There are children who cross rivers and a ravine,
complete with swaying bridge, in order to get to school
two villages away. I am reminded of them when I see
a painted icon from the 12th century: "Ladder of Divine
Ascent," otherwise known as "Ladder of Paradise,"
depicting St. John Climacus leading monks in dark robes
up a 30-rung ladder toward heaven. In the lower right
corner, their brother monks cheer them on or gaze
anxiously as demons armed with bows and arrows
and snares attempt to yank them off course.
One of the monks has fallen headfirst into a yawning
pit which presumably is the doorway to hell;
two more are dangerously close on his heels. The gold
burnished background means this belongs to allegory:
a field in which a small choir of angels on upper
left peers, as though through a patch of torn
wallpaper. A 30-rung ladder could take those children
up a steep embankment; a 30-rung ladder is what our
handyman uses to climb up to the roof to sweep
leaves and storm debris out of the gutters.
30 rungs, 30 steps to heaven: it sounds almost
like that board game we played in childhood,
where snakes stood for vices and ladders for virtues.
I'm not surprised to discover a 13th century Indian
saint named Gyandev invented the game. On the top
right is the figure of Christ with hands outstretched,
waiting to welcome those successful in their ascent.
And the teacher, like the host in a reality TV obstacle
show, will wait for her young charges to step out of
the water or the trail, sticky from the effort not to fail.
Poet Luisa A. Igloria (Poetry Foundation web page, author webpage ) is Co-Winner of the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Competition in Poetry for her manuscript Maps for Migrants and Ghosts, forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press in fall 2020. She is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world’s first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. She is the author of What is Left of Wings, I Ask (2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Chapbook Prize, selected by former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey); Bright as Mirrors Left in the Grass (Kudzu House Press eChapbook selection for Spring 2015), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (Utah State University Press, 2014 May Swenson Prize), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She is a member of the core faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University which she directed from 2009-2015. In 2018, she was the inaugural Glasgow Distinguished Writer in Residence at Washington and Lee University. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she cooks with her family, knits, hand-binds books, and listens to tango music.