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Since it’s the first day of Lent I thought it would be appropriate to highlight this stirring poem by Marjorie Maddox from the February 1996 issue of First Things .

Ash Wednesda y
Marjorie Maddox

Fingernails scrubbed clean as latrines
in the army, this symbol
of a man dirties his thumb
with our skin, the powdery ash riding high
on his pores, not sinking in
before he sketches the gray
of our dirt-birth across a brow
we were born to furrow.

Listen to the sound of forgiveness:
the crossing of skin, the cult-
like queuing up to explode
in ripped whispers, “Lord,
have mercy, Lord, have
mercy, Lord, have mercy.”

And we want it. And we take it
home with us to stare back
from a lover’s forehead,
to come off in a smear on the sheets
as we roll onto each other’s skin,
or to wear like a bindhi this medal of our not winning
each day we wake to the worlds
we are and are not.

And when we wake too early
before the light of just-becoming-day
sneaks in on us, and we stand lonely, deceived
into piety, scrubbing away the grime of our humanness
like fierce fierce toothbrushes on latrines
in the army, there it is still,
raw with our washings:
the human beneath.

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