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Working on Good Friday 1997

I worked this Good Friday.

I did not pray.

I wrote about prayer, though.

Made it sound good,

like something worth doing;

I believe I wrote that

doing was praying,

and singed the praises of those who did

good works.

I wrote about them

and did not pray,

yet hoped my work

was prayer, hoped

my prayer was good

in the same way,

I hope this poem

turns to prayer.


Next year, I will pray

on Good Friday

even if I have good work

to do.

Good Friday, 1996

On Holy Thursday they found her body

snaking down the Eel River, blond hair

hiding decomposed flesh. Her family

mourned her on Good Friday —



The Unabomber sits in jail, just charged.

A math professor gone bad; theorems turned

into action, into horrible corollaries.


Rescuers search for our Commerce Secretary

who did not know what broke when

his military jet mistook a mountain for a cloud.


Too much has happened this week.

My colleagues call this a good news day.

They are spared from running fluff on the cover.

This all sells. People want to know —

Was she nude? Did she use drugs?

Did he really survive on parsnips?

Did the Bosnians sabotage the plane?


I chose not to sit and pray

to remember the day He died

while others stood by wanting to know

when he would die or if

the weight of his hung life,

the nail holes, the knife wound

in his side or the disgrace

would erase his life.


I had a deadline

for the magazine I write

and really no deadline at all other

than my wanting Easter Day off

and the week to play,

to enjoy my son’s fourth birthday.


Forgive me my vanity, my values,

O Lord, I pray;

Forgive me for my work —

the glory I take in my son’s joy,

the fear I feel for him, for my daughter,

for my soul’s struggle for perfection.


I am too human.

I would watch you die,

write it down, write

how the blood streaked your side like wine

and your mother wept into her veil,

while I asked the guards

to spell their names for me

so that I could get it right.

Good Friday, 1995

Wondering what to write

for this year’s passion poem,

thought of nothing

then the clutch began to slip

on the uphill ascent to the garage

knowing they’d have to remove the

traney to free the clutch

and not under warranty

I took the streetcar to work,

the car jouncing in the tunnel below

Twin Peaks, wondered

if the driver was on drugs, his

foot jammed against a dead-man’s pedal,

we emerged at West Portal, no

angels greeting us with rolled back stone,

at work I turned on my computer and saw yesterday’s work

gone, an INIT glitch nailed me, I think,

buried under my work I wait

for daylight, still, it could

be worse, don’t want

to think about it, though.


Good Friday, 1994

My daughter fears the night

facing her bed alone, unstoried and abrupt.

She wants to come and join the din.

She does not know my sadness, my

self-pitying whine that I let slip

as prayer each hour over small matters

of money and home. She wants my arm

to encircle her, to shelter her from

her needs. “I want you,” she says, still,

as I hold her. “Here I am,” I say, still,

and she wants a story to fill the

empty spot somewhere that she feels like an

ache in a tooth with her tongue.


My daughter sleeps. I fight the peace offered me

tonight, more at home in my despair than in salvation,

than in a story of passion I find becoming

increasingly my own.

Good Friday, April 9, 1993

Christ went to a certain place

to pray,

says Luke, who wasn’t there

when the Lord’s prayer

spoke itself in shivers

of intention.


I read it this way: that Christ was certain,

possessing a calm knowledge

that bread would be

delivered daily, and broken,

and that names would be held holy

on the tongue,

spoken only at moments of

passion and passage.


How certain, I wonder, did the

cross feel, rough cut, slivered

and notched as he humped it

to a certain place

that held no secret, only

humiliation and public hanging,

shouting his abandonment

to the lowland traffic?


In his doubt I find

my certainty.

I sense, finally,

a biography.


by Paul Totah

Turtle Hill, San Francisco

Like the striations of a turtle’s back,

this red rock reveals the layers

of time encrusted on this high peak


of a hill that was once the floor of an ocean.

