count the roll

Of boulders, mountains, and whatever crown
That Empire wears… These, lost on me now, hail
The high song of the wastelands: days that moan

The coming of another. Flies recall
The rhythm, locusts eat the melody
And honey adds the counterpoint. It’s all

The food I pick from barren fields. I see
It building up from wilderness; it comes
To search the slough and sift of enmity…

Remembering my mother’s cry, my dreams
Of distant visits haunt my head. So I search
The dunes of Palestine, obscured by time’s

Redundant landscape – even storm clouds lurch
With fits and starts that always promise rain –
The heavens’ pact with earth: You shall not parch

The grasses growing green upon the plain,
And I in turn will turn the sky to blue.

What thunder cries, a wilderness of pain,

That’s the work of God. I only call you.