Today's poem is by Maurya Simon

Hieronymus and the Lion

Legends grow slowly and askant the truth:
time confounds them or entwines their heroes
like vines so that they'll bear a single flower.

The slave Androcles, spared in the arena
by the lion who remembered his kindness,
for instance, served as the hero for a story

which I witnessed first, in an earlier year,
when Hieronymus and I traveled north
from Rome to secure some sacred texts.

We traversed an open field surrounded
by forests, and paused for lunch. I watched
a caterpillar crawl comically up a stick, as

suddenly a lion burst into our midst, its
fangs bared, its tail lashing: it crouched
before us growling, sinking on its hind legs,

snarling, while we sat stupefied by fear.
Seeing we didn't move to strike him, the lion
relaxed his shoulders, lowered his large head

to lick a suppurated forepaw, his tongue
gently lapping putrid flesh, where a thorn
protruded between clenched, clotted toes.

Arced over us, a copper sky, curiously silent.
I held my breath, feeling my heart tighten
to a burl, my bowels churning, astir with bile.

My teacher stood then, speaking softly, as
he neared the beast, who watched the man's
approach with veiled lids and glinting eyes.

Hieronymus crouched down slowly, and with
a mother's tenderness, plucked out the thorn,
offering it on his open palm, to calm the lion.

With bulky dignity, the creature sighed, raised
his massive muzzle and dragged his great tongue
across my mentor's grizzled head, a loud purr

rumbling the air, vibrating the ground until
a clamor of termites erupted from it, dazed
by that lush, trembling noise, that deep engine.

Nights when I'm wild with strife, when love
seems as distant as a starless abyss, when
my teacher encloses himself in a bitter solitude,

I remember that intimate kindness, his gentle
touch upon the lion's paw, how courage wells
up at unforseen moments and blesses us all.

                     (St. Paul in Rome, January 385)

Copyright © 2003 Maurya Simon All rights reserved
from The Southern Review
Reprinted by Verse Daily® with permission

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