Tuesday, September 24, 2019

karl petersen | joseph's night watch

She looks at me, pale and ghostly, 

even though she stands full in evening light 
outside my shop door. My hammer drops
to the ground, she fills me with such terror: 
the innocent delight of her eyes gone, 
those gentle hands which she could hold 
the world in wring and twist
over her stomach in the folds of her dress, 
and the delicately proud line of her body—
where has it gone, stooped as if spent 
from a sickness? 

Her eyes drift to the ground 
where earth-shaking news takes shape 
in the carpet of splintered wood and nails.


Please listen and hear me out, her voice 
that has so many times quickened my heart
with the lightness of a star, so heavy now.

Mary, what—

She takes my hand, draws me closer
and places my callused palm 
over a bulge in her stomach.

Is it—

You must believe what

How did this—  

I need to say… 
then do what you will. 

My face flushes to feel this growing 
in her. I try to sit, and stumble 
against a pile of boards that fall
in a clattering heap, 
repeating the shattering announcement 
down the streets, through the open windows 
and doors of the torpid town; women and 
children passing by glance in bewilderment, 
Reuben the blacksmith stops his clanging 
three doors down. 
I beg her to come inside,  
my throat tight, so dry I cannot speak. 
I try to think, to bring substance 
to the dizzying rush
of incomprehension in my skull.

Your trip south, was it then? I ask,

 That you met… that it happened?

I haven’t slept with anyone.

Just tell me who.

It wasn’t that way.

An angel came to me—

An angel!  


Go! Get out!

That night in bed I stare into the dark,
do not sleep, her voice that was not her own, 
her words haunting me, my Mary, 
visions of her betrayal mocking me:
strange hands in her dark, velvet hair,
her skin tender against his, 
her warm breath 
on his face, lips, limbs merging—
Was it awkward, timid?
or yearning and confident? 
I try to cry but cannot,
the wound too deep, and burning,
twisting, knotting.

Lord why do you punish me? 
With pains of oath I pledged myself 
to purity until our wedding day, for you.

For her. If this is how she thanks my decency,
let me be the first to throw a stone
on the day of her execution!


Darkness like the devil himself 

encroaches and taunts me: 
You thought you had her, he sneers,
but look now how God takes her away.

Yes, I relent, 
the Lord giveth and the Lord—
But what have I done? 
What have I not done? 
Does she find me lacking? 

I ponder how to end it, and dozing off 
I drift over the Galilean terrain
looking for a place to escape: 
a crevice in the rocks among 
the insane, or lepers, where I can die, 
inconspicuous and nameless, 
a rocky cliff at the edge of town where
I look over and cannot see to the bottom.
And there as a vision in the sky
is Mary, her face pained and beckoning. 
And I let myself go, and fall free.

I start awake, shaking cold in my sweat,
my breathing rapid, my chest pounding, 
head wanting to burst. I need 
some place to run.

A sheep bleats in the cold night,
as clear and definite as my own voice,
and my body slackens. I listen,
but there is no answer to this sheep’s cry 
and I am sure that it feels my fear;
it bleats again over the town, and again. 
And, of its own, a grief locked inside me 
that seems to contain all the sorrow of Israel
lets go in sudden, violent gushes. And
in my tears is Mary and the memory 
of my hand on the child in her womb.
In the expanse of night comes a plan: 
break the engagement, 
hide her in a village 
far from Nazareth where
the gossiping jackals cannot find her, 
far from the gawking eyes, 
until she has given birth.
I’ll tell them she’s gone south again 
to be with her cousin, Elizabeth. 
She can give the child away, 
to whoever wants it, 
as the Lord wills.

I go outside for some night air,
to empty my bladder, and
between wakefulness and sleep, 
stupefied and contemplating 
the limpid hope of my descendents in my hand,
I drop back against the wall of my empty house 
and stare into the stars pregnant with 
the promised generations of our father Abraham.
And a face of a man as aged as Israel
forms there among the constellations, 
and with a voice as timeless as Yahweh himself: 

Joseph, son of David.

Yes, Lord, I am here, the heir of my father David.
Do you bring the sins of my ancestors on me
that you have wounded me this way?
Lord, forgive me, but spare me this, I pray:
to have Mary as my wife, that is all,
to live out the end of my days in Nazareth, 
a carpenter, my only ambition.
Is it too much? 

You will never be a king, Joseph,
as your father David, but you will raise one.

I could more easily raise an elephant,
for now I have no reason even to raise 
what lies here between my legs, 
because you have taken away
the passion of my heart!

She will be yours in time in body and soul and mind.
It is as Mary says. No man has slept with her.
This is my doing.

But how—

So be glad. Marry her 
and take her in to live with you.

A breeze brushes my face
and I shiver. The stars are fading, 
displaced by a growing glow of light 
that signals dawn, rising on a far hill 
like a lion with a great, shimmering mane  
approaching a vast plain plotted
with small tufts of dirty-white sheep,
but the bleating of the night hours
has stopped, as if in wait.