“What He Must Have Seen” by Stephen Kampa

Stephen Kampa


He’s so old that a man has to stand on either side of him
to prop him up, but he gangles there on his own legs, climbing
the stairs slowly to the baptistery where the pastor waits,
youthful and brimming with a swift, practiced benevolence now
that the old codger has finally made up his mind for Christ,
and the man totters on the concrete edge of the pool before
he tremor-steps sideways down yet more stairs into the water,
where the standard words are spoken, and he goes under but can’t
come up by himself, so the two attendant men are rushing
over to help the pastor haul him to the surface, the prayer
gets said, a little orotund still despite the breathlessness
tugging at the pastor’s voice, then we watch the slow ascension
out of the water, and here the sopping man can’t hold himself
upright anymore, he has to put his hands down on the stairs
to steady himself, the other men surrounding him, their hands
at his scabbed, purplish elbows or against the small of his back
while we the congregation hold our one long bored breath, praying
that he won’t slip and fall, crack open his spotty pate and bleed
into the baptistery, and I think he must have seen this
the moment he decided to be baptized, he must have known
that he would have to clutch arms and rails and even the black edge
of the piano to help himself be hoisted out, and all
in front of this smarts-riddled crowd come of age in the age of
the body, the youthful body, the digital blink, the why
is he taking so long to get out, knew he would have to put
one knee on a step, a hand, another knee, another hand,
up and up, over and over, and he chose it, chose this path
we raced past, our pose his posture, our figures of speech his facts
as he crawls, in front of God and everybody, as he crawls
on his hands and knees into a new life, short but eternal.

from Rattle #42, Winter 2013


Stephen Kampa: “Often we’re taught that to be good, sophisticated readers, we must be aesthetic readers who weigh matters of form and style and ignore matters of fact or (shudder) truth, but I continue to think poetry—at least some of the time—must intersect with our lived lives and battle for wisdom if it’s to be worth our attention. Perhaps a good, sophisticated reader will not care that I saw a baptism much like the one described here, and that I was one of those congregants feeling the awkward discomfort of a very old man crawling out of a baptistery, and that it occurred to me that at some point in your life, you start thinking about the practical matters of weak joints and wet stairs and help at your elbows and how it will all look to a room with its fair share of able-bodied, youthful, impatient people; but I believe that even a good, sophisticated reader can recognize the bravery of an old man who, despite what he must have seen, chooses to be baptized anyway. I think the tacit question the title poses, then, is what else he must have seen to make him willing to undergo what saints and socialites alike might call ‘mortification.’”

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