A few years ago I gave a reading in Lyons in France, where I was told the legend of how Pontius Pilate had been sent there as Colonial Administrator, finally ending his days there, having never again seen his home. I found myself imagining his exile’s thoughts and memories. This poem came home with me to Ireland. JO’C
PONTIUS PILATE IN FRANCE
Once, when I was nine, my father took me to the games.
He used few adjectives, an undemonstrative man
Whose idea of tenderness was settling the accounts,
Fixing things about the villa, providing clean water.
A good soul, quiet; loyal as an old sandal,
He just didn’t spout endearments. A dry-mouthed Roman.
Anyway – it is odd – I recall little of the arena.
Russet blood in the sand. A hot, guttish smell,
And eating something strange – the wing of some bird.
The brittle, grey gristle the colour of the Tiber.
I suppose I must have seen men kill and be killed,
But I do not remember that. Strange, this forgetting.
There was maybe a panther being fought by a man?
It was all another life ago. Perhaps I have imagined.
But outside, in a courtyard, two sullen louts were boxing:
A reject from the army and a blue-black Nubian,
And the African, hit, would howl and rant –
‘Hit me again, you nothing, you woman.
For you cannot ever hurt me.
I can take your very worst.
Even if you killed me, I would still be alive.
Burn me! I will live in the smoke.’
And when the Jew swayed before me in the fountained yard,
A manacled, shattered, spittle-stained vagrant,
That blue-black Nubian peered out through his eyes.
Not dodging, not weaving, but mockingly defiant.
Broken-toothed, tortured, barely able to speak
But somehow a defeater, my purse already gone.
I remember his silence. The talons of his toenails.
He reeked of sweat and sunlight. His victory all but won.
Times were hard in the province. I had raised
The people’s taxes. My administration
Was unpopular. There was dangerous talk.
I didn’t need a troublemaker adding to my lot.
I was sure of what he was - and of what he was not.
I said: ‘Save yourself, Prisoner. You know the awful fate.
Deny you are godly. Retract these puzzling words.
It is yet not too late. These absurdities must stop.’
‘It is you that holds the crown,’ he murmured. ‘Not me.
Your washbowl is waiting. I am already free.’
He handed me a wildflower I have never esteemed.
Its sweet smell offends me. Its pollen makes me weep.
How had had it, I don’t know. Perhaps it sprouted in his cell.
Its leaves are red and purple. In Latin, we call it ‘hope’.
When I saw it I was again nine. Aroused. Afraid.
The hand of my father tugging hard on my coat,
His affrontedness hissing like a white-hot sword
Thrust hard into a pail of cold water.
‘Such men are pig-ignorant, hooligan scum.
Come home to your mother, I will wash out your ears.
Forget that vile language, do you hear? My son?’
I would never feel as close to my father again.
For years after his crucifixion, I did not think of him.
Preoccupied, sand-blown, by what came next.
My demotion, relocation – I’m not sure of the term.
Latin is subtle. My decentralisation.
They say he was born at the close of the year.
His followers I mean; they rumour of him still.
The fools do not realise a wintertime child
Is always unlucky, will be forgotten in the end.
I missed Palestine for a while. The girls
There were beautiful. But what matters that
At the death of a career? Thirty years’
Service rinsed away in a hot moment.
My wife did not come with me here. We had lost
Our cadence. And she’d never liked me much.
My touch did not content her; I was fat
By then, did not contest the divorce.
She was kind to our sons. I cannot gripe.
In truth I wasn’t the marrying type.
She lives back in Rome; a government villa
In the red loamy hills -- the gardens are pleasant --
By the cedar forest close to the Via Rugalla
Where we hotly courted once. But it doesn’t
Do to fix on the past. ‘Time’s a river’
Wrote Heraclitus. It can’t be re-crossed.
I think of her sometimes. I’ll never
See her again. And my children, too, are lost.
So that really, now, there is only work
To fill up the days and the sleeting nights.
I don’t complain. It’s worthy of remark
How exiles always have limited rights.
She ignores my sometime letters. Perhaps it is best.
When a marriage has died, it is wiser laid to rest …
And the natives, these Gauls -- they could be worse.
My soldiers report that they are obedient, clean,
Understand what is expected. Of course
They do not love us, because they have seen
Our capability, know we are strict,
But a modus vivendi has been reached
By now: I demand that any edict
Be totally observed -- but if approached
I can be reasonable, will give ear
To a case. They already know they’re crushed.
No point in humiliation when fear
Is enough. It is folly to grind them.
Better to promulgate bright future days,
The bad years of liberty long behind them.
I am safe in most of the city when I walk at night –
(Caesar, in Rome, could you boast half as much?)
I crucify few, show discretion, reduce taxes,
Torture but rarely, water-board their thieves.
My administration has brought peace, they are not hungry
Any more. And yet – it is strange -- they look
At me resentfully, like crocodiles
Up to their snouts in some famished swamp.
Guile in the glances of their children too;
The patient serenity of their hatred.
I rise in the dark, attempt lyrics, odes,
The scratch of my nib on the lamb-skin vellum.
The dawn-lit rite damps down my sleepless thoughts,
This desk a kind of raft to which I grip;
Its inks and quills; the serpents of its scrolls;
Its small bust of Caesar; its map of Judea.
And he comes to me, then. In the night,
Like a ghost. In this last cold month
Of the year, he always comes.
The season of his birth, so his followers whisper,
When the glister of the ice makes the lake
A place of dangers, and the snow wolves
Haunt the bins of the city.
I sense him in mist, in steam, in the frost
That glitters dead cornfields in wintertime.
In rainstorms, in hail, in the bowl in which I wash,
In the water I shave with, the ice in my wine.
I taste him in the empty and snow-muffled squares,
In the spittle of my mouth, in my blood when I am cut;
In the strange tears I weep, in my sweat when I dread
The Via Doloroso of an empty bed.
And my thirst is a dredger, my cud a cake of salt,
Unquenchable nights in the wringing, ruined sheets
That shackle my limbs. Is it now my fault
I granted the abasement you appeared to seek?
I bathe in him, drink him – can never be free.
Gods – Gods -- You have abandoned me.
I see him in snowfields, the slow thaw of his victory
Dripping from icicles; I crunch him in puddles.
My bread tastes of perspiration, my wine of blood;
He flakes in my palm when a hailstone smacks my skin.
‘Leave me,’ I mumble, ‘for pity, let me be –’
And my bodyguards believe I am speaking to them.
All those years I did not think of him. Hardly at all.
Would never grant him anchor in the Tiber of the mind;
For I did as duty needed. I followed my orders.
A problem needs solutions. Are you crazy? Blind?
Then run to your vagrant! See if he heals.
‘Forgiveness?’ ‘Mercy?’ These are words for little girls.
‘Give your coat to your brother’? ‘Help the frail’? ‘Love the poor’?
Political correctness gone mad; nothing more.
He was a misfit who heard voices;
A prisoner; an itinerant;
A butt of jokes; a baby; not a man of the world.
A tramp born in a pigsty, in the reeking filth and cold.
He will soon be forgotten. And I will grow old.
And they will see I did my duty,
A beautiful thing.
And they will honour me then,
In the closing of the year,
When water freezes over,
Until snowdrops appear
And cows are led from dark stables,
Stupefied by sunlight.
And my hands will again be clean
Joseph O'Connor, 2009