Published on Academy of American Poets (https://poets.org)


Quid Pro Quo

Just after my wife's miscarriage (her second 
in four months), I was sitting in an empty 
classroom exchanging notes with my friend, 
a budding Joyce scholar with steelrimmed 
glasses, when, lapsed Irish Catholic that he was, 
he surprised me by asking what I thought now 
of God's ways toward man. It was spring,

such spring as came to the flintbacked Chenango 
Valley thirty years ago, the full force of Siberia 
behind each blast of wind. Once more my poor wife 
was in the local four-room hospital, recovering. 
The sun was going down, the room's pinewood panels 
all but swallowing the gelid light, when, suddenly, 
I surprised not only myself but my colleague

by raising my middle finger up to heaven, quid 
pro quo, the hardly grand defiant gesture a variant 
on Vanni Fucci's figs, shocking not only my friend 
but in truth the gesture's perpetrator too. I was 24, 
and, in spite of having pored over the Confessions 
& that Catholic Tractate called the Summa, was sure 
I'd seen enough of God's erstwhile ways toward man.

That summer, under a pulsing midnight sky 
shimmering with Van Gogh stars, in a creaking, 
cedarscented cabin off Lake George, having lied 
to the gentrified owner of the boys' camp 
that indeed I knew wilderness & lakes and could, 
if need be, lead a whole fleet of canoes down 
the turbulent whitewater passages of the Fulton Chain

(I who had last been in a rowboat with my parents 
at the age of six), my wife and I made love, trying 
not to disturb whosever headboard & waterglass 
lie just beyond the paperthin partition at our feet. 
In the great black Adirondack stillness, as we lay 
there on our sagging mattress, my wife & I gazed out 
through the broken roof into a sky that seemed

somehow to look back down on us, and in that place, 
that holy place, she must have conceived again, 
for nine months later in a New York hospital she 
brought forth a son, a little buddha-bellied 
rumplestiltskin runt of a man who burned 
to face the sun, the fact of his being there 
both terrifying & lifting me at once, this son,

this gift, whom I still look upon with joy & awe. Worst, 
best, just last year, this same son, grown
to manhood now, knelt before a marble altar to vow 
everything he had to the same God I had had my own 
erstwhile dealings with. How does one bargain
with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups 
the ante each time He answers one sign with another?

Credit


From The Great Wheel, published by W. W. Norton & Company, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Paul Mariani. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Author


Paul Mariani

The oldest of seven children from a working-class background, Paul Mariani was

Date Published: 1996-01-01

Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/quid-pro-quo