Should I worry when I say one thing but mean another?
Black sap drips from the trees. Sleeves of wind sway
like branches. Just beyond here the road falls into doubts.
Leaves are beginning to migrate. My dog measures the world
by sniffs. I measure it by how many things I can do at once.
I don’t think I have ever lived in one place at a time.
I think the workmen across the street are hanging gutters
to collect the sunlight. The older one has a face of twine.
Shadows of birds skim across the windows beneath them.
Coming up the hill the joggers seem to lean against the air.
Nice dog, but they don’t mean it. They’re afraid she’ll bite.
No one really says what they mean. Iztok says everything is
twilight, the confusions of evening. Tomaz thinks the world is
moist. He walks on the earth’s cliff edge. Darkness hums.
When I read the papers each morning I reinvent geography.
Above me now Jupiter is sliding its way across the sky.
A town in India has sunk twenty feet. The toxic spill in Hungary
is turning its map red again. It is important to keep busy.
Yesterday I went to Ken’s grave and put a stone on top of
his stone. In his Paul Jensen story he says you don’t have to have
been there to tell it. His characters speak words that are
flooded washes. Like him, what they have is what they give away.
Sometimes everything’s for sale. It’s as if we were all falling
out of trees. A train crash in the Ukraine, a stoning in Iran,
mud slides in Colombia. You can use one thing to take your mind
off another. Like the head of the Policeman in Mexico delivered
in a suitcase. Sometimes I think my corneas are melting. Now
the dog has sniffed out a few mole holes. They can burrow
a hundred feet a day. Why do dogs appear in so much literature?
When Odysseus returns thinking of revenge, his dog dies.
Acteon caught a glimpse of Diana and his own dogs ate him.
Tereza’s Karenin in Unbearable Lightness of Being dies of cancer.
How can Lightness be unbearable when it allows us to do one thing
but think another? All I have to do is drink a little limoncello
and I am right there in Monterroso al Mare with its lemons the size
of grapefruits that Montale wrote about. His poem, The Storm, is
really about the coming war which is never mentioned. You can
sense the dead shadows where his lover walked. We can’t help
but say one thing and mean another. The way a rock interrupts
the ocean’s vision of itself, or the way the mind keeps rearranging
events, like this, to let us think we are more moral than we are.
The brightest stars are the first to explode. Also hearts. It is important to pay attention to love’s high voltage signs. The mockingbird is really ashamed of its own feeble song lost beneath all those he has to imitate. It’s true, the Carolina Wren caught in the bedroom yesterday died because he stepped on a glue trap and tore his wings off. Maybe we have both fallen through the soul’s thin ice already. Even Ethiopia is splitting off from Africa to become its own continent. Last year it moved 10 feet. This will take a million years. There’s always this nostalgia for the days when Time was so unreal it touched us only like the pale shadow of a hawk. Parmenedes transported himself above the beaten path of the stars to find the real that was beyond time. The words you left are still smoldering like the cigarette left in my ashtray as if it were a dying star. The thin thread of its smoke is caught on the ceiling. When love is threatened, the heart crackles with anger like kindling. It’s lucky we are not like hippos who fling dung at each other with their ridiculously tiny tails. Okay, that’s more than ten things I know. Let’s try twenty five, no, let’s not push it, twenty. How many times have we hurt each other not knowing? Destiny wears her clothes inside out. Each desire is a memory of the future. The past is a fake cloud we’ve pasted to a paper sky. That is why our dreams are the most real thing we possess. My logic here is made of your smells, your thighs, your kiss, your words. I collect stars but have no place to put them. You take my breath away only to give back a purer one. The way you dance creates a new constellation. Off the Thai coast they have discovered a new undersea world with sharks that walk on their fins. In Indonesia, a kangaroo that lives in a tree. Why is the shadow I cast always yours? Okay, let’s say I list 33 things, a solid symbolic number. It’s good to have a plan so we don’t lose ourselves, but then who has taken the ladder out of the hole I’ve dug for myself? How can I revive the things I’ve killed inside you? The real is a sunset over a shanty by the river. The keys that lock the door also open it. When we shut out each other, nothing seems real except the empty caves of our hearts, yet how arrogant to think our problems finally matter when thousands of children are bayoneted in the Congo this year. How incredible to think of those soldiers never having loved. Nothing ever ends. Will this? Byron never knew where his epic, Don Juan, would end and died in the middle of it. The good thing about being dead is that you don’t have to go through all that dying again. You just toast it. See, the real is what the imagination decants. You can be anywhere with the turn of a few words. Some say the feeling of out-of-the-body travel is due to certain short circuits in parts of the brain. That doesn’t matter because I’m still drifting towards you. Inside you are cumulous clouds I could float on all night. The difference is always between what we say we love and what we love. Tonight, for instance, I could drink from the bowl of your belly. It doesn’t matter if our feelings shift like sands beneath the river, there’s still the river. Maybe the real is the way your palms fit against my face, or the way you hold my life inside you until it is nothing at all, the way this plant droops, this flower called Heart’s Bursting Flower, with its beads of red hanging from their delicate threads any breeze might break, any word might shatter, any hurt might crush.
