Tripoli and Gadamis, Libya, March 2014
Gunfire night and day in the old city doesn’t let up
as the aura of exhaustion floats me beyond sleep
and the planet on its axis tilts back a degree
until the world, off-kilter, spins loose from gravity.
I’m back crossing desert hard pan, the militia commander
napping in the front seat, the sun hazed out so you can’t tell sky
from pebbled waste. The blasted tanks perspire
in mist burning off, their turrets and barrels blistered.
Fairouz is singing about her broken heart, how her star,
like her lover, doesn’t whisper to her anymore.
In some adjutant’s drawer, the Brother Leader’s
list of who will be terminated, imprisoned, tortured
goes on and on, name after name that ceased to exist
the moment the sentence had been passed.
But Ashur, Mohammed, Ali come back to life
as I scribble down their names and the wind begins to cuff
the landrover jouncing until our butts ache
and the dead men staring at me from between the letters,
faces lit up for a moment as they share a smoke,
turn away from me, shrugging their shoulders
as if to say, Who cares? as the landrover, shifting gears,
disappears into the dust kicked up by its own tires.
The chapel’s zigzag waters of life incised in marble crept up
to the saint’s knees, his pupil-less eyes making him
seem blind in his ecstasy. But in that far off rocky outcrop
where we’d stopped between the oasis boreholes
and the crossroads cemetery, and where the Italians shot
and hung the tribal fighters, then burned them in gasoline,
I found you staring back at me from the gazelle’s eye,
its head carved in profile with that same sidelong stare
as when you lounged back in your chair, not really
taking notice of the talk swirling through the smoky air.
Like an image of the drawn waters of the soul
is what you wrote to me. And now I was being scanned
by that animal eye, and sensing you recoil
before the police cars fuming in the dark, saying quietly,
There’s been a bomb scare. But out here in the Sahara,
the gazelle engraved by flint into the softer limestone
lowered its neck to drink from a little stream sketched in
with zigzag lines mimicking the current tracing over stone
every jagged edge and smoothed off declivity
where one day the water would slowly seep away.
The wind that afternoon blew sand into the draw
that scoured up and down the cliff face but seemed never
to reach the gazelle’s delicate tracery. But when I looked closer,
I could see a hairline fracture traversing the gazelle’s chest
that in the next freeze or thaw could crumble.
In that ten-thousand-year-old stare, your endangered look of
wary trust still peers back at me, asking and expecting nothing, full
of its own self-sufficiency, shrugging off all my notions of the soul.
i.m. Seamus Heaney
Scrounging, hammering scrap into pots and pans,
sewing whatever shoddy the guards allowed in,
you fault your own steps in the sun falling
slant on walls cratered by an RPG. But when
those bars at last spring open, you’re always late,
your train is pulling out, suitcase gone,
clothes turned to rags, running barefoot,
the television floating far out on the ocean
replaying your execution on and on.
You wait for the hand to reach inside the dream,
your mother’s voice to say, This dream is done.
And all you know of freedom is how small you feel
returning to your cell when you lift your arms
for the pat down and smell her smell.
It isn’t camels and sheep and an underground house
or an abandoned oasis, the shaded grass littered with fallen dates.
It isn’t tankers lined up on the horizon,
or sand dunes asking nothing and giving nothing as they creep.
It isn’t the sculpture of a golden fist crushing a fighter jet,
or grafitti shouting Death or Freedom.
It’s the way vodka in the house of the imam
can be hidden in a plastic water bottle.
It’s Ashur’s unpublished papers on prostrate cancer surgery,
the patient with the catheter released from the hospital
for just one night who goes home to his wife
and they figure out a way to make love.
It’s what the German doctor whose name means “joy”
meant by the psychopathology of nations.
It’s the joke about bullets being fired off into the air
because the air makes such a good target
not even a blind man can miss.
It’s not the houses burned, the young men shot or kidnapped,
it’s not the anti-aircraft guns positioned where your house was.
It’s what no one will say about what no one else will say.
It’s what anyone who knows what they shouldn’t say knows.
It’s what the Revolution whispers about one war everywhere
in the ear of a drone watching a camel
rippling through heatwaves on a screen.
5/A Hymn from the Seventh Century B. C.
On the backs of men whose feet don’t touch the ground,
who look up at the temple steps they climb and climb back down,
the bows on their backs gleam and stiffen—
the bow strings tighten at the specter of a mountain goat, a lion.
They don’t put down the bow
except to piss, to fuck.
The women take the bow,
they rub its back and belly,
they oil it and strengthen it,
they whisper in the bow’s ear.
The chief of the horsemen who fought the armies
from the southern plains,
who fought and died in Heliopolis, said:
We were ninety men,
the best the earth gave birth to:
Not one came home but me.
An old man, eyes filling with tears,
draws lines with a stick in the sand:
You were out there on your own for forty days and nights.
Where are your men and your rearing horses?
Why did you come back all alone?
The starving men cover their eyes,
behind them the young boys carry an iron scythe.
The Celeo bird rising through the palms
cries its cry of dry thunder.
Falcons, wolves, elephants wreathe their trunks
and sweep the earth in mourning with their tusks.
In the courtyard where heatwaves waver
and feed themselves into the air,
hatred twists the sweating faces,
the men shout and curse:
How did the bull get to the mountaintop?
How did the bull lower its horns and charge at the free man?
How did the man twist away from those horns
that gored the air?
Because when the bull charged, a rope
of words, syllable by syllable, tightened
round its neck and yanked it back.
after Ashur Etwebbi