Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Flight in the Desert

by Brother Antoninus

The last settlement scraggled out with a barbed wire fence
And fell from sight. They crossed coyote country:
Mesquite, sage, the bunchgrass knotted in patches;
And there the prairie dog yapped in the valley;
And on the high plateau the short-armed badger
Delved his clay. But beyond that the desert,
Raw, unslakable, its perjured dominion wholly contained
In the sun's remorseless mandate, where the dim trail
Died ahead in the watery horizon: God knows where.

And there the failures: skull of the ox,
Where the animal terror trembled on in the hollowed eyes;
The catastrophic wheel, split, sandbedded;
And the sad jawbone of a horse. These the denials
Of the retributive tribes, fiercer than pestilence,
Whose scrupulous realm this was.

Only the burro took no notice: the forefoot
Placed with the nice particularity of one
To who the evil of the day is wholly sufficient.
Even the jocular ears marked time,
But they, the man and the anxious woman,
Who stared pinch-eyed into the settling sun,
They went forward into its denseness
All apprehensive, and would many a time have turned
But for what they carried. That brought them on,
In the gritty blanket they bore the world's great risk,
And knew it; and kept it covered, near to the blind heart,
That hugs in a bad hour its sweetest need,
Possessed against the drawn night
That comes now, over the dead arroyos,
Cold and acrid and black.

This was the first of his goings forth into the wilderness of the world.
There was much to follow: much of portent, much of dread.
But what was so meek then and so mere, so slight and strengthless,
(Too tender, almost, to be touched)--what they nervously guarded
Guarded them. As we, each day, from the lifted chalice,
That strengthless Bread the mildest tongue subsumes,
To be taken out in the blantant kingdom,
Where Herod sweats, and his deft henchmen
Riffle the tabloids--that keeps us.

Over the campfire the desert moon
Slivers the west, too chaste and cleanly
To mean hard luck. The man rattles the skillet
To take the raw edge of the silence;
The woman lifts up her heart; the Infant
Knuckles the generous breast, and feeds.

* * *

This is kind of a long poem to do a very complete commentary of. I found it in my mother's prayer book, and despite its modern style it appeals to me. (I don't know who Brother Antoninus is, I'm afraid.)

Setting the Flight into the Desert in a desert which seems straight out of the American Southwest seems incongruous, but it makes the biblical event seem much easier to understand. This is what desert means to us; it's not a vague idea of wilderness but a dry, abandoned, rather frightening place.

The phrase "God knows where" at the end of the first stanza is striking. God knows where the road ends if no one else does.

And of course the paradox of the Child whom they guarded guarding them . . . not a new idea, but it's never old. It's a nice parallel between that and the Eucharist, how we carry Christ forth into the dangerous world, "the blatant kingdom."

The last bit is homey and familiar, as Joseph cooks over the fire and tries to make noise because it's too quiet, and Mary nurses baby Jesus.

The entire poem tries to make the biblical story real and practical to the modern mind without compromising any of the eternal meaning -- and, in my opinion, succeeds very well.


Santiago said...

Dana Gioia has a great essay about Brother Antoninus. Check out his essay "Brother Beat" in the back issues of Crisis magazine -- it's online here:

Happy new year!

Sheila said...

Interesting article. I'm a bit disappointed that Brother Antoninus left his order, though. :(