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POETRY
Issue Date:  April 4, 2003

The Parable of the Prodigal Son
 
The Younger Son

“So he set off and went to his father.” -- Luke 15:18

The gold is gone, and the last
tubercular floozie has stamped
her foot, swished an angry
skirt, and slammed the door.

In pursuit of the rapture of the deep
I settled for giggles in the back room.
A comedian with no more jokes
stumbling off stage left.

Shame can wait, not hunger.
I remember the mutton, the dates,
uneaten in my father’s pantry,
and not a single sow in sight.

How hunger teaches the strategies of guilt;
the husks of my father’s swine
are wise if you will listen.
Famine is seeing, unveiling.

Perhaps he would take me back
if I chose the right words.
“At eighteen, Father, I asked
for mine, though you lived.

You gave the portion due me,
full freedom for the road.
And I was gone for years
of tavern geniuses and tattoos.”

The stomach remembers the stories
of lost things: drachmas
swept from under the bed,
sheep freed from the brambles.

Remembering always has a twin,
like the speaking mirror on the wall.
Why not a son who was dead,
startled into life by memory.
 

The Elder Son
“The elder son refuses to enter the house: “You have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” -- Luke 15:29

So he’s back, Stud the Magnificent,
himself, him whom you love.
You put rings on his fingers,
cloak him in silk, kill
the grain-fed calf, call
in the flutes so he nights
away the defiances of day,
dances deceit to your tambourines.

Himself brings only pain.
And you could not wait to be deceived.
You expect it, bow beneath
the blow. Yet again. And you weep.
This idiocy of love is tacky.

I fetch and carry;
I wait to be chosen,
reschedule my life for you.
No coat of many colors,
no gold for my fingers,
no sandals for my feet,
no fatted calf to bleed for me,
no harp to pluck for joy.
This son has yet to dance with friends
around a pot of goat stew.

Him you have loved, him.
No, I will not come in.

The Father of the Younger Son

“While he was still far off his father saw him.” -- Luke 15:20

Even after I gave up
keeping the tiger cub
in his cage, I picked it up,
forgetting snarls and claws,
though I have bite marks,

scratches to show love
comes late, scarred to wisdom.
Though you keep the cub
from larger cats, beware!
Young tigers have no shame.

The years I do not count
passing the window in the front,
searching the road for signs
of that cat no leash could check,
unmuzzled, free, and bleeding.

The helpless ache is ordinary,
the Thursday tedious, as I give a
passing glance through the window
at the dot on the far horizon, walking
as many have walked before.

But the way he swings his arms,
turns his head, slightly
pigeon-toed. I am out the door,
down the stairs, down the road,
running, arms outstretched.

My embrace, my tears, my laughter
gather in all the years,
my kiss stops rehearsed
genealogies of sin, outlawing of self.
Of course, you are my son.

Be quick, steward, clothe him
like the son of an Eastern king,
the best robe from my chest,
wake the cook, load
the table with meats and wines.

Call in friends and foes,
blaze the night into day
with torches, push the chairs
against the wall, pluck the harps,
strike the largest timbrel.

When the dead come back you drink.
When the lost are found you dance.
 

The Father of the Elder Son
“But we had to celebrate.” -- Luke 15:3

Son, you are always with me.
All my pastures, granges, granaries,
all are yours, have ever been.
You know you are my very self.
But for the living owner
I did not blow the ram’s horn.

You are right, of course:
my love is tacky, untidy.
But you mistake to balance love,
to measure by level tablespoons,
like a chemist weighing arsenic.
No excess. -- You were never dead.

When the grave throws up a son
there is a commotion of love,
a proper father malady,
like three riots in the heart.
We dance, we sing, we lift
our cups, because we must.

Now I blow the ramís horn.

Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB Collegeville, Minn.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2003

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