The Three

Decaying rocks, like teeth; some scribbled clouds;
A horse’s rump, thick, mottled and foreshortened;
Three charcoal crosses, waiting. And now
I must put in the meaning.

My three young men, Marco and Giovannino
And Lucio, waiting to receive their parts:
Well, let them wait. I sketch a Roman soldier,
Long limbs, long lance; pink toga and pink flesh;
A red and yellow shield, with dice; pink rocks
— Till Marco says, Come master, who is who?

I need three figures: two of them tied, contorted,
And grey with pain; and one shaped like the cross,
Nailed to our handiwork. His outspread arms
Accuse us all. See what you’ve done, they say.

Well, boys, who wants the part? You will be hung
In Sant’Ambrogio, and be famous. God
Will be worshipped in your image. The two others
(I mix my leaden wash, ash grey, slate grey)
Will have to squirm in pain.

Marco spoke first. Make me a thief, he said,
Winding one elbow round his neck — Look, master,
Widening his eyes, look, look, chewing his lip,
Look how I suffer, twisting in mock distress,
Or in distress.
Good thief or bad? I asked. Just thief, he said.

Lucio, you take the middle one. It’s safe.
The nails aren’t real. Nothing you see is real.
I am the one who puts the godhead in;
I add the light like meaning.
                                    No, said Lucio,
Make me a thief as well. Bad, if you like —
I’m uglier than Marco. I’d have said,
‘If you’re so clever, get us out of this.’
Marco can be the holy thief, not me.

And Giovannino said, Make me a soldier,
Taking no notice. Make me a disciple.
Hide me among the huddled women, weeping.
Only, not him. Anything else but him.

So Lucio, ash-grey, writhes upon his cross,
And Marco says, ‘This chap’s done nothing wrong,’
And Giovannino stands among the skulls,
Soulful and staring.
            They are paid and gone,
By now have spent the money, while I sit
In front of the tall cross, adding a touch
Of yellow to the wood, adding a cloud,
Adding the letters INRI. I sit and stare
On the cross rising from the stony bustle
Among the huddled women, empty, empty.


from Chapter and Verse: Bible Poems (Secker & Warburg, 1984), copyright © Laurence Lerner 1984; private recording, London, 1 April 1983, copyright © the Estate of Laurence Lerner 1983, used by permission of the author's Estate.

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