The Dispute with Simon Magus

Poetry by William Miller

Disputation with Simon Magus, Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). Courtesy: Creative Commons
  (after Filippino Lippi)

The apostles walk in lock step, red-capped 
and wearing long Florentine robes, their eyes 
steady with purpose. But he looks between them:
cropped black hair, long aquiline nose, almond eyes
that probe for more than wisdom in a leather-bound missal.

One in three, the third member of the trinity—man’s soul
curious beyond silver clouds, the harps of heaven,
doesn’t believe in a bended knee or simple names 
for an ancient mystery: “Jesus,” “Jehovah,” “I AM.”
Simon Magus carried in his black heart the beat

of God’s favourite angel, all the secrets he knew
 inside locked iron gates. From his grave grew a tree
of unforbidden fruit, the pulpy juice sticky and sweet
as poison that does everything but kill. Clerics walk
in lock step and never purchase with a bag of gold florins

the miracle of healing a withered hand, the secret
of daily resurrection. Simon’s dark eyes look
into ours asking only that we seek and find, knock
and open the door that leads to a downward staircase,
treasures the king hordes only for himself.


The first in my Sunday school class to walk down,
answer the altar call by myself, I was only twelve.
Only twelve but growing into a gray, confused age.
My father drank vodka from a flask in the church
parking lot; my mother was a perfumed ghost
with blood-red nails, there and not there.

I didn’t believe in Jesus or the grim preacher,
the pious rednecks in folding chairs who ate
saltine crackers and sipped warm grape juice from
shot glasses once a month. I hated hymns, 
never wanted to join the faithful on a “Beautiful 
Shore” or stand like a cheated fool at the foot

of the “Old Rugged Cross.”  But I liked 
the water rite, hoped to drown and come up 
someone else reborn with wings to fly away from
the new brick church with modern stained glass.
My only ticket out was dying in a tank behind
the altar, chlorine water in my nose and lungs

after being dunked three times. And on that day,
two Sundays later, I wore a choir robe and rubber 
boots, took three steps down into the blue-green
lukewarm water. The preacher pinched my nose
and held me deeper when he called down
the Holy Spirit. It didn’t work, not then

or now, not death enough but something different
for a few drowned seconds, heart pumping hard
from lack of air. My robe was soaked, my hair 
wet and pasted to my forehead. The organ
cranked out “Amazing Grace” as if I were saved,
a child sinner come home.


He once told fortunes on the square but made no money.
Our super, he wears a black wifebeater t-shirt 
with a white upside-down cross and the angry words
across his chest: “Hail Satan!”

Never, unless it was a third-time request to fix a broken
smoke alarm or leaky pipe, did he speak to anyone,
his face hidden behind long dirty-blonde hair.
Kittens in his window looked out all day with sad eyes—
my next-door neighbor, a drunken bartender, swore
he sacrificed them, one by one, to the Devil.
Not until the hurricane that blew our lights and AC out
for eight days and three hours,

the temperature over 100 degrees, did his sallow skin
start to crack. He told me at midnight in the courtyard
that he wanted to go home to Indiana, buy a farm 
and live with cats he didn’t raise to sell to the best owners

he could find. He loved their mystery, their silence.
New Orleans had chewed him up. The mosquitos alone 
made us all victims, the water we had to boil 
for thirty minutes before we drank it, took a bath

or washed our hands. He was robbed for his shoes
and belt, stepped on a dirty needle walking home.
He wanted to see the seasons change, watch the leaves
tumble down and die a slow, lovely death.

Twenty miles from the nearest church, he’d live alone,
and never care if the moon meant anything more 
than light between the trees or on the grass—
twenty miles from any cross, upside down or not.

William Miller’s eighth collection of poetry, Lee Circle, was published by Shanti Arts Press in 2019.  His poems have appeared in many journals, including, The Penn Review, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner and West Branch.  He lives and writes in the French Quarter of New Orleans.



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