A new poem by Peter McDonald

High up in the dead cedar, someone has carved
a figure of Jesus stretched over the cross:
his polished face, angular and half-starved,
faces downwards, like that of a man diving
in free-fall to the ground, ready to toss
his life away, and then see death arriving
bang on time, almost already there,
upwards towards him through breathtaking air.

What god would ever want this for himself?
If once he looked out forwards, he would see
a line of mountains, the snowed-over shelf
of Mount Lebanon, the Kadisha valley
stretched underneath it, and even each tree
around him, adding to the cedar-tally
one – but he looks down, and is looking still
down to the earth with a singular will.

Living his second, discontinuous life,
a young man talks to us about the war,
phalanges, sects, and the contours of strife
that make the map of his imagination;
how close he came, or came at least not far
from death when a hand-grenade in conflagration
caught him out of nowhere, on the left side,
as a friend next to him and a stranger died.
He remembers how the air was sucked away
all in an instant, how the blast was not
noise but a silence opening; the spray
of soil and stones and blood together going
in the wrong direction, and a vacuum, hot
and fast, pulling him inwards; a force growing
enormous in a second; then the fear
just after, as they dragged his body clear.

And now the same man stands here fit and whole
below the Jesus of the Maronites,
his talk of trees, and the cedar-patrol
that guards year-round the few of them still standing;
the dangers of dry summers and cold nights,
and names of birds here, flying off or landing
close to their hidden nests somewhere above
all of our heads in the protected grove.


What we might say, standing on his deaf side,
is lost, but he laughs and nods anyway;
how much is spoken, how much more implied
about things by the people who have seen them
hangs like a question, balancing today
in two natures with the one will between them:
even the thin air at this altitude
smells of needles and undecaying wood.

Peter McDonald’s works include Pastorals , Torchlight and a Collected Poems (Carcanet Press)