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Waking Up From Head To Foot
Oct 1, 1996

An old man sat up one morning in his bed as if about to get up in the usual way for work, but then stopped. He began staring at his feet which poked up from under the bed clothes. His wife called him many times to come down for his breakfast, but he would not or could not. Instead, he began scowling at his feet and muttering half-aloud, as if holding a conversation. This is what he said and heard:

‘Between my two wrinkled fingers,

a mess of fading, fretted threads

without particular line or colour

or order or significance: What is it?

(And his feet said.) your memories.

A servant as negligent as he can be

while still clinging to his job.

who answers my simplest needs

with slow, mocking disdain: Who is that?

your body.

Long-winded phrases that flap

aimlessly around my head

at home or in my office till (at last)

they find an open window and jump out:

What are these?

Your passions, loves or hates.

A dozen or so strangers who visit

if and only if I’ m very ill,

lay hypocritical hands on my forehead,

feeling my temperature and

their inheritance, then leave

holding their noses.’ Who are they?

your near relatives.

A narrow rectangular edifice

sinking on shallow foundations

designed to that servant’s specification,

open to any scavenging maggot or worm

that happens by: What is that?

The neat sum, the very grand total

of a lifetime’s shrewd, successful

property management - your grave.

The old man huddled his face in his hands, crumpled up like a lost or abandoned child. He heard his wife calling him once again, and complaining that his breakfast was getting cold. But he sat silent, listening to thoughts that voiced themselves inside his head or heart, from far off, as if from another life, a time long gone. And now and again his feet would answer those thoughts, taunting him: 

Before at last the great trumpet sounds

and sounds again,’ before its mighty echo

converts to an irresistible hail that blasts

open each anguished grave: before the hour

when every individual cell, howsoever

dispersed or decomposed. shall by Decree

be re-joined to every other individual cell.

down to the re-perfecting of a fingerprint:

before that hour, may be long before.

you shall hear the angels’ interrogations

howl in your marrowless, hollowed bones:

what is your religion and your worth?

Run, old man, run!

Where will you run?

Who came with clear warnings, reiterated,

and truth you recognized? Offered forgiveness

and you preferred your sins? Pointed you

to eternal light and you ran in to darkness?

Whose teaching called you the many times

you turned

away to make a killing in the market-place,

or to play hide and seek with your intentions.

promising to be virtuous after you were


or shame you dare not name him, still less

claim a corner/n his protecting shade!

Run, old man, ran!

Where will you run?

The order of things is not as it was.

There, in this life, your heart knew

it’s deepest need for forgiveness.

and you couldn’t careless. Here too,

your heart knows it’s deepest need,

but here the order is truth and justice.

A command joins every conscience 

to every sin, forgotten in this life or

remembered, slight or significant.

the whole chain of it’s circumstance.

antecedent or consequent, actual or

potential. Here your closest secrets

are opened. elaborated, pronounced out loud!

old man, old man!

those you betrayed know it now:

those you robbed know it now:

those you could have helped

but did not help, they are here

staring in your face! Where now,

Where will you run?

Here no hiding or seeking, no turning

aside from the Command: your limbs.

Eyes, ears, tongue, heart, brain, each

obedient, each omniscient tells all

it enacted or endured. Self-accused.

self-condemned, you sit whimpering

like a kitten trapped in traffic ,lost.

desolate, in a pool of shame smelling

worse than your own excrement!

Stinking, stupid feet! Why did you

lead me astray?’ Stinking, stupid man.

we obeyed your every command!

Run, then, if you can, run!

And do you remember the kitten?

Remember the blind man at the roadside

who, gesturing wildly with his stick,

made you stop your important car.

delayed your important appointment

You got out shouting at the blind man.

He only pointed down and said:

I can hear but cannot see to help

the poor thing, it’s hurt. You do it.’

Only then you saw the kitten, it’s tail

broken, it’s nerves shattered by the noise

of passing cars, trembling dreadfully.

covered in the dust of the road.

Do not deny that you considered

carrying the little thing to safety.

Do not deny that you knew what to do.

You knew. But wouldn’t dirty your hands

on it’s dusty fur, not before a business

appointment .So you drove round it

fast leaving the kitten in it’s little agony

and the blind man in confusion.

Run, old man run!

But you have nowhere to run!

The man took his hands from his face

and stared at his feet and said: ‘I will run

to the forgiveness of my Lord. There is no

sin so great that it is greater than His

mercy’. His feet did not reply. Then, much to

his surprise, the old man saw bed and bed

ding disappear from beneath his feet Two

shackles of massive iron rose up and locked

upon each of his ankles: from the shackles

enormous chains, likewise made of massive

iron, descended into a bottomless dark

ness. But the man kept his wits about him

and said in his heart atubu ilayk,

Allahumma, atubu ilayk. The chains fell

away and the darkness closed up. Only the

shackles remained and their weight was

such that the man could not move his legs.

let alone his feet. So he repeated what he

had said in his heart, ever more earnestly.

until the shackles opened. He could now

move his feet but dared not waiting for the

shackles to disappear as the chains had.

But they remained open upon his bed. his

ankles resting in them. Indeed, no matter

how often he urged the words of repen

tance, the shackles remained. So he accepted

them as they were, to serve as a

reminder of the jaws of death.

He heard his wife call him a third time to

come down for breakfast. He got up from bed

briskly and went to wash himself. Not in

preparation for work but, for the first time since (so

long ago, alas) his father had given him a choice

in the matter, in preparation for