Good Friday 2010





In a bright blink of an eye

a kestrel rested its wing

in mid flight hunting mice;

A man spilling milk

Thought he saw a drop pause midair

Before it disappeared below the dirt floor.



Nothing mattered anymore;

Meaning seeped past reason;

All morning, no one wanted to leave his bed;

The world felt nothing

as if the sky had rested on the earth too long

And was asleep, each speck of dew

Numb pinpricks that held no pain.



In the first hours,

New leaves that were not there

Revealed themselves in the light

That dappled past the apple branches.

The wet ground smelled of coffee;

A man walking to market knew

That it would be sweet

If he touched it to his lips;

The old bones in the yard

Did not move in the wind,

But they shone a bit brighter

In the morning sun.



Lamech, the sixth grandson of Adam,

grieving the death of his child,

hung his corpse from a tree to dry.


The vermin and corvids came,

stripped the flesh, wind and sand

polished the bones


rattling them like chimes;

Lamech came every day to listen

to the chatter of death,


and heard music he felt compelled

to remake, which is how he came

to carve the oud


in the shape of his swaying son

reminding him of life and the song

the wind sings through branches and bones.



When water broke through,

Flooding the Wangjialing mine

In China’s northern Shanxi Province,


All feared the 153 miners

Trapped in the black waters

Would drown or die breathing poison gas


Trapped in the shaft along with them.

But they hung on, one

Quite literally, attaching his belt


To the mine wall to stay above

The rising coal waters

For three days until a he saw


Lazing by, a mining cart;

He swam to it and was carried

To 113 others, standing on one platform


For one week, stripping bark

Off the pine supports, eating the fibers

Until rescuers in rafts


Descended into the tunnel

To take them to the surface

Where thousands had kept unending vigil.


One rescuer told the press, weeping:

“I have not slept for several days.

Our efforts have not been in vain.”

Good Friday 2009

Fishermen know that the trick is to see

what’s not there, to pay attention in full

to the still air: the absence of warblers’ singing

in branches above the riffle;

the disappearance of stoneflies

that should be hovering above the river’s ennui:

They realize the insects must have died

and sunk below the surface, where fish are feeding.


They first learned this trick two thousand years ago

When they came to a cave looking for their friend,

expecting to find the stench and buzz of death.

When they found nothing,

they didn’t see at first, didn’t understand

what they had found:

life, waiting below the brittle surface

to leap and break into new air

aflame with grace, lifting the entire world

in an arc and covenant, a promise that springs

will feed rivers long after

we have learned how to see.

Good Friday 2007

“They can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,”

Sue told me:

students, she meant, suffering tunnel vision that comes

from too much work, the crazy fear of not knowing

their finished selves.


I realized, suddenly, that no tunnels cover us

not of our own making; the secret I am now learning

is that everything is light.


Like what the priest said on Palm Sunday.

Holy Week happens, he insisted,

when you make it holy,

when all that is sacred in you

touches each sanctified leaf,

each blessed moment,


Even death, which I have stopped fearing,

even on Good Friday when too many

I love have died.

(They are only dead for a moment.)


Even the cross is light, a candle

with a living flame that seared

my heart long before I arrived.


And when it flickered,

the world stopped turning on its old axis

and found a new line

around which to spin.

The revolution began

with this turning of the temple veil,

this quaking and total eclipse.

Even this darkness

was light, brighter than our eyes could see.


Even my father-in-law, dying slowly in my house,

still calling the name of his wife, a year now gone,

each morning as he wakes,

is beautiful,

the smooth skin of his swollen feet,

the whisper of white hair that he combs each day,

his large hands that hold onto my shoulders

when we walk in faltering steps

into the light of each new morning,

the light

of what lies ahead.




Watching Will’s Easter Vigil baptism,

With flame, oil, water, words

Changing him into something

Suddenly new, not unexpected

Yet it surprised me to see him

In this light, and I don’t know why

But I thought of the Fisher King story

And saw myself as the old man

Fishing by a dead stream

Waiting to drink from the cup,

and then I did,

and what wounds I wore like proud badges

I saw as bloody ulcers

and asked for forgiveness,

for a cool drink of water.


Good Friday 2006: Contemplating the Crucifixion

When you think of it,

don’t think

of the soft down of angels

haloing him

in golden sunburst of seraphim.


Think how human he was,

already broken by the betrayal

of close friends

who never understood,

never kept vigil

or came to see

the rusty spikes

break the small bones

of both palms,

the cuneiform of his anointed feet;

never came to hear

his valedictory,

or help answer

one hollow, holy question.


When you wonder about it,

think of his life as cipher,

his blood for your blood,

his words for your flesh,

until your wonderings touch upon

something as human as he is

in this graceful, green world,

in the meat of your own holy hands.


Good Friday 2006: Contemplating the Crucifixion (version 2)


I doubt

the soft down of angels

haloed him

in golden sunbursts of seraphim.