Translated by Rana Kabbani
Butterfly of stone
The spirit’s shape when mirrored
The testament of earth in the feathers of a dove,
Beirut of tiredness and gem
The wheat stalk’s death,
The wandering of a star
Between me and my woman.
I had not heard my blood speak
In a lover’s name before
As it spoke and slept Beirut.
From the slight seaward rain
We found our names,
And from the taste of Fall.
From the shape of oranges
Coming from the south
As if we were our fathers
Arriving at Beirut
In order to arrive.
From the slight rain we built our huts
In the high grass we dug our holes like ants
And slept in hope of Beirut that was tent and star.
Enslaved we were in the spineless times.
Our captors threw us at our families,
When we fell our guardians sang
And spoke the words:
From a king on the throne
To a king in the tomb.
Enslaved we were in spineless times.
We could not find a final likeness
But our blood.
We could not tell what made the monarch popular,
Or the guard less fierce.
We could not find a thing to show our own identity
Except our blood stains upon the wall.
We softly sang
Beirut our tent
Beirut our star.
A window giving on the leaden sea.
A curving street that charmed us,
Or an ancient tune.
More lovely than the poems of it
And simpler than speech.
Endless shapes of cities
And new alphabets
Beirut our only tent
Beirut our only star.
We stretched ourselves upon her willows
To measure bodies that the sea had rubbed away.
We came to Beirut from our childhood names
To search for southern space,
For a vessel to contain the heart.
The heart melted, it melted.
We stretched ourselves upon the ruins
To weight the north with the weight of chains.
The shadows wilted,
They broke us and they dispersed us,
The shadows lengthened to embrace a tree
We were the cluster of dead bodies
Hanging from its branches.
We came from land denied us,
We came from pompous language
And from weariness.
This desolation stretches
From the ruler’s palace
To our prison cells,
From our first dreams
So give us just one wall
From which to call, ‘Beirut!’
On which to hang these many kingdoms
Selling oil and humans.
Give us one small wall
On which to stand and cry:
Beirut our final tent,
Beirut our final star.
A leaden space scattered all through space.
From the Gulf to Hell,
From Hell ot the Gulf,
From right to the right
To the moderate middle
A hanging-tree for millions.
Where are the arcades of Cordoba?
I cannot be exiled more than once
Nor can I love you more than once
I do not see in ocean
Anything but ocean.
Witness of the heart
I leave her streets and leave myself
Clutched by an endless poem.
My fire won’t die down,
The doves are on the rooftops
Peace upon the remnants of the rooftops.
I fold the city as I fold my papers
And carry it away, a sack of clouds.
I wake and look in my body’s clothing
We laugh and say that we are still alive.
I open the narrow street for wind
For the crafty seller of hot bread.
Grace of Beirut as she stands in fog,
Gratitude to Beirut as she stands in ruin.
The conquerors have led me to the poem
I carry language docile as a cloud
Above the pavement
Of reading and of writing
This sea has left its eyes with us
And gone back towards sea.
From a stone they built their ghetto nation
From a stone we’ll build a lover’s country
From a stone
I voice my slow farewell
The city drowns in repetitious phrases
The wound grows on the sword
And both come near to cut me.
I descend the stairs
That do not end in cellars of festivity
I descend the stairs
That do not end in poems.
For longing’s sake I head towards Damascus
Perhaps I’ll have a vision
Perhaps the ringing bells will echo
Till they make me shy.
Words were consequential
When they changed the one who spoke them.
