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  • The time of the first advent was foretold; the time of the second is not so; because the first was to be obscure, and the second is to be brilliant, and so manifest that even His enemies will recognise it. But, as He was first to come only in obscurity, and to be known only of those who searched the Scriptures….
  • — Pascal, Pensees, 757
  • They say I wear the scriptures on my sleeve —
  • Not true. I stitch and sew and scratch my soul
  • With them — the way that desert winds believe
  • The shifting sands will move and, on the whole,
  • That scrub and pine eventually break down.
  • They break down alright — and count the roll
  • Of boulders, mountains, and whatever crown
  • That Empire wears… These, lost on me now, hail
  • The high song of the wastelands: days that moan
  • The coming of another. Flies recall
  • The rhythm, locusts eat the melody
  • And honey adds the counterpoint. It’s all
  • The food I pick from barren fields. I see
  • It building up from wilderness; it comes
  • To search the slough and sift of enmity…
  • Remembering my mother’s cry, my dreams
  • Of distant visits haunt my head. So I search
  • The dunes of Palestine, obscured by time’s
  • Redundant landscape — even storm clouds lurch
  • With fits and starts that always promise rain —
  • The heavens’ pact with earth: You shall not parch
  • The grasses growing green upon the plain,
  • And I in turn will turn the sky to blue.
  • What thunder cries, a wilderness of pain,
  • That’s the work of God. I only call you.


  • Caesar was too old, it seems to me, to set about amusing himself with conquering the world. Such sport was good for Augustus or Alexander. They were still young men, and thus difficult to restrain. But Caesar should have been more mature.
  • — Pascal, Pensees, 132
  • From emperor to god, distinction’s blade
  • Has cut me loose from earthly care and set
  • My star within a diadem that made
  • My shade regret its bloody ways — forget
  • The fact that I refused the crown with three
  • Dismissive waves. So three were keen to set
  • Upon me — brute ambition, envy’s glee,
  • And tilting pride — my own to think success
  • A measure counted by eternity….
  • I wept at Alexander’s feats no less
  • Than now I laugh at what Augustus wants —
  • To valuate the empire’s populace
  • A victory subtracting weal from chance
  • In one decisive sweep of columned sums.
  • I told the pirates I’d be back to dance
  • Before their crucifixions; Pompey’s drums
  • Resolved my mettle. “Let Catullus sing
  • Of plows and flowers,” I said, “Caesar comes
  • From Gaul and India with arms to bring
  • About hic novus ordo.” This head
  • Is wizened, iron-willed, the only thing
  • That raises me above them all. Include
  • Among them, by the way, my wretched son
  • Who counts his greatest triumph as a god
  • A forced retreat of numbers back to one.

Joseph O’Brien lives on a homestead with his wife and nine children in rural Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin. He is poetry editor and staff writer (Set ’Em Up, Joe! and Sheep and Goats) for the San Diego Reader.

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