I imagine him already broken

by the betrayal of close friends

who never understood,

never kept vigil

or came to see

the rusty spikes

break the small bones

of both palms,

the cuneiform of his anointed feet;

never came to hear

his valedictory,

or help answer

one hollow, holy question.


His life ciphers:

his blood for your blood,

his words for your flesh,

until your wonderings touch upon

something as human as he is

in this graceful, green world,

in the meat of your own holy hands.


Good Friday 2005

For Stella


For Persian prayer rugs,

the weaver always makes one mistake

in the pattern because

nothing is perfect except for Allah.


Today, there is a stitch missing

in the threads of time that weave

in long lines down the hallway

where I have worked with Stella for 15 years


Because Stella has died this morning,

I lost a sister I never had to lose,

one who told me what an idiot I was being

when I was being one, one who


brought homemade pastry to the office,

laughed like creek water over stones,

invited you to her home, into the

intimate circle of her frank mind


where you were cherished, where your opinions

sat beside hers and resolved all knotty questions,

and still I’m stunned because,

in a street fight between Stella and Death


Stella would win, not by beating him senseless,

but by sitting with him, asking him

how his day was, how were his wife and kids;

then she would talk about Jason, Alex, Gene,


share a recipe, advise Death to avoid any food

that was white if he wanted to lose weight,

and invite him to her Kenwood acre

to help harvest the grapes on the new vines.


He would make the long drive,

stopping along the way

to buy her cut flowers

shaped like the sun, the moon and the stars.



It’s not so much grief as amazement

That her car, with its school decals

Will not be parked in front of school,


That her voice will not ring out

Down the hallway while she works

With Shirley on the auction.


How can someone so vital

Be and then not be?

Shortly before she left for the hospital,


She asked me to hold her,

To embrace her as best I could,

To let her know


She was loved; she was loved:

She had passion for her husband,

Adoration for her sons,


Who adored her in return,

Joy in her friends

Who, like me, stand surprised


At this removal from our lives

rude, sudden, abrupt,

of Stella, our best friend.


III. Stella’s Lessons

Begin each day

With an hour talking

About anything other than work.


Grow lavender,

Weave it into wands,

And give it to your friends’ children.


Treat your friends’ children

As your own

Or, better yet, as grandchildren.


Stay in the King George V in Paris

and by the Spanish Steps in Rome,

You might not get the chance to return.


Make all type smaller

Make all pictures bigger

Always use Copperplate 29AB.


Say what you mean,

But say it without meanness,

Only for the pure joy that truth brings.


In matters between husband and wife,

The wife is nearly always right,

And when she isn’t, she has good reasons for being wrong.


When you see an acre in the country for sale

Buy it. Plant olive trees, vegetables, flowers,

And rows and rows of grape vines.


Make your own wine.

Design your own label.

Design the tiles around your pool.


Design everything in your life

So that nothing is accidental.

Marry the right person


And love that person so much

That you manage to weave him

Into every conversation.


Love each friend as a best friend,

And make room for more.

Talk to them about sex.


Stay away from food that is white

And hair that is white

Because death is not real.


Work late. Sleep late.

Don’t be afraid to spend money.

Have a great life,


Then come back to visit your friends

in vivid dreams to tell them

you are at peace and happy and alive.


Paul Totah

3/25/05 – 3/30/05

Good Friday 2004: Sin

I know you by name now.

The Storyville whores used to whisper it

To passing men. Jasmine.

“You want some jasmine honey?”

The trumpet players liked the sound,

called themselves jass men;

called their music by the same name.


Let me give it to you straight:

Sin is jasmine; its flowers smell

Like perfumed air blowing over snow,

While the root sends out vines twining

Like cables on the Golden Gate Bridge,

Straight strands bundled tight,

Shooting roots, creepers, hairy legged crawlers

Under my driveway.


My neighbor came to warn me about them a year ago.

Said, “You don’t realize what they’re doing.”

Told me to cut them down before they took over.

I told him I liked their smell.

Didn’t tell him to go to hell, like I wanted,

But I might as well have said it

The way he treated me after that,

Coming to my house to hack at the vines

Until he broke one sprinkler head,

Sending me into paroxysms of righteousness.

I told him: Stay on your side. Come over again,

And I’ll call the police.


Meanwhile, jasmine grew when I slept,

When I woke and worked, when I talked,

When I sat silent before the TV screen,

Until I saw my neighbor was right.

The vines had stretched their red fingers

Around the bougainvillea and camellias,

Around the sprinkler line, through the decking,

Climbed the downspout and into the crawlspace.


It took three days to clear out what I could find.

I will plant natives. But I know

The war isn’t over. When I am my neighbor’s age,

In my eighties, I will be pulling jasmine

Each time it surfaces, looking to tempt me

With too much scent, with the sweet phrase,

Do you want some jasmine tonight? Some sweet

Sweet jasmine?

