Prophecies: Right Here, Right Now

by John Brehm


Today it’s a guy hawking prophecies on the 4 train.

Strides into the car at the Brooklyn Bridge stop,

white hair, huge, thick, scholarly glasses,

a bristling, steel-wool, Whitmanesque beard,

and starts in about the Book of Revelation.

Has a stack of Xeroxed prophecies in his hand

as he walks up the aisle. “Only God knows

the future,” he says. “Man knows nothing

of what awaits him. That’s why he acts

like such a fool. No man can predict the future.

If you know of someone who ever has,

please tell me, I’d like to hear about it.”

“Nostradamus,” I almost blurt out

from my half-slumber, but I could tell,

or thought I could, that he’d have an answer

for that. Nor did I wish to incur his wrath.

I had a brief vision of him hectoring

above me while I burst into flames

and the other passengers shifted in their seats

and looked away, or kept on reading

their Posts and Daily News,where the prophecies

he’s raving about are now being fulfilled,

with the help of U.S. tax dollars.

“The meek shall inherit the earth,” he says.

“And the meek are the poor. Blessed are the poor,

and woe to the rich, that’s what the Bible says.”

And now I’m recalibrating how crazy I think he is.

He’s certainly playing to the right crowd.

The people on this train look like their only inheritance thus far has been

more poverty, rage of exclusion and fear

of their own rage. “Look at the African-American

in South Africa,” he says, as if reading my mind.

“What could a man 3,000 years ago know

about South Africa, let alone the African-American?

Nothing! And yet prophecies of the African-American

in South Africa are right here in the Bible.”

And here, too, I think of correcting him.

Africans are in South Africa, African-Americans

in America, though white people have done their best

to divide the suffering equally between them.

But maybe I’m misunderstanding

the prophecy in question. “There are prophecies

on every page of the Bible. Every page!”

he shouts at our departing backs,

and shakes the stapled pamphlets in the air.

I wonder what his life is like when he’s not here

spreading God’s word to commuters

lost in our underground limbo, hurtling

into our shaky, unforeseeable futures. And I wonder

now as he slides backwards into my memory

what other dazzling configurations

of craziness and wisdom are taking shape,

readying themselves to appear before us.

He’s right. I can’t imagine them.

John Brehm is the author of Sea of Faith, which won the 2004 Brittingham Prize from the University of Wisconsin Press, and the associate editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, Boulevard, This Land, and The Best American Poetry 1999. His new book, Help Is on the Way, is due out later this year.