It overlooks the painted sides of houses:

the gravel beneath this leviathan’s hoary feet.


Their color is not like the white and yellow alyssum

sparking these rocks with small fires of life,

or like the white-gray-green bark on the strands of eucs


that huddle on this windswept hump of hill.

Even this red-tail seems a distraction — his rose-red

feathers a dilution of the maroon stone.


This is the hard rock of what lives inside me today:

a discovery, an outpouring of blue sky, a place

I had never seen before so close


to my old home, a deep red vein

bursting up on the forehead of this plateau,

like the blue vein growing more visible each day


on my forehead, telling me to burst

into truth, into song, into alyssum, into prayer

before it bursts and sends me packing,


humping my way, in turtle fashion,

to some cold and lonely hill of heaven.


by Paul Totah

March 1, 2000



These were barely trees

low scrub cypresses, distressed by winds,

standing on sandy ground.

Even a typical wind

blowing off Ocean Beach

could topple them, expose naked

root nerves to just anyone.


But it was all we had, all we knew.

We built forts in the bushes below,

moving in with transistor radios,

old plates and cups

that our mothers let us play with,

a Bowie knife our mothers didn’t know about.

Above we’d nail two-by-fours to the trunk,

climb to flat branches, woven

among three trees, step on a live platform.

Springy branches supported our supple limbs.

Jays, wrens, robins laughed at us.

Sunlight, unfiltered, lost itself into twilight.


There, in this green world where we belonged,

exalted, at home, clear-eyed and alive.



Three Trees

Barbara Walters once asked a president:

“If you could be a tree,

what tree would you be?”

Barbara, you took shit for that question,

but I will answer you in words of green syllables

as veined as a maple leaf.


I could live as a madrone,

twisting below the taller redwoods,

stunted, peeling purple bark like old scabs,

spreading evergreen leaves to pocket sunlight,

twining my roots with my taller neighbors,

hiccuping berries for birds to eat

and plant my children away from my dangerous shade.


Or I could be a laurel tree, crowning myself

in glorious scents, smelling of peppers and lemon,

sending vertical shafts of branches

off a horizontal span, fingering through

the beams of light timbering the forest.


I could live my long years as a redwood,

spiraling every three months one more notch

toward the forest canopy

until I could branch past the Douglas firs and dwarf oaks

to taste the first light, each dawn

and see first the fog wall avalanching down

toward my thirst and voluminous hunger.


I would choose from among this holy trinity,

despite bacteria, fungus, flood, fire and loggers,

just to live my life above and below,

in the network of roots and stars

in the lair of the raccoon,

in the canopy of the forest.


by Paul Totah

October 23, 1999

The Mothering Ocean

Out here in the tide-pool rush

I twist my thoughts into sea-caves

where emotions hide, trying

to pry them loose, poke them

into open air where

cormorants, hawks, sea stars, otters

might attack, pry, gnaw to the bone

leaving only dead shell.


Breakers twist fingers of foam,

smelling of sardine.

They are my desires.

They lull me, lure me

with songs of uterine bloodswell

singing me to the safety

of a cormorant’s cry, of my daughter’s exalted cry

as hands pulled her

from her first ocean

and now I see these emotions

clustered like gooseneck barnacles,

gray grapes ready for the plate,


and I know what I’m feeling,

have felt this half year now —

watching my mother growing old,

limping on her plastic knee among her roses —

is fear as ragged as these waves

torn by clusters of tor,

that she may die before I know her

as I should, love her as I must.


by Paul Totah

March 31, 2000

The larvae in the dead acorn

The larvae in the dead acorn

white, full of life, swimming

in its gray excrement

eats the green heart of the

living seed.


Brian cracks the shell

softly with his sole,

then uses a stiff fallen feather

to prod it toward a new light


where, blind, it wrestles

with death, drowns in air,

not hearing my friend

softly apologize

telling his students

that he trades death for knowledge


so they might know

about the minimals

sprouting at their feet

green and white and alive.