Good Friday 2003: The Two Standards

Today I prayed

And saw two flags high

In a battlefield, waving


Over two armies, white

And black, a chessboard

Conflagration, pure light


Against the dark swords

Of the prince of death.

An easy picture; no words


To say past cold breath

Blown to keep hands warm.

Nothing to make a mess.


In Iraq today, the war

Proceeds even though

The dark storm


Of bullets has slowed.

Good and evil combine

In every heart. Everyone knows


This easy truth. The line

Of Iraqi men buried with their guns

Where they fought were fine


Fathers, husbands, sons,

Yet guilty of their own private sins.

Muttering prayers, conversations


With God before they saw grim

Death smiling past them.

The Americans who pulled the pins


Were just like these men,

Scared, scarred, torn between

Two flags, just as I am


Caught between the mean

Rags of lust, greed, pride

And the banner of the queen,


The same woman who sighed

Below a cross watching her child

Slowly suffocate, cry out, die,


A human flag torn by wild

Winds, lowered, then raised

Again over stony fields,


As a living standard of praise

To the one God,

The one truth, the one way.


Paul Totah

April 18, 2003

Good Friday 2001

On Monday I saw Christ crucified

at Hunter’s Point where the Navy poured

poison into the veins of Islais Creek,

into the soil itself, from oil barrels, bilge

from ships, turning the bay shore

into no man’s land, where the prettiest

birdsong I have ever heard

ricocheted off green tenements,

shot through a hoop rim that hung

in an empty outdoor court

by one stripped screw.


On Holy Thursday, in a TV documentary

I showed to my class, I saw Christ crucified

in the face of an elk dragged down by wolves,

in the face of the wolves hunting for supper,

giving chase to their prey, leaping

and snapping at the loose skin

around one neck, hanging on

until others joined, leaped,

sunk teeth into flesh, felled

and fed on still living meat

that pulsed blood onto furred snouts

until, gorged, drunk on muscle

and tissue, the wolves staggered off to sleep.


Today, driving downtown, stopped in traffic,

going nowhere while my car’s engine

burned gas and oil, revving and idling,

I crucified the sky, warming the planet

by a fraction of a degree, melting

icecaps and glaciers, turning forest

into desert, killing plankton, shrimp,

coral and kelp somewhere far

from my line of sight.


In two days Christ will rise,

once again, his angels pushing aside

the stone from the face of the cave,

He standing inside the stone sepulcher,

the lid slid sideways. He will place

one bare foot on the cold dust of the floor,

move into the rays of light, alive, as if

for the first time, staring at an olive tree in the distance,

a board nailed to its crown,

just above new leaves, purple as a baby’s face

turned to the first light.


— Paul Totah


Good Friday, 1999

Right now I am in the mountains

snowflake pebbles descend from soft skies

I ride a quad ski lift past sugar pines

warm with spring, roots drinking snowmelt

my children sit safely between my wife and me

then ski down steep powdery cliffs

turning slowly, lazy sailboat tacking

through clouds of wind-whipped flakes.


Right now I am driving through foothill towns

spread thick with trees so green

they might burst into flower,

hills that still keep the line drawn on them

by a prehistoric inland sea

long before any Mi Wuk hunted here

I could live forever in that barn

by that pasture under those oak hills.


Right now I am driving past rows of trees

apricot, walnut, plum, peach

white bark at base, white branches in blossom

so thick they might break off

into a hollyhock scepter

rich with nectar, pollen and promise.


Right now I am driving past a windmill city

so strange that Quixote

could not have hallucinated these

retro propellers off some WWII plane

luring falcons to their death;

they fall through stiff winds

to the stagnant cows below.


Right now I am on a bridge above a bay

so shallow a man could stand up in low tide;

barges dredge a channel for big ships

to move south as I drive west,

ever west, over my fourth range today


to a temperate land without snow

without sun and I suddenly realize

in two days something will happen

but right now I‚m waiting for blood to fall

from a sheetmetal sky right where I am.


by Paul Totah

April 2, 1999


Good Friday, 1998

My son hovers over me

jangles knees on the diving board

begs me: Come closer;


then jumps. I catch him,

plunge deep under the bursting water,

his small body holding me down


while I kick, both feet flailing

towards the pool’s floor,

I almost inhale water,


the smell of chlorine

snakes through my sinuses

until my head feels the cold air above the pool’s surface


and I breathe silver air,

still holding my son aloft, then cough water

through my nose and mouth


before grabbing a lane marker for support.

A week earlier, my son asked me

if I would die for him. Sure, I told him.


I love you more than my own life.

I was wrong. Now I know I love our lives as one

because my children have come to me.


I want to live to dance at my son’s wedding,

watch my daughter’s daughter dance a ballet

in her flannel pajamas, see their lives


grow from mine, a fairy ring of green trees,

my trunk rising and falling like

a crucifix, a fruit tree, a tree under which one sits,


pointing me towards my first father,

his son, their spirit dance

of sacrifice, death and life.


by Paul Totah April 13, 1998