Although the most direct reference is to the 16th century Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross, Thomas Centolella’s poem also recalls the pilgrim’s examination on love by Saint John in Paradiso 26:
And it won’t be multiple choice,
though some of us would prefer it that way.
Neither will it be essay, which tempts us to run on
when we should be sticking to the point, if not together.
In the evening there shall be implications
our fear will change to complications. No cheating,
we’ll be told, and we’ll try to figure the cost of being true
to ourselves. In the evening when the sky has turned
that certain blue, blue of exam books, blue of no more
daily evasions, we shall climb the hill as the light empties
and park our tired bodies on a bench above the city
and try to fill in the blanks. And we won’t be tested
like defendants on trial, cross-examined
till one of us breaks down, guilty as charged. No,
in the evening, after the day has refused to testify,
we shall be examined on love like students
who don’t even recall signing up for the course
and now must take their orals, forced to speak for once
from the heart and not off the top of their heads.
And when the evening is over and it’s late,
the student body asleep, even the great teachers
retired for the night, we shall stay up
and run back over the questions, each in our own way:
what’s true, what’s false, what unknown quantity
will balance the equation, what it would mean years from now
to look back and know
we did not fail.
From Thomas Centolella’s Lights and Mysteries (1995). See the text of the poem and other poems by Centolella at poetryfoundation.org.