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Wisdom of the Desert Fathers

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by Katha Pollitt (b. 1949)

True, in the legends
they always seemed to be quarrelling,
but no one got blood on the sheets
or wept, “You never talk to me! Talk to me!”
The lizards didn’t mind the silent treatment

and at first it was exciting, snubbing the tourists
and pretending not to care how the others smelled.
Flash floods and lightning, daybreak
smiting the cliffs like judgment
said “KEEP OUT THIS MEANS YOU.” Inside,

the caves were plain, but tidy, like motel rooms,
the straw beds tucked each morning with hospital corners,
on the nightstand “Better Mulches,” and a mouse
trained for a year with bread crumbs
to stand and fold its delicate paws in prayer.

Before they knew it, it was too late to go back:
the farm had gone under, cancer had taken Mother,
everyone was married. Even the demons
hardly came round anymore
with their childish bribes of money and sex.

Still, it was years before anyone asked out loud
if the wisdom of the desert fathers
had only been not to be fathers.
Then came the real temptations:
flowering cactus with its dime-store scent

drenching the cool blue twilight,
or the rinsed simple mornings
when it almost seemed they’d wakened
to find themselves back home in the neighbourhood:
bachelor uncles, washing the car on Sundays.

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