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Poem for Thomas Merton

Poem for Thomas Merton

“Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.”

The fan was manufactured for you.
Even as it blew on the bodies of innumerable
sleepers it was dreaming of you.
All night it hawked its noise
into the ears of others but yours was the name
it chanted. It was as if it was hunting you,
though it never took a single step.

Instead, in the quiet Kentucky night your death
came to the door, a telegram the cold
and color of snow. Crossing the sea,
folded over itself in the hold, it had obsessed
over what it had to say to you, over your name
scrawled languidly in a monk’s quiet hand.
It knocked with its fist of pulp and postage

on the heavy oaken doors of the Abbey,
waking the Brother in the guard house
out of sitting sleep, who thought nothing
of it when an envelope floated in. And when
you opened it at dawn, your fingers
still swollen and dinged from woodcutting,
and saw your name scrawled there

how could you have not answered the call?
Your last night at Gethsemane you lay
awake in your hermitage, grinning
like your Brothers in the grass. Your robes
swept their graves as you passed
on your way into the dark chapel,
to bring yourself one last time before the icons’

familiar flaws, the nick in Our Lady’s forehead,
the patch of plaster missing from Christ’s side.
Did you really believe you would ever kneel
in that chapel again? Or, serving Mass
to your friends at the hermitage, whispering
their first names as you offered them bread
and wine, did you know your death

was a thin man with a face of blades
standing in a bathroom in Thailand?
While you bathed he fanned you,
clothed in blue voltage woven by turbines
miles up river, where maybe a girl
was even then picking her steps carefully
along the bank, carrying a basket of laundry

above the painless dismemberment
of the waters. When you took hold
of the fan’s spine your every atom
flashed impossibly bright, then dimmed.
The first man who tried to touch you
was shocked an inch from your flesh.
They had to let your numinous power

ebb out into the childish bathwater.
Someone called the State Department
(“Good, now we don’t have to shoot him.”).
And you, who had written of the roar
of bombers flying over your hermitage,
your body was borne home with the bodies
of the latest wave to fall in the war.
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