The Ziggurat TZ
The Road to the
Gods' Arid Mount Nimrod TZ 15
Think Pink TZ
Away From Nothing TZ 7
Two Hearts TZ
5 - 8
Babel, Babylon, Iraq
We stand at the crater’s edge
And see not one brick remains upon another.
But there in the distance
is Saddam’s palace
white as an egret perched on the hill,
As below us the river,
Heaves itself towards Basra.
Are men who search for the worst things in the world.
They look in tombs, in children’s desks,
under a jackass’s tail.
Why not tell them, Nazaar,
That the formula they crave
Is the mottling of a melon skin
In any farmer’s field,
That the microchips that hold the truth
Are datestones in a beggar’s mouth
But you are silent,
Intent on the lenses, the spinning digits
In the camera’s windows.
Yet for me the moment is maddened by locusts
Swarming around my head, locusts in a thundercloud
Over the mosque.
Nazaar, that you never see locusts:
But of course they are only words -
English words -
I thought were devouring
The date pyramids under the palms,
Settling over the earth with their wings
tented like lammergeyers,
So many wings in the swarm, so many mouths
I thought surely there were not enough leaves,
Not enough grains,
not enough space
In all the irrigated lands
To go round.
We had come down Procession Street,
The black lens cap bobbing on its cord
And me with the tripod in its velcroed sleeve,
The griffins above us triumphant on the temple walls,
And you had zoomed in and out of the temple doors
but said nothing.
And so, Nazaar,
I think we missed the boy beside the well
Lowering a bucket on a rope,
Drawing the Babel water again and again,
The bucket with the stone in it -- that dark little meteorite --
Going back into the earth before rising once more,
The bucket with the scarred lip and the stone in it
And the light splashing out of it
over the waterboy’s fingers.
He too never spoke.
Was I the only one at the crater’s edge
Who was struggling with words?
Language, you might have shrugged,
the Sony cartridge purring in your ear,
is simply one more thing that drives us mad.
Or gets us killed.
So take the film
And I will hold it in my ribs,
Riding on the breakneck bus through Badiet esh Sham,
The sun behind me rising like the gold breast of the mosque.
Take your film
And I will carry it to the border
In a bag of dusty clothes
And wait between the wires while the protocols are read,
Or nerve gas?
Language is both.
But also the schism of the tongues,
The liar’s catechism.
Do you imagine I cannot see
That you never point the lens
Through this thin Euphrates haze
to the ziggurat
They are building on that hillside to the north?
The emperor is at home today
And looking down on Babylon he will understand all things.
He is the griffin, Nazaar.
He is the camel
That becomes the crocodile,
the lion of black granite
That has broken the pilgrim’s back.
Every step we take here he permits.
And Nazaar, you never saw me
Walking down Philadelphia Road
With the Welsh alphabet under my arm
-- Apple to oxen in a Debenham’s bag --
The glass over the poster smeared with rain
And the builders in Philadelphia Mews
Smiling at the bard in his nightshirt,
That white lyre, at a tomcat
Jettisoning musk, and a stag-beetle
Holding up a mirror in its horny hands.
Twenty-eight letters ran down my
In a Brythonic tattoo,
My gold tooth aching in the easterly.
Words are relics too, you’d say:
the shrunken hearts of saints in lead bottles.
There is a word
you never use
No matter how I prompt
Or make any other answer impossible.
Remember the city we left today.
In every room is a photograph
you do not see,
On every corner a statue
You pretend was never there.
On its walls our choruses
Of stars were first chanted.
Think how Betelgeuse
Burn through the city’s nox:
While the censor dreams below them
on his stone bed.
When we return
Keep close to me
And whisper that word
While the searchlights on El Rashid Street
Write an X upon the sky.
But this afternoon
We are Babylonion ghosts
And follow the road uphill,
Passing the guards with their British weaponry,
the road circling until it reaches the summit
and we walk under the iwan
where twelve Mercedes wait on the gravel
arranged in a black sundial.
And the view is all.
Behind us it immensifies.
The little sand-jinns dance like children running out of school
And down Procession Street,
The river lies supine under its mist
While along the palmtree colonnade
A man comes bearing a tray.
Take the sweets from him, Nazaar.
Give them to your quiet sons.
Take the medicines he offers to your daughter
Palsied in her cot;
and for your wife
Who waits in your room by the marketplace
And who swells once more, golden as figmilk,
Take all the dollars and the dinars and the royal Jordanian pounds
And buy her a bracelet
of watermelon seeds.
(Prior pub.: PN
Review, Manchester UK)
(Robert Minhinnick is the editor of Poetry Wales.)
