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How to Pray

Falling down on your knees is the easy part, like drinking
           a glass of cold water on a hot day, the parched straw
of your throat flooded, your knees hitting the ground,
           a prizefighter in the final rounds. You're bloody,
your bones like iron ties, hands trembling in the dust. What
           do you do with your hands? Clasp them together
as if you're keeping your heart between your palms,
           like their namesakes in the desert oasis,
because that's what you're looking for now, a place
           where you can rest. It has been a dry ride for months,
sand filling your mouth, crusting your half-blind eyes,
           and you need to speak to someone—though who
you don't really know. Pardon is on your mind. Perhaps
           you could talk to your mother. You are fifteen
and think her life is over. You don't say it, but you think it,
           and she's ten years younger than you are now,
her hair still dark. How do you thank her for waking up
           each morning and taking on a day that would kill you
and not just one but thousands? How do you thank her
           for the way she tossed words around and made them
spin and laugh and do cartwheels on the lawn?
           And your father, he's the one who loved poetry,
bought the book that opened your world to you
           like someone cutting into a birthday cake the gods
have baked just for her. Do you talk to him about not caring
           and teaching you that same cool touch?
And King James, how do you thank him for all the words
           his scribes took from Wycliff and Tyndall, and Keats
for his odes, and Neruda for his. But this wasn't meant to be a prayer
           of thanksgiving but a scourge with a hair shirt and whips
and bowls of gruel. But is it blood the gods need,
           or should your offering be all you have—words
and too many of them to count on the fingers pressed to your lips,
           or maybe not enough and never the right ones.

Barbara Hamby

On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems
University of Pittsburgh Press

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