Farewell to all that’s yet to come
To dawn about to break and break us
To cities returning to other cities
To curved swords and palm.
Our journey lengthens with our wound.
I see a dove fly from one heart burnt by the past
To another heart to a rooftop of brown brick.
Did the fighter pass this way,
Did the falling shrapnel break the cafe plates?
I see nations cardboard-strong with kings and khaki.
I see cities crowning their new conquerors.
The East is opposite to the West sometimes,
And the West’s East too
Its image and its chattel.
I see cities crowning their new conquerors,
I see rulers who will export martyrs
So as to import beer
And the latest instruments
Of torture and of sex.
I see cities hang their lovers
From steel trees.
What are we leaving but this jail?
What do prisoners ever have to leave?
We walk towards a distant song
We touch earth’s beauty
For the first time in our lives
This is a blue dawn,
The wind can be touched and tasted
Like a fig.
A hundred and a thousand,
In the name of sleeping people
At this hour
At dawn at dawn we finish our first poem
We tidy up the chaos
And we bless the life
We bless the ones
Who are alive.
Moon above Baalbek
Blood upon Beirut
From a form without a meaning
To a meaning with no form
Was Beirut a mirror we could break
To enter through its fragments
Or were we mirrors broken by the breeze?
Did the Church change
When the priest put on his khaki
Or was it the victim who had changed,
Did the Church change
Or was it we who changed?
Streets encircle us
As we walk among the bombs
Are you used to death?
I’m used to life and to endless desire.
Do you know the dead?
I know the ones in love.
A bullet flies above us
As we follow details of the war.
Did we form our poems in vain
Or did the war root out the poem?
We seek rhythm in a stone
But cannot find it
The poets have their ancient gods.
A bomb explodes
So we enter this hotel to drink.
I like Rimbaud’s silence
His letters which speak Africa.
I’ve lost Cavafy, for he warned me
Not to leave Alexandria.
I found Kafka sleeping just beneath my skin.
A cloak of desolation
The police inside us.
What do you see on that horizon?
Another far horizon and another.
Besieged we were
By the sea and Holy Books.
Are we finished?
We will survive like ancient ruins do,
Like a skull we will keep shape.
Saturday. Thursday. Language. Chaos.
The jeweller’s shop,
They climbed the steps and looted.
They strummed their strings
When they smelled our burning flesh.
We burned our boats.
We hung our planets from barbed wires.
We were not seeking ancestry
In the scratches on the map.
We did not stray
From the purity of bread
Or from our mud-stained shirts.
We were not born to ask
How life came forth from matter.
We were born, and slept on straw,
And drew the wagons like exhausted horses.
Then we burned our boats and hugged our guns.
Do you know the dead?
I know the ones unborn.
They will be born beneath the trees,
They will be born under the rain,
They will be born from stone,
They will be born from broken glass,
They will be born in corners,
From defeats, from mirrors,
They will be born from shrapnel,
From bracelets, from blossoms,
They will be born and they will grow,
They will be born and killed,
They will be born and born and born.
Markets on the sea,
A nation in a rented flat,
Cafes turning to the sun like sunflower.
Paradise of minutes
Mountains bowing to the sea.
Streets that end in ships
A seaport where the cities gather
Architecture for the newly-moneyed leisure
Fossils of our days turned up by the tide
A world that’s coming to new markets
Rising like the dollar,
Like the price of gold
That follow in their rising
The streams of eastern blood.
And we will wake this earth
Which leaned against our blood
We will draw our dead ones
From its secret cells
To wash their bodies with our whitest tears,
To pour the spirit’s milk for them to drink,
To sprinkle words upon their fragile lids:
Wake up wake up and walk back with us to our homes
Come listen to the wind among the roofs,
The wind that wrenched the southern prairies
From our arms
You are the land we guard
Whose curves and wheat we love
The only land we have to stand upon
Come back come back to us once more
We will not leave the region of your blood
And we will keep you from oblivion
The sun has scorched us
Your sharp bones make us bleed
But still we call to you
The echo comes back homeland
From our blood to our blood
Are the limits of the earth.
A dream that we shall carry where we will.
A wooden lily and the first embrace.
A poem of stone
A flower spoken is Beirut,
A child that broke the mirrors
And then slept.
