The Dying Words of Balaam the Diviner to His Devotees
Listen, friends—you who follow me
now gathered around my bed to watch me die.
I won’t thank you while you shake and cry
as though I were a god. What you see
dying here is meat. That’s all I am.
You’ve wasted your lives just as I have my own—
drawing circles in soil, carving bone
and timber into gods, all that flimflam.
Do I sound bitter now? It’s just as well.
Our divination is a game of dust and shadows,
is it not? So very little depends
on us—our work. We read the Jordan’s swell—
find new waters by pointing sticks toward meadows—
what we do is nothing.
We’re powerless. The heavens hold a power
that could consume our land in a single hour
if it so desired. Beginnings and ends
are its alone—that god of Israel—
but that god cares not at all for meat like us.
Maybe that’s a lie. Well, I guess
I’ll never know. The mush inside my skull
can barely understand the rain, the way
a flower grows, the mystery of fire.
How arrogant that I should purify
my own ignorance and pass away
feeling justified when I’m a liar
just like the gods.
Maybe that’s a lie.
I don’t know the difference anymore.
But where was I? I’ve wandered awfully far
from the story I was telling and I may die
before it’s over. Perhaps that would be better.
There’s no happy ending. I’m not too old
to be ashamed. Listen—when it’s told
to those who never knew me, make the letter
of my life’s story differ from its law.
Say that I rode on to Balak’s court
and the king couldn’t tempt me with all his gold.
That I looked on Israel and blessed what I saw.
That the god of the Jews had made me strong of heart.
That Balak despaired.
Listen—when it’s told,
say I didn’t fold at Balak’s command.
Say I didn’t raise a trembling hand
to pray that Israel would be expelled
from Moab forever. Please—say I didn’t
rub some sticks together, dance a bit,
chant some nonsense, swill some wine and spit
it on the fire—didn’t do as I was bidden.
Friends, I die ashamed. Let my shame—
my sin of spinelessness—die with my body.
All my life, I’ve preached that we prophets mustn’t
resist the will of gods though it be random.
I die a hypocrite. That’s what they’ll call me.
I failed you, friends. Please—say I didn’t.
The green-furred slope of Pigeon Mountain
rises over Harrisburg
like the knee of the lost Rhodesian titan—
colossal, solemn as a dirge.
A band of stone bleached white by sunshine
runs below the upper tree line,
the rock a rough-drawn grid of cracks.
In the valley, between abandoned tracks
and the rubble that was once a depot,
the Broome boys keep their chicken pens—
just fighting cocks; there are no hens.
From Center Post to Burgess Hollow
to the shacks that flank the county line,
there’s only chickens, hemlock, and pine.
Someone might have called it a village
once, or perhaps a town, but now
that it exists is arcane knowledge
no one really cares to know—
the black dot to denote its being
is gone from maps, its people fleeing.
The towns of Southeast Tennessee
take most in like refugees.
The rest pack up and head for Atlanta,
where Harrisburg is just a place
in Pennsylvania. The only trace
of home they’ll carry in their banter,
the slushy snarl of foothill speech—
more mountain lion than Georgia peach.
Harrisburg—the Land of the Steeple,
Jewel of Duck Creek, Promised Land
for a minor god’s Unchosen People
who never seem to understand,
as I do not, that living faster
need not speed one toward disaster.
Our great great granddads left Inverness
and settled the Georgia wilderness
for reasons no one there remembers—
if any ever knew at all.
Perhaps they’d heard the sirens’ call
of empty hills and mild Decembers.
The smallest reason’s enough for some
to slip the tightening noose of home.
Now I too live there no longer,
though for me the noose was not so tight
yet tight enough for the marks to linger:
the amphitheater of night
and cicadas swelling like a chorus;
my father’s workshop thick with paint dust;
coyotes’ too-human cries that chill
the heart; the blood that all beasts spill;
the Broome boys’ truck, stacked high with cages,
parked outside the Baptist church;
the soggy days when low clouds perch
on Pigeon Mountain’s crown; the ages
winter always seemed to last;
this always looking toward the past.
A too small, too full room without a door.
A box of snakes.
A tower of Jenga blocks.
A pharmacy with sawdust on the floor.
A pack of bloodhounds circling a fox.
A wind-up pocket watch.
A fax machine.
A diesel humming in the parking lot.
A sack of dimpled, bruising tangerines.
A cut that will not clot.
A brass bed frame.
A window rusted shut.
A thicket webbed in poison ivy vines.
A hunter with a bullet in his gut.
A blooming hyacinth.
An unpaid fine.
An aging preacher drunk and sick with doubt.
A newborn star.
A wildfire burning out.