…And Saul was afraid and his heart trembled greatly, and he said to his servants,
“Seek me a woman that divines by a ghost that I may go to her and inquire of her.”
And the servants said to him, “There is a woman that divines by a ghost
at En-Dor…”
(Samuel I, 28, 7-8)

A fearsome time, a time of fire and fight,
of spears,
of blood,
of screaming bleeding men—
And the night! That night of black mist,
no stars,
and there he stood in my doorway, shrouded, dim,
tall, broken, a lightning-cracked tree—
He spoke just one command:
“Conjure woman,
conjure for me the certain spirit I seek.
No fear of the law—
A kingdom totters!”
A force—Oh yes, there was a force in him,
a damaged force—a scarred, broken force—
but a power still. I led him into my hut
and seated him, and started the Great Change.
Oh I am a different thing in the Great Change.
No longer an old stick with a creaking life.
Then, in my other voice, my spirit voice,
I sang: “Name the name!” He paused, then whispered:
               I tried to tear myself
out of my spirit state—
“You are Saul! The king!…”
“No fear!” He said.
                                I sank and sank, and there
Samuel rose,
a strong, robed man,
with an ancient gaze, a gaze beyond time.
“Why do you summon me out of the light to suffer
again the torments of prophesy?”
                                              Saul bowed—
his face to the ground—and wept:
                                              “The enemy sweeps
all away, a whirling wind, a flame.
No priest will divine for me, no prophet, no dream.
God is far, silent; the battle looms!”
Samuel’s voice was laden with long grief:
“You defied Heaven’s commands, turned away,
and now you call me, you who abandoned God?
For abandoning Heaven’s command you are abandoned.
The kingdom is torn out of your tremulous grasp.
Oh lost king! Oh king I taught to be king,
like a father—
up from the cattle pens to the crown—
Lost, lost!
And I am cursed to tell you:
Before tomorrow’s sun dies in the west
I will not come to you, but you and your sons
will come to me.”
                       Saul fell to the ground
as the dead fall.
Samuel cried, “Oh earth!.
Earth is the place of the prophet’s dark task
of slashing agape the nations’ rancid guts
to the full view of the wounded, wounding world.
Oh God—most terrible when You demand the truth!”
He faced me, gentler, as though relieved of a weight,
a black burden. And fading into the light,
“I must return.” He said, “See to the king,
that poor, frail thing cursed with a crown—
placed in my care like a son.
                                                I failed, failed!
Failed when the people demanded a king. I warned,
but failed to turn them away from the royal allure,
so now the nation is plagued by a plague of kings
and will be plagued by kings and kings and kings,
and the nation is cursed, and the kings are cursed, through times,
through times and times…”
                                      But his voice dissolved away
and he passed into the fading, pure light,
freed at last from the torments of prophecy.

2—The Madness of Saul

You refuse to kill me? You, my armor bearer,
even at my command? Your master’s command?
The enemy bowmen approach—infantry, pikemen,
howling their victory howl, after my blood—
this wounded king’s blood—
                                     this Saul, once king,
now crowned in tinsel, sceptered in make-believe.
Still you refuse? I am what? God’s anointed?
My army—scattering, terrified, lost, in flight—
has left me doomed to the Philistines’ torture sport,
and still you speak of a king crowned by God!
Gone! Gone! The hand of God is gone!
Anointed king? This king is king no more.
Only in memory. Saul is Saul no more.
God has left me prey to His nightmare beasts.
Only a memory.
Saul is Saul no more.
Oh memory! Oh I was young, tall, strong—
ready for life! But Samuel, prophet of God,
tore me up by the root, he bore me far,
far from my brothers, far from our broad fields—
that scent of cattle and grain!—to anoint me king;
ripped me out of our land and home to be king,
and the oil touched my head and God’s finger
touched my mind awake to a blaze of power—
wild power, strength, command—I fell
writhing, the fire of prophesy seared my heart,
my skull, my dazzled eyes—
Oh time! Time!
This old king now waits for Philistine spears
to dandle him on their points like a foul joke,
as David takes my throne.
                                          A shepherd he was,
years ago—just half-boy, half-man,
he strode forth as Goliath shamed my troops.
Like a shepherd, he slung that stone to Goliath’s death
just as he’d kill the wolf to save the sheep,
and like his sheep, my troops were suddenly his.
Bowmen, horses, pikemen, blades gleaming—
they suddenly loved him, still half-boy as he was.
My Jonathan too was his.
And I? I too
felt pulled to him.
He was the center point
of wherever he was, and all were happily, quietly
snared. Oh yes, I felt his quiet pull,
especially when he sang to his harp to quell
my worsening, lengthening, agonized hours of rage
ablaze in the fire of God’s dark spirit—
Oh yes! Dark I say. Brilliant! Bright—
till lost. Then dark, dark, down and dark,
prey to the beasts crouching behind the brain,
as a castle abandoned to plague becomes a nest
of wolves and vermin.
                                God abandoned me—
this flesh, this heart, my soul’s home—prey
to rages half-prophetic, half-insane,
as I heard the midnight demons sing that song
the street-girls sang, how Saul had slain his thousands,
but David his tens of thousands—
                                               And there was David!
Not the living flesh and form—An image
shaped in the smoldering madness of prophesy,
vast as the sky and crowned. Crowned, I say!
And I knew then what he was—
                                                and that he must die.
Yet he will be on my throne, and I shall die.
And you, poor armor bearer, you haven’t fled?
You haven’t left your fallen master yet?
You sacrifice yourself?
My boy, are you honest?
And loyal? Ah! The worse for you, my child!
Disloyalty to Heaven is my crime,
so I am told on highest authority,
for failing to kill the king of Amalek.
Obedience is all, and there I fail,
a wounded, shamed old man—and still you wait
beside me, honest and burdened with loyalty,
that rarest of treasures?
                                      Look! They are almost here.
Do they think they will find a crippled, halfwit king
too broken to resist, and make him scream
for dear death?
No, they shall find me flown,
far, far from ransom and despair,
my dead shell, left for their foul games,
as a lord may cast a worn and stained glove
for a beggar-child’s toy.
                                         Up! They hope
to defile us? Kill us?
Swords out! Help me stand!
I can still outshout the battle scream of a thousand
thousands of theirs for I am again the man,
again that Saul, ascending out of madness,
my thirsty sword’s point here against my heart,
ready to fling my weight on the ravening blade—
Now thrust! Now hurl my challenge—fiercer than war,
sterner than prophesy,
dearer than my life.

Paul Panish’s poetry is published in literary journals, including Signal, The Formalist, War, Literature, and the Arts Journal, Poetica Magazine, The Raven’s Perch, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, and others, going back to the 1960s.