The Road to the Gods' Arid Mount Nimrod
Asia Minor of the Bib1e is now Anatolia in Eastern Turkey. I started on it at Ephesus, the preserved Graeco-Roman city where St Paul preached in the amphitheatre, and wrote letters to later, and St. John might have visited and hidden the Virgin Mary in hills nearby.
I met four elderly Americans, a pair of doctors and a pair of priests, not arriving together, but tracing histories of medicine and of Christianity, respectively, in that area. Asked if they were family practitioners, the medicos turned out to be the heart specialist and the surgeon who had treated President Eisenhower and General MacArthur. High modern history on the trail of the ancient.
St. Luke and St. John (or their confidants) are thought to have visited the monastery and the cathedral around Trabzon on the Black Sea. Looking at the frescoes I felt shiver through me the palpable sense of the divine still immanent.
Near borders of Russia, Iran, Syria, tanks and army patrols stopped my bus twelve times one day and night. Some passengers got taken off in the dark, never to return. I thought of the Bible times when alien pilgrims followed these hazardous roads.
Guided up Mount Nemruth (Nimrod)
in night snow by a hotel waiter in cocktail jacket and patent-leather dance
shoes, I experienced a daybreak when headless statues of gods struck by
earthquake loomed ghostily as red sunrise coloured the land in a wild pagan
Dark folds of history cover steep,
Trudged up to this summit where a monarch commanded built
Figures believed being powers before Bible times
Changed this land but for this peak that ye have climbed
To shiver exposed to bare harshness of cold earth
From time poised on a knife-edge in cruel climates then.
Now gloom shrinks and dawn light spreads on shoulders of giants
Looming fierce: but the gods have lost their heads
In earthquake long since, heads rolled
on hard ground,
Detached to stare stonily at land they ruled,
Now claimed by no-one: a no-man’s land to pause in
And hope no thunder strikes now in this eerie spot
There grey light gives away to blood-red of the sun
Grasping guilt-stained fingers up the highest rocks
We stand on, firmly knowing this most solid fact:
Creeds of man are frail layers seismic force can crack
Easily as it shattered these gods
now feared no more:
Forbidding stares cut in stone and rounded eyes
Mirroring mine bewildered at their downfall in this place;
Once strong but became the weak point in the earth’s crust,
Splitting to plunge lives down infernos scriptures warned
Will overtake wrong ways as cities seen bombed and besieged:
Cathedrals and homes crushed, people in fear laid to waste:
A reminder here of our planet’s fragile course.
Jaipur, India TZ18
"Well, as Diana Vreeland once said, 'pink is the navy blue of India'."
To her, the comment makes perfect fashion sense. But then, she manages a revival house cinema done up in art deco, so what else could I expect? The pert idioms of late-50's Hollywood, a doyenne of haute couture, and certain dainty starlet that modeled it, are what come off the rack as I'm telling her of how Ram Singh II was expecting a state visit from the Prince of Wales in 1876 and so--in a grand gesture of hospitality (if not good taste)--decreed that the entire city of Jaipur be painted pink.
She's thinking of the movie musical, Funny Face, in which Kay Thompson plays a high-powered executive editor of a fashion magazine loosely patterned after the original Empress Diana and her ready-to-wear ladies-in-waiting at Harper's Bazaar. Well, one scene in particular anyway, in which the actress dramatically unfurls across the floor of the office suite a bolt of pink satin destined to drape every woman in America who stands naked waiting for Miss Prescott to dress her, no--every woman in the world, no--the world itself, including the kitchen sink, as she exhorts, 'THINK PINK!"
How could I tell her then of Ramesh's unglamorous, gap-toothed smile, the stale liquor on his breath, unrosy cheeks on his unfunny, brown face and look of hunger that shone from his eyes, a world apart from Audrey Hepburn's lovelorn gaze lost in a Greenwich Village bookshop or the boulevards of Paree? I'm calling from the East coast; she's on the West. Color coordinates of local time and space clash, twain never meeting, mismatch my new Spring line of thought, which is trending toward blue.
I stand confused (turn left or right?) outside India's--no, all Asia's pre-eminent movie theatre, the "Raj Mandir," whose facade is, I tell her--of course!--a pale shade of pink. Some Bollywood flick has turned out tout Jaipur; women in their after-eight saris, men close-shaven and smelling nice, even the children looking spiffy. Intermission, and as I cross the lobby to leave, the other show starts: to see and be seen posing against the balustrades or seated on banquettes that hug gracefully curved walls like the smart lines of a cocktail dress. He senses my hesitation, but I refuse him the few rupees for a ride back to my hotel in last season's sorry cycle-rickshaw.
