Kathryn Boswell

The Voice in the Wilderness
Eight Sonnets on the Life and Death of John the Baptist

I Struck Dumb (Zechariah)

Thou gentle daughter of the line of Aaron
I read my years and sorrow on your face,
who bear a mother's heart within a barren
body: disillusion held in grace.

In linen ephod, heavy with the dense
perfume of centuries of holy duty,
I kindled, as of old, the sweet incense
whose clouds lift up our people's prayers in beauty—

when through the shimmering veil of sacred smoke,
like man—yet not like man—at altarside
he stood, and with a voice unearthly spoke
the words that I, in disbelief, denied.

How many times I've journeyed down from Zion,
yet never in such wordless jubilation!

II The Baby Leaped (Elizabeth)

Until I found myself unwitting home
to this unearthly creature without breath
or voice, its swiftly-growing world my womb
I did not know the foolishness of faith.

If truth be told, the two of us had prayed
so long, and with such barren tears,
that every word the God-sent herald said
fell senseless on my husband's deafened ears.

For mute acceptance had outstayed our hope,
all expectation given place to grief,
the hand-hewn cradle hid against the sharp
incursions on our worn and bruised belief.

But here! Feel hope and folly breathless leap
as, voiceless, Voice calls out from deep to deep.

III His Name is John (Zechariah)

Here in Judea, up among the hills,
news moves so quickly on from town to town
the very hour our waiting was fulfilled
our friends and kin appeared from miles around.

"Now, surely, for your first-born," they appealed
to me, and made me signs (as if it were
my ears, and not my tongue, that had been sealed)
"the child must have no other name but yours!"

His fingers grasped my trembling thumb with small
but fierce intensity. Unblinking eyes
looked out upon the waiting world with all
the solemn patience of the old and wise.

But you, my child, heart of my heart, my John,
shall cry out in the dark before the dawn.

IV The Child Grew (John)

I grew in an unpeopled world of stone
and earth and furtive creatures that by night
came out to play. The shadows were their home.
But I, by patience, coaxed them to the light.

It never seemed to me I was alone.
I spoke the languages of wind and water,
knew time by sun and star. The silent stones
and I held dumb discourse with one another.

My Abba read to me at evening when
the lamps were lit and Amma laid our lowly
supper on the snowy cloth. Oh! Then
the prophets' voices echoed in my soul!

I played in happy solitude until
the day the whole world fled into my hills.

V In the Desert (John)

In those days people spoke about a man
whose harsh cries rent the air like prophets from
of old, out in the barren wilderlands—
I, John, who bade the chosen nation come.

They poured out from the villages and towns:
the simple and the wise, the young and old.
A wild thing, cloaked in skins, I drew them on
to wake the hearts that had grown stiff and cold.

And then there came the Righteous, haughty snakes,
living shadows of my boyhood terrors.
I burned with wrath for these, my brothers' sakes,
such prideful fools—and yet, the Promise-bearers.

If only I might make them know how near
he is, their perfect Hope and only Fear.

VI Down by the Riverside (John)

I would have put a stop to it, but he
insisted that I guide him out into
the silty shoals and plunge him underneath
the chill, dark waters. What else could I do?

So I, by some great Riddle, washed the One
who solely in the world of men was pure.
"For now," he said to me, "let this be done
that we the whole of righteousness assure."

And hundreds, maybe thousands, on the shore
watched as he came up from the waves, and then
the sky above us like a sheet was torn
and a thunderous voice was heard, "This is my Son."

And was it Light itself, or living thing
that came to light on him, on shimmering wing?

VII In Prison (John)

In the shuttered night all contrast fades
from vivid white and black to formless gray.
The piercing clarity of light that played
in my Judean hills is worlds away.

I know there was a day that we splashed out,
breathless and elated, from the river,
and heard the Voice. But in the shadows now
its echoes seem to fade away forever.

"Tell me," I sent to ask, "for God's sake, please—
Are you not He?" "All that you see and hear,"
he answered, "Tell to John: the blind set free,
and the crippled beggar leaping like the deer."

I am the friend who sings the Bridegroom's praises.
Now may I fade in peace as his light rises.

VIII Half My Kingdom (Herod)

The kitchen boy who carried in the platter,
his arms extended, trembled with the weight—
or else with dread (I think it was the latter)
to bear the holy man's unholy fate.

Her eyes were wide and liquid as the hind,
that girl, whose veils diaphanous as mist
caressed her dancing form to fog my mind
with whirling glint of hip and cheek and breast.

The wine was deep and blood-red in my bowl.
I smelled her scent of nard and sweat and fear.
I heard the howl and clamor in the hall.
I felt her ragged breaths. She stood so near.

And now all hours are haunted by one truth:
no earthly realm or power was half his worth.


(from Ezra 3)

Early sun pushes feathered silver fingers
Through a pewter sky. The crowd stirs
As if they might, by sheer weight of memory,
Unbow the burdened backs of the laborers
Sweat on corded sinews, scorched shoulders.
Amid the massed shuffle, teeming sigh
they hear the gnash and rasp of stone on stone.
Creation hoist upon the knees of ruin
Side by side father's mother and son's wife
A cold wind plays their tattered hems
Into a single cloth. The young lifts her child,
To see over the shrouded head of the old,
And the shouts of joy cannot be discerned
From the noise of the weeping of the people.


Kathryn Boswell is an Episcopal priest in a small village in Upstate New York. She came to the priesthood late, her first vocation having been divided among freelance artist, subsistence farmer, and raising a large family of ten children, now all grown. These days she and her husband live with two cats and two dogs in a little house with an ever-expanding garden.


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