Jesus in the Wilderness


I know you were weary those forty days 
in the wilderness. What was that wilderness like—
dry dust, and swirling wind, no colour, 
as the devil’s flowers do not give birth 
to seeds here? What is it to live in the forest 
of devil’s yarn, like a goat wild and yearning, 
tempted, strong of will yet weak of mind? 
What is it to want? What is temptation but yielding 
of flesh. How fast did your heart beat against 
ribcage in anger at these tantalising abominable 
lies. No one talks about limbs weakening, 
or rats gnawing your belly, lice in your hair, 
like in the belly of the ship, no one speaks 
about that. To build a saint, one needs to gloss 
over the body’s ordinariness, one needs
to forget there is mess and nastiness in the gut,
the dry throat swallowing saliva. The ache of spit
sliding along cracked lips and down your 
neck back. The way the stomach contracts, 
its punch all uneven, each like a xxx of fists.


2. How not to drown in desire

day stretched like a bending river
day stretched and curled like a meandering river

when days began to stretch
when his days began to curl 
when his days became a meandering river
it’s undertow dragging him

when the days became deceptive, a river
meandering. It’s undertow
when his days became a meandering river
when his days began to curl into a river

when his days stretched and curled
when his days stretched, curling into a river
whose undertow dragged him weary to the surface


3. Sufferation 

When his days stretched, curling into a river 
whose undertow ripped his skin right to the soul
he who believed, stood firm in dry dust, 
where flowers do not give birth from seeds, 
where wild goats stroll. No one talks 
of his trembling limbs, the gnawing rats 
in his gut, the fleas congregating to party
in his hair. No one talks of the reptile’s guffaw
as the Devil sucked succulent orange over forty
days and nights, while he who believed stitched 
then unpicked the stitches from his bloody lips
how the taunt of the orange juice ached 
his neck back in the ripe stench of the boat’s belly. 
How they gripe, the dry heaves scraping 
his neck back his belly swelling pregnant with emptiness. 
Since those days we fast in our thirst for salvation, 
long forgotten, the bloodied scar on his nailed palm.


Copyright © 2024 by Malika Booker. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 5, 2024, by the Academy of American Poets. 

About this Poem

“This poem is part of a larger poetic project wherein I reimagine characters from the King James Bible by relocating them to the Caribbean. Here, Jesus is a Caribbean Black man wandering through the wilderness, grappling with the physical and psychological impacts and indignities endured whilst fasting in the desert and resisting the devil’s temptations. Jesus simultaneously occupies two literal sites: the biblical desert and the belly of a slave ship crossing the Middle Passage. The poem uses repetition in both rhetorical and contemplative attempts to inflect a musical intensity representative of Jesus’s mentality during these forty days.”
—Malika Booker