Dancing Dust

Poems by Mollie Caird (1922-2000)

The face of God

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We see old nomads as a simple sort,
Threading the desert with hide-tattered herds
And patchwork tent;
Thorn-bite for beasts, for men small netted birds
And nothing-tasting manna; customs caught

In law uncompromising: shalt, shalt not,
No questions asked ― for Moses talked with God
And made the rules,
Flung down a serpent, snatched it up a rod,
Dazzled with wizardry to drive the point

Obedience is all.  The trembling crowd
Watched spiral dust dance at the black tent’s door,
A pillared cloud,
Remembered the Red Sea, remembered more ―
Red days when Egypt stank and swam with blood.

We shoddy latter-day sophisticates
Make-Freudian quips, smile at snake-sorcery,
At Moses’ rod,
Phallus or fallacy, impresario prophet
Hoodwinking poor fools with a managed God.

Too light we ascribe simplicity
To primitives. In our post-Einstein age
Where space is curved,
We let the science-fiction pedlars tease
Our brains with dubious philosophy,

And postulate a universe of time
Run backward into some galactic groove
Where man might meet
Himself returning and not know himself ―
Too old, too young, or egglike, blank and smooth,

A face with nothing written on: God’s mask.
Is this, then, what we fear ―a printless void
At the world’s heart?
What would we rather?  Ought the porcelain skin
To crackle into laughter?  Should we ask

For strong white teeth, full lips in curling beard,
A mocking terror with a stretched grimace,
Or is the face
A sphinx, enigma with archaic smile,
Eternal question teetering on a pin?

Moses did not conjecture, Moses knew
The face was glory and the glory God.
Once, by the Nile,
Reed-cradled in the spear-leaved irises
He opened eyes on slatted shadows, saw

Fairy-godmother face of Pharaoh’s daughter
Criss-crossed with plaited frets, and flickering
Like light on water,
Or wildfire, baffling, bright, bewildering
When Midian’s blazing bush burned cinderless.

As Aaron took gold rings from arms and ears
And flung them in the furnace, to spew out
A moulded calf,
So in the flaming bush had Moses’ doubt
Been fire-refined into a solid faith,

Yet without sight.  On Sinai still the veil
Hung shimmering before the naked face,
Perversely frail,
As clinging cobwebs in a narrow space
Defy the blinking eye and brushing hand.

Sometimes the membrane hardened and grew thick,
A flocculent skin, a scaly plated sheath:
Then peel and pick
The armour, crack the crusty carapace,
And still there is another underneath.

What mean reward for one who dragged his tribe
From thundering hooves and fearful chariot wheels
On the dry sea,
From palpable darkness, locust-roaring wind ―
Faint straw-starved slaves, reluctant to be free.

The tawny eagle’s telescopic eye
Saw Moses climbing Godward, steeply up
Till hard-drawn breath
Tore at his throat, and under swimming sky
The tilted crags hammered his heart like death.

At the last edge there stood a door in space;
On either side a rock, at Moses’ feet
Destruction’s lintel,
A step and then the falling precipice.
He stopped, and breathed, and gripped to left and right

The craggy pillars with his sweating hands,
And felt them sticky as the blood-smeared gape
Of Israel’s doors.
Then God passed near him, close as Passover,
A wing, a shadowing, a backward shape.

But through the fingers of God’s hooding hand
There came an indistinct prefiguring
Of distant Pisgah
And far faint mirage, inaccessible,
The bolted back gate of a promised land.

No milk and honey, but the blood-drunk arrow,
The vine of Sodom and the dusty asp,
The grapes of gall,
Dry narrow valleys and hard hearts more narrow,
A violent law to hold the host in thrall:

Crabbed characters scratched backwards on a stone ―
What matter if those cryptic tablets were
Destroyed or kept,
Since neither Moses, Israel, nor the world
Was ready to behold a God who wept?

This poem won Oxford University's English Poem on a Sacred Subject Prize in 1974.  The set subject was “Thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen”.  Exodus 33:23

The Dancing Dust and other poems, 1983