by Brian Volck
All I know is that it happens unexpectedly:
how the forest trail, dim
even under still leafless limbs,
abruptly yields to sunlit meadows where
after so mild a winter,
daffodils flame from patchy turf
like pyres on a cratered slope,
and a lone chickadee,
perched slantwise on a cattail tower,
radios urgent dispatches
as spring launches its untimely assault,
and so I learn again
how surprise is time’s dark genius,
its feral imagination
forever outstripping mine.
I never tire of these woods,
having walked them since I arrived
young, intemperate, intent on living
beyond death among these men of practiced habit.
Slowest of learners, I mistook
the words above the Abbey gate –
God Alone – as charms to leave the war,
the bitterness that followed,
and all I called the world behind,
as yet heedless of the self’s
intimate stowaways, the nearly mortal wounds
I mistook for hard-earned wisdom.
I sought this place where wounded men fight
to name and own their brokenness,
but had no hint how deep the fault line runs,
how far below my showy violence
festered such pettiness that one man –
so like me we should have been friends
had we not been fellow novices –
almost proved my undoing.
For reasons dubious, obscure (was it
my father he more resembled or the friend
who stole my books when I deployed?)
I judged him lacking from the start,
his words obtuse, insipid;
dull grunts that passed for prayer;
a voice immune to harmony.
The novice master counseled patience,
though I pulsed with righteous fury,
certain one of us would not last the winter.
When spring found us both still there,
I soldiered on, curating resentments
while mouthing psalms of mercy.
Only in time and with what then seemed
great effort, I starved my wrath
through inattention. We forged a cool détente;
remained civil, rarely spoke.
as my brothers turned from fresh-mounded earth
where we’d just laid him, I did not expect –
could not have imagined – what Dom Andrew
then confided: He told me, Francis,
his constant prayer was to be as fine a monk
as you. Dom Andrew walked on. I turned
to salt, unmoving save to look behind,
not toward cities burning, but on my life
laid waste. I’ve seen good men die,
heard mortal wails and desperate
final prayers, but he alone
stalks me as wolves track weary prey,
a felt presence unseen, unyielding
unto death – my death. Today
we walk these woods together, he and I,
while each breath I draw begs one more wonder
from the One whose mercy and our surprise
are forever twined: O patient, hidden Master,
attend my brother’s supplication and turn,
at last, my beggared heart to You.
Brian Volck is a pediatrician who received his undergraduate degree in English Literature and his MD from Washington University in St. Louis and his MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words.