The Prodigal Son in Poetry
The Prodigal Son's Brother
By Steve Kowit
who'd been steadfast as small change all his life
forgave the one who bounced back like a bad check
the moment his father told him he ought to.
After all, that's what being good means.
In fact, it was he who hosted the party,
bought the crepes & champagne,
uncorked every bottle. With each drink
another toast to his brother: ex-swindler, hit-man
& rapist. By the end of the night
the entire village was blithering drunk
in an orgy of hugs & forgiveness,
while he himself,
whose one wish was to be loved as profusely,
slipped in & out of their houses,
stuffing into a satchel their brooches & rings
& bracelets & candelabra.
Then lit out at dawn with a light heart
for a port city he knew only by reputation:
ladies in lipstick hanging out of each window,
& every third door a saloon.
The Prodigal Son
By Rudyard Kipling
Here come I to my own again,
Fed, forgiven and known again,
Claimed by bone of my bone again
And cheered by flesh of my flesh.
The fatted calf is dressed for me,
But the husks have greater rest for me,
I think my pigs will be best for me,
So I'm off to the Yards afresh.
I never was very refined, you see,
(And it weighs on my brother's mind, you see)
But there's no reproach among swine, d'you see,
For being a bit of a swine.
So I'm off with wallet and staff to eat
The bread that is three parts chaff to wheat,
But glory be! - there's a laugh to it,
Which isn't the case when we dine.
My father glooms and advises me,
My brother sulks and despises me,
And Mother catechises me
Till I want to go out and swear.
And, in spite of the butler's gravity,
I know that the servants have it I
Am a monster of moral depravity,
And I'm damned if I think it's fair!
I wasted my substance, I know I did,
On riotous living, so I did,
But there's nothing on record to show I did
Worse than my betters have done.
They talk of the money I spent out there -
They hint at the pace that I went out there -
But they all forget I was sent out there
Alone as a rich man's son.
So I was a mark for plunder at once,
And lost my cash (can you wonder?) at once,
But I didn't give up and knock under at once,
I worked in the Yards, for a spell,
Where I spent my nights and my days with hogs.
And shared their milk and maize with hogs,
Till, I guess, I have learned what pays with hogs
And - I have that knowledge to sell!
So back I go to my job again,
Not so easy to rob again,
Or quite so ready to sob again
On any neck that's around.
I'm leaving, Pater. Good-bye to you!
God bless you, Mater! I'll write to you!
I wouldn't be impolite to you,
But, Brother, you are a hound!
THE LOST SON, 1948
1. The Flight
At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.
Fished in an old wound,
The soft pond of repose;
Nothing nibbled my line,
Not even the minnows came.
Sat in an empty house
Watching shadows crawl,
There was one fly.
Voice, come out of the silence.
Appear in the form of a spider
Or a moth beating the curtain.
Which is the way I take;
Out of what door do I go,
Where and to whom?
Dark hollows said, lee to the wind,
The moon said, back of an eel,
The salt said, look by the sea,
Your tears are not enough praise,
You will find no comfort here,
In the kingdom of bang and blab.
Running lightly over spongy ground,
Past the pasture of flat stones,
The three elms,
The sheep strewn on a field,
Over a rickety bridge
Toward the quick-water, wrinkling and rippling.
Hunting along the river,
Down among the rubbish, the bug-riddled foliage,
By the muddy pond-edge, by the bog-holes,
By the shrunken lake, hunting, in the heat of summer.
The shape of a rat?
It's bigger than that.
It's less than a leg
And more than a nose,
Just under the water
It usually goes.
Is it soft like a mouse?
Can it wrinkle its nose?
Could it come in the house
On the tips of its toes?
Take the skin of a cat
And the back of an eel,
Then roll them in grease,--
That's the way it would feel.
It's sleek as an otter
With wide webby toes
Just under the water
It usually goes.
2. The Pit
Where do the roots go?
Look down under the leaves.
Who put the moss there?
These stones have been here too long.
Who stunned the dirt into noise?
Ask the mole, he knows.
I feel the slime of a wet nest.
Beware Mother Mildew.
Nibble again, fish nerves.
3. The Gibber
At the wood's mouth,
By the cave's door,
I listened to something
I had heard before.
Dogs of the groin
Barked and howled,
The sun was against me,
The moon would not have me.
The weeds whined,
The snakes cried,
The cows and briars
Said to me: Die.
What a small song. What slow clouds. What dark water.
Hath the rain a father? All the caves are ice.
Only the snow's here.
I'm cold. I'm cold all over. Rub me in father and mother.
Fear was my father, Father Fear.
His look drained the stones.
What gliding shape
Beckoning through halls,
Stood poised on the stair,
Fell dreamily down?
From the mouths of jugs
Perched on many shelves,
I saw substance flowing
That cold morning.
Like a slither of eels
That watery cheek
As my own tongue kissed
My lips awake.
Is this the storm's heart? The ground is unsmiling itself.
My veins are running nowhere.
Do the bones cast out their fire?
Is the seed leaving the old bed? These buds are live as birds.
Where, where are the tears of the world?
Let the kisses resound, flat like a butcher's palm;
Let the gestures freeze; our doom is already decided.
All the windows are burning! What's left of my life?
I want the old rage, the lash of primordial milk!
Goodbye, goodbye, old stones, the time-order is going,
I have married my hands to perpetual agitation,
I run, I run to the whistle of money.
Money money money
Water water water
How cool the grass is.
Has the bird left?
The stalk still sways.
Has the worm a shadow?
What do the clouds say?
These sweeps of light undo me.
Look, look, the ditch is running white!
I've more veins than a tree!
Kiss me, ashes, I'm falling through a dark swirl.
4. The Return
The way to the boiler was dark,
Dark all the way,
Over slippery cinders
Through the long greenhouse.
The roses kept breathing in the dark.
They had many mouths to breathe with.
My knees made little winds underneath
Where the weeds slept.
There was always a single light
Swinging by the fire-pit,
Where the fireman pulled out roses,
The big roses, the big bloody clinkers.
Once I stayed all night.
The light in the morning came slowly over the white
There were many kinds of cool
Then came steam.
Scurry of warm over small plants.
Papa is coming!
A fine haze moved off the leaves;
Frost melted on far panes;
The rose, the chrysanthemum turned toward the light.
Even the hushed forms, the bent yellowy weeds
Moved in a slow up-sway.
It was beginning winter,
An in-between time,
The landscape still partly brown:
The bones of weeds kept swinging in the wind,
Above the blue snow.
It was beginning winter,
The light moved slowly over the frozen field,
Over the dry seed-crowns,
The beautiful surviving bones
Swinging in the wind.
Light traveled over the wide field;
The weeds stopped swinging.
The mind moved, not alone,
Through the clear air, in the silence.
Was it light?
Was it light within?
Was it light within light?
Stillness becoming alive,
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.