I wouldn’t call gulping a glass of ale
and backhanding foam off your upper lip
a form of devotion, or the refusal
to laugh at an off-color joke a sign
of reverence. But I could imagine God,
a wounded rat in one hand, a soothing song—
I do not say on his lips. No, it’s snowmelt
running along the street toward the sewer,
and in the gutter, huge and dead, is the rat—
all of which, why not, might as well be God,
as different from what we suppose as fire
from firefly, ash from snow falling
on your shoulder. And just try to push
a baby carriage past a dead rat without
a shudder and that “ew”—the sound
a young woman with all her life ahead
makes at foreign and cringe-worthy death,
the opposite of breasts fat with milk.
Years ago, and still that rat’s gnawing
through my brain like something God might do
with his first shall be last and fear not,
little flock: sell all you have. That rat,
the size of a cat, so maybe I could have
imagined it purring, not chewing its way
into the crib at night. Fat chance.
To love a rat, a mosquito, junkie,
an ex-con, Exxon, the tough girl who shoved you
against your locker, the kid with razor scars
on his cheekbones looking sullen as if
you’re a pigeon to be x’ed off the street—
it doesn’t even sound easy. They say
the church down the block has a bone shard
chipped from the jaw of someone who laid hands
on a fevered girl and she sprang up cured.
Size of a fingernail, kept in a box.
The church is a box they open a little,
but not too much. So God has to seep in,
as on that unnaturally warm New Year’s Day
full of car exhaust, trolley clatter, shy men
outside the bodega who’ve watched for months
and finally get to coo at my new baby: God
has to move through snowmelt, uncollected trash,
burn smells from the torched warehouse; has to
stand there and knock at the church door.
Wet fur, twitchy whiskers.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.