by Mary Oliver

Sweet Jesus, talking
   his melancholy madness,
     stood up in the boat
       and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry.
   So everybody was saved
      that night.
         But you know how it is

when something
    different crosses
       the threshold -- the uncles
          mutter together,

the women walk away,
   the young brother begins
      to sharpen his knife.
         Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
   like the wind over the water --
      sometimes, for days,
        you don't think of it.

 Maybe, after the sermon,
   after the multitude was fed,
     one or two of them felt
       the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight
   before exhaustion,
      that wants to swallow everything,
         gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
    as they are now, forgetting
       how the wind tore at the sails
          before he rose and talked to it --

tender and luminous and demanding
   as he always was --
      a thousand times more frightening
         than the killer storm.

Mary Oliver is the writer-in-residence at  Sweet Briar College, in Virginia. She received the  Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1984 for her book American Primitive.

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