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  The Chicago hermit at Mother Teresa's  

  Middle class
  Vol I : issue 3

  Ashis Nandy
  Amit Chaudhuri
  Kamala Das
  Paula Gunn Allen
Karen Swenson
  Only in Print

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Karen Swenson

He’s a silence that moves among us,

along rows of men patients

or wrings out drab ravelled blankets

with a partner he never speaks to,

in the scent of wood-ash lye.

Gray-faced, a slim young heron, he’s hunched

in wings of silence over

a tea mug and sawdust cookies,

alone in a channel of sun

between lines of drying sheets on the roof.

He’s adolescent raw

at ankle and red wrist-bone,

earnest and Irish, ashamed

of his body. That traitor’s become

a sinister foreigner with

an anarchist penis, an umbrella

in a wind storm, leading him

to no brave new world but a land

of flesh, where one false move

will detonate him straight to hell.

His mouth full of cookies, he sits

unsmiling over his tea.

I try to draw him out,

ask, "Are you ill?" He shrinks,

a salted snail, at the word

diarrhea and shifts me quickly

to the spirit,

says people here,

just ordinary people

have a better grasp of the soul

than his family priest in Chicago.

I enumerate the symptoms

or giardia — diarrhea, cramps, gas — suggest

he go to a clinic but don’t explain

that Hindus disbelieve in the soul

and have another cookie.


There is no good without its attendant evil

"If the number of the poor is reduced

we'll lose our jobs." Sister Nirmala,

Mother Teresa’s successor.

It's a sort of deal:

On one side God controls

the bank, owns apple blossom Heaven

and Hell’s in-the-red embers;

while on the other, there’s

an international, blue and

white wimpled corporation.

In the account between is the currency of the poor:

In yellow flowered gowns —

unnamed but numbered — they’ll wear any

God’s amulet who'll help.

Deposits toward salvation may be made:

Circle death with beads of prayer:

sleep on concrete:

hold a patient’s foot as

another cuts away the rotted skin

repeating sternly, "Be

still. Be still," to the deposit

who’s flinching from the pain.

An increase in currency is always desirable:

Orphans and gaunt children of malnourished parents,

the cash flow of life,

are the commodity of salvation.



Karen Swenson has five volumes of poetry in print and writes for The New Yorker, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review and other venues. She lives in Manhattan