After all this love, after the birds rip like scissors
through the morning sky, after we leave, when the empty
bed appears like a collapsed galaxy, or the wake of
disturbed air behind a plane, after that, as the wind turns
to stone, as the leaves shriek, you are still breathing
inside my own breath. The lighthouse on the far point
still sweeps away the darkness with the brush of an arm.
The tides inside your heart still pull me towards you.
After all this, what are these words but mollusk shells
a child plays with? What could say more than the eloquence
of last night’s constellations? or the storm anchored by
its own flashes behind the far mountains? I remember
the way your body wavers under my touch like the northern
lights. After all this, I want the certainty of hidden roots
spreading in all directions from their tree. I want to hear
again the sky tangled in your voice. Some nights I can
hear the footsteps of the stars. How can these words
ever reveal the secret that waits in their sleeping light?
The words that walk through my mind say only what has
already passed. Beyond, the swallows are still knitting
the wind. After a while, the smokebush will turn to fire.
After a while, the thin moon will grow like a tear in a curtain.
Under it, a small boy kicks a ball against the wall of
a burned out house. He is too young to remember the war.
He hardly knows the emptiness that kindles around him.
He can speak the language of early birds outside our window.
Someday he will know this kind of love that changes
the color of the sky, and frees the earth from its moorings.
Sometimes I kiss your eyes to see beyond what I can imagine.
Sometimes I think I can speak the language of unborn stars.
I think the whole earth breathes with you. After all this,
these words are all I have to say what is impossible to think,
what shy dreams hide in the rafters of my heart, because
these words are only a form of touch, only tell you I have no life
that isn’t yours, and no death you couldn’t turn into a life.
Between two worlds life hovers like a star.
It is not so easy to live on the earth
as an angel, to imitate the insects that dance
around the moon, to return what air we borrow
every few seconds. I am going to enter
the hour when wind dreamt of a light dress
to stroke, when water dreamt of the lips it would meet.
The famous Pascalian worm will just have to find
another heart to eat.
I will reveal the actual reason birds fly off
so suddenly from telephone wires.
The road will ask my foot for help.
The lightning will forget its thunder.
I will discover the hidden planet
to account for Pluto’s eccentric orbit.
Pluto, of course, is ready to leave the alliance.
I learned this from a recent Scientific American.
No longer will I have to lament
the death of Mary, the circus elephant,
hung with chains from a derrick on Sept. 16, 1916,
in Erwin, Tennessee, to punish her immortal soul
for brushing her keeper to death.
She looks out from her daguerreotype
as if she knows one day we too will hear
the stars gnaw away at our darkness.
It is not so easy.
One day I will free the clouds frozen in ponds.
No longer will the wind lose its way.
I will start hearing important voices like a real saint.
The emir of Kuwait will answer my call.
If I am not careful I will loosen
the noose of history from around my own neck.
Just to keep sane I will have to include my weight
which is the only thing that keeps me from being a bird.
Walking on air will no longer be a problem.
Meanwhile, the Hubble telescope is still wobbling
its pictures from outer space so we will
have to rely on imagination a little longer to see clearly.
Why don’t windows tell us everything they see?
Here come the characters of my sad poems.
They have been standing in line to get in
like fans for a rock concert.
They are gathering around Beatrix Potter who spent 30 years
locked in her room. The maid brings up her supper.
She sneaks out into the garden to capture
small animals to draw or reinvent before they die.
Beatrix, I say, we no longer have to kill what we see.
I know this in my heart, in my wolf, in my owl.
In the Siena of my palms. The Bergamo of my head.
In the garlic of my fingers. My friends say
I use too much. There are never enough
streets crossing the one we are stuck on.
No one wants to be a cloud anymore.
Who still believes in the transmigration of souls?
If you believe Bell’s theorem, then the fact is
that the squirrel falling out of my tree this morning
makes minute subatomic changes from here to Australia.
Will I have to put on my pants differently now?
Just when we start to believe in moonlight
we notice how many stars it erases. It is not easy.
I am going to come back
as the birthmark on the inside of your thigh,
between your dreams of angels and solar dust,
between your drunken skirt and the one that laughs.
I am going to learn what the butterfly knows
about disguise, what so astonishes the hills.
All this is going to take constant vigilance.
In The Last Chance Saloon, Tombstone, Arizona,
I saw the lizard creature with its glued head,
almost human, tilted up from under the glass,
as if it didn’t know which world to claim.
