If I rocket on mad subways
between south Bronx and lower east Manhattan
it is not to minister but to be ministered to
by black hands, dying hands
In the south Bronx they barely reach your hands
half buried, in and out of rubble
They salvage a few texts, thrust them at me
through tin shutters and stinking alleys
the extemporized graves of the rotten borough,
texts they have by heart, have no more need of
They push them at me, a handout to a hobo;
I read their lips, they mime as they give over—
here, the law, the liberating riches, the testament.
In Saint Rose's hospital
there are dying hands
half eaten hands like parts of chicken raw,
hands icy and blue like fish out of water
you can scarcely warm them in your own.
There are hands that sign in sleep the penultimate dream
hands that give and give, that hand it all over—
graceful, begrudging, prodigal, dumb
I see their gift
a huge cable, passed in darkness
between shore and sea, between wreck and rescuer
And I ponder, rocketing home
on the mad burdened subway
freak, stowaway, immigrant
I do not know, but I will know.
I do not know, when will I know?
The subway in the running sea
spits me ashore
like my death.
Daniel Berrigan is a Sojourners contributing editor. This poem grew out of his experience working with terminally ill cancer patients at St. Rose's Hospital in New York City.