Lazarus (1966)

A simple command cuts his death to the bone.
A stiff shadow, bound, moves out of the cave
Blurred in drifting clouds of recognition.
Dappled with hot shadow of olive-leaves,
Gnarled with the ancient anguish of the vine,
He stood stone-still, carved out of the indrawn
Breath of morning, shriven, his neck arched back
Like a frozen wave.  Only the women move,
Mary and Martha rocking to and fro
Like bladderwrack in an indolent undertow.
“Come home from the dead, Lazarus” –
So the women had keened away the three nights
Never dreaming their salt and hopeless grief
Could turn their prayer to bitter affirmation.
Over the vibrant silver of the olivetrees,
Across the vine-plants and shadow, the day
Had curled in an arch of lapis lazuli.
Crisp with menace and the dawning voices,
The plumed sunlight coils its force and strikes
A hammer-blow full on the creased eyelids,
On eyeballs wrinkled by the gravebands, bruised
By the brass pennies.  Miraculous, the light
Breaks open his eyes as though his skull had split
On some relentless reef of lamentation.
His head strains back, arching his neck to the impact.
The hush of harvest on the taut skins of his ears,
The memorable feel of his own body
Bound still, the animal moanings of the women
Insistent as the fricture of cicadas –
Out of this undertow he claws his way
To a bitter beach of consciousness.
His eyes, unshrouded now, are windows looking
Inward and outward.  No eye dare meet them.
Even the women edge their shame away
Disavowing their knowledge and their prayer.
            The shrivelled heart may know
            The royal reprieve of greenness.
            But what imperial purpose,
            Infinitely gentle,
            Requires this hard penance
            Fathering an old crime
            On new innocence?
The stiff spasms of his waking overset
The calculus of grief and the cold
Merciful mechanism of forgetting.
His body’s musk and myrrh is tropical landfall,
Languid repose transfixed by arrows of regret.
Stricken by the two-edged sword of paradise,
His neck arched back, he raises stone eyes
To the blaze of a bitter vision – pity granting
Life, withholding heaven.  Nevertheless
The fluttering hands of embalming sorrow
Quicken like flowers inward, enfold and cherish
A man-child, it may be, or the seeds of a woman’s
Grief, or some more numbing, some more precious
Mystery nourished of suffering – perhaps
An alabaster box of spikenard.
            For the sword was made flesh
            And dwells among us.