Apparently it fooled a lot of people in 1872.
I kept thinking if only Ovid had seen this creature
he would have known his nymphs
could never escape just by turning into trees.
In Dora Noar, Afghanistan, the young soldier,
Mohammad Anwar, age 13, believes he will turn
into a desert flower when he dies in the jihad.
The barrel of his AK-47 is sawed down
because he is as small as the four prisoners
he has returned with. They understand
that all we know of the sky we learn by listening to roots.
I was happy, he says after shooting them
against a wall, over and over again. I was happy.
Happy. Now maybe the earth will want to change its name.
It won’t want to be the earth anymore.
Shadows will be abandoned by their objects.
The light will squander itself on the flowers
because they do not even want to be flowers anymore.
It is not easy to live on this earth.
We don’t understand that the universe is
blowing away from us like litter,
but at an incredible speed.
There is a new theory that the universe is left-handed.
It has to do with the spin of quarks.
Someone else says it’s in the form of a horseshoe.
The rest of the animal is metamorphosed into a black hole.
I happen to side with the fanatics who believe
it is following the call of a mythic bird too distant to see,
but this is only poetry, like the old papers
the homeless use to stuff their clothes on cold nights,
the kind of poetry that says, Flowers, be happy,
trees, raise your drooping eyebrows,
sky, don’t turn your back on us again,
my love, how wonderful to have lived while you lived,
which is not the sort of poetry you read anyplace anymore.
A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses… .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.
—Bahram (Pakistani 14-year-old held in an Afghan prison)
Like the pied piper
the mullah drives his battered truck
through dusty villages, his loudspeaker
singing: Join the battle against the infidels.
Fight for Jihad and live eternally with Allah.
Lift up your guns for Him and you shall never die.
Barefoot boys ragged, hungry
from years of hard soil, follow him
dancing into the straps of loaded guns,
pirouetting into caves and broken buildings
And the boys end up in a land not their own
but are told God is everywhere.
Many die. Others disappear
into dark prison bowels
where each day if you are 12, twelve filthy men
one after another …
if you are 14, then fourteen is your lot.
A father sells tea from a cart,
one cup at a time, washes the tiles
of a mosque with a yellow bar of soap
to earn the ransom the soldiers exact.
Every night in his dreams his son stands, calling:
Father, I never seen such days as this.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
"Well, there’ve always been people going around saying someday the war will end. I say, you can’t be sure the war will ever end. Of course, it may have to pause occasionally–for breath, as it were–it can even meet with an accident–nothing on this earth is perfect–a war of which we could say it left nothing to be desired will probably never exist. A war can come to a sudden halt–from unforeseen causes–you can’t think of everything–a little oversight, and the war’s in the hole, and someone’s got to pull it out again! The someone is the Emperor or the King or the Pope. They’re such friends in need, the war has really nothing to worry about, it can look forward to a prosperous future."
~ Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage (1938)
June 2, 2014
A child’s legs twitch, wired with the day’s last synaptic flickers.
Her body kicks and rolls into the C of sleep’s inevitable curve.
Beneath a newly named Pluto she sleeps—no longer a planet,
now simply a sphere, a smear on the galaxy’s conscience.
A mother kneels into the lamp light of the day’s last ablutions.
How will her missing hand groom the head?
She rubs her cracked heels with coarse salt and wheat chaff.
How will the linens trample themselves clean?
Daughter, your mother’s prayer teeth would sharpen
and shred your opaque sack of sleep.
She would chew you into her cow-belly vault, break you
into one of the earth’s invisible compounds with her rumen
if she could live to see what you will survive.
He danced with tall grass
for a moment, like he was swaying
with a woman. Our gun barrels
When I got to him,
a blue halo
of flies had already claimed him.
I pulled the crumbled photograph
from his fingers.
There’s no other way
to say this: I fell in love.
The morning cleared again,
except for a distant mortar
& somewhere choppers taking off.
I slid the wallet into his pocket
& turned him over, so he wouldn’t be
kissing the ground.
I have a
it is difficult to
type with such a
I reach around
lovers late into
from behind it is
the field of flying
bullets the hand
loving the aftertaste
finding a deeper
human cruelty through
I am haunted by
our actions since
you said too much poetry
I said too much war
the biggest mistake for
love is straining
there was a
you said too much fooling around
I said fuck off and die