The Penitent Brothers

The soap plant flowers in summer
but the leaves come early,
sinuous as Javanese daggers.

In the Old West men lathered their hair
with the juice from the bulb,
healed poison oak,
killed fish in the streams.

At the foot of the Turquoise Mountain
they are more devout:
by March the leaves of the plant
finger out in cat-o’-nine-tail clumps
and they clean away sin
on the backs of the Penitent Brothers.

(When they lashed Rafael to the cross
on Good Friday in a canyon out of town
he cried like a child for the nails:
Ay! Como estoy deshonrado!
his arms swelled purple and he groaned
in spite of the shame.)

While the village sleeps
the soap plant blooms in the hot afternoon,
its thin white petals curled back
like an ecstasy of saints,
its stalks so delicate
the flower seems to float in the air,
feeling for the sun.

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