He softens me up until I give in to what it would be like to be in his unfashionable shoes peddling down these cold streets, "you know, all pseudo rosy-colored," I relate, "like Audrey Hepburn still extending her pinkie as she's swayed by the that modish philosophy of Empathicalism." One hundred rupees to find out, next day, sightseeing in the Pink City. Spindly piston-legs chug past Tripolia Bazaar, Ram Niwas Garden, the sad zoo near Albert Hall, cool marble cenotaphs of Jaipur's royal family at Gaitor, outside the city gates.
All afternoon he sweats out hope
and last night's booze. We take high tea in paper cups standing on the
curb below nine hundred pink honeycombed windows as the sun sashays down
the runway and makes its turn behind the Palace of the Winds. I pay him
more than twice our bargained fare, and for a moment Ramesh swears he sees
the chic royal ladies in purdah from Pink City's tonier days discreetly
blow him kisses from behind their rouged screens.
Driving Away from Nothing
That morning I got in the car
And drove to the interstate
Headed south into Mississippi
Where I unloaded trucks with a forklift
Forty-eight hours a week,
Making enough money to house
And feed my wife and our unborn child
So I could go on unloading trucks,
Boxes of street-light fixtures
That lit my father's way
As he drove home at three in the morning
From a job that paid enough to house
And feed his wife and the two sons
Who still lived with them,
My brothers. I thought of my father
When I was thirteen, a late night,
Somewhere before dawn.
I rose from bed sleepwalking
The architectural warp of a dream
And entered the kitchen, looking for a toilet.
My father sat at the table
Staring into an empty glass, the dark
Pressing night moths against the window.
I walked to the refrigerator, opened the door
And started to unbutton my pajamas
When my father's hand took my hand,
Turning me back toward the hallway.
You don't want to be here, he said.
I looked back at him as I walked into the dark.
There were tears in his eyes.
I drove out of that memory
And past the exit to the light factory,
Past Lynchburg and Hernando,
Senatobia, Long Branch Dam, Tillatoba.
Drove, and kept driving
Through Roseland and Ponchatoula,
Into New Orleans, the French Quarter,
A dump off the old line known as Desire,
Where I sat on a bar stool
Staring into a glass of bourbon, drinking
Enough to stay sober against the knowledge,
It might take a few days to replace me at work,
Maybe a few months for my wife to get on,
But child, oh child, blood of my blood.
(Ron Price is Poet-in-Residence at the Juilliard School of Music at Lincoln Center.)
TZ 5 - 8
Two hearts on straight
New Mexico highway, cathedral
stained glass brilliance
Nuyorican Poets Cafe
beatific howl -- she notes
barnfire in prairie eyes.
Two hearts move beyond
bald flat tire,
synch of Champion spark
plugs, Chevy sacred engine
Two hearts in Georgia slow
glide, Allman Brothers' ascent
to pointed Baptist steeple,
puff cumulous clouds, warm
peach pie -- she speaks road
hunger, overland years in
New York City gulag --
Yes Colorado winds are rock
steady like truck stop waitress,
vibrations a shrimp curl,
road is a warm Scarsdale afghan
on thin football legs.
Two hearts aquarian metaphor
beaver dam personal histories,
a cigarette smoked on west 3rd street.
Sister dance beyond Thai stick
thorazine night terror, beyond
funhouse dream a paprika measure.
Two hearts on Connecticut
April hilltop, layered
sweater, lumberjack coat
tilt of peaked baseball cap.
She sifts through city
corpses like coroner at
lunch break, keeps Ford Mustang
in tip top tune --
creates raw eggplant ho-down.
Two hearts on Manhattan
highway, well stocked bodega
bold move to tarragon
morning -- hot oatmeal
dialectic, memory like
Two hearts flannel seams are
sewn with fishhook, poetic
notations shelved for bawdy
smile, hand on carnival
shoulder. Take it home,
free-range sister, penance is over
like Vietnam quagmire,
overextended piano lessons.
Take on high Sierra courage --
passion for fog bound ferries,
flat skimming stones
and move towards me.
I wipe salt tears from
lush Mississippi Delta
cheekbones, kiss away
a thousand rapes
a thousand buffalo
nickel come-on's --
promises sealed in Bedford Hills
Two hearts on highway
reserved for Elizabethan lovers
San Francisco hippie poets,
Tompkins Square Park miracle
sages -- hot rods without muffler
or seat belt, children of God's
Two hearts, time to move
on zazen lotus road partner,
love's cool Virginia reel
stock T-bones for July
barbecue, lift resonant voices
in Verdi's aria, Aretha Franklin
Southern gospel -- and hit the
promised land cobble highway, yeah!
(This poem is from Wildflower Serenade, one of eight collections by Peter Chelnik.)