The Onus

by Joe Clifford

Across the water from Oakland’s burning hills,
behind granite slabs of freeway masonry
and the filth of bottle return machines,
the promise of barley fish water,
potatoes and tea attracts a noonday crowd
of the ham-hocked and converted. Faith
is encouraged here, not for its merits of hope
but for its effective time management skills.
Charity at Saint Martin de Porres comes in two flavors:
far-fetched and just out of reach.
And these wretched and rootless are nothing
if not open to suggestions.
Inside shiny cars, the ordinary people wince
with the morning traffic report,
sizing up the headache it is going to take
to get to work this day.
The ragged men and women
who line up at de Porres for the free meal
are told their meekness will yield heavenly dividends
in the not too distant future;
and this promise, along with the free meals,
keeps them coming back for more.
Inside the soup kitchen, the preacher men make
their sales pitch, and this is no occasion to lament
about the lack of seasoned greens. Holding out
for the perfect meal here gets abandoned
in favor of the food they can actually see,
can actually take in and digest.
So what these wretched are left with
is hardly elegant, just a watered-down interpretation
of what this life could mean,
which is about as useful as a coal miner’s black lungs
serving as a warning sign for spending
less time underground.

The Onus

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