The heart is a divided city
Between two alphabets.
Church bells, minarets
Time has stopped where it is broken.
This is called history, not pity,
It is not spoken.
To remember is to cross
Through no-man’s land
Into an imaginary country
You do not recognize
But where the streets are real, the walls
Are stone, you gaze through other eyes.
The gaze scales the wall
And Love’s promiscuous sparrows
Unyoked from her chariot
Cartwheel up into the sky and tumble
Pell-mell into the ghostly zone
Where the sandstone houses crumble,
And the unpicked, ripened dates
Fall to them alone.
Within the walls we pass
The dying occupations of the past—
Last generations of vendors
Of woven stuffs, the menders
Of broken obsolete machines, of chairs,
Menders of soles, the last
Cobblers at their last.
Even the coffin maker is induced
To dread the mass-produced.
The Museum of Forgotten Trades
Brandishes its rusted blades
Sickles and ploughshares, blacksmiths’ tools,
Instruments hang out of tune,
With spindles out of fairy tales,
Sharp enough to make a princess swoon,
And baskets to drain the whey from milk.
In a flat brass pan,
Like the bandages of resurrected saints,
Wound up in dingy spools,
Lie the empty, light cocoons
Of the silkworm’s silk.
In the marketplace I bought a sieve
Hand-hammered on a collar of wood
With the nail holes patterned like a lacey flower—
That it would make
A lovely powdered-sugar topping on a cake,
A present you might give,
Keeping in your power
Something colder and more stark,
The way it lets the light sift through
The jagged holes,
The stars in shoals,
How it holds back the coarseness of the dark.
We were told
That inside, under the library’s stone dome
There was a poem, very old,
In characters of purest gold—
We could almost see
The arabesques of bright calligraphy,
But could not roam
Beneath that manmade firmament.
Should we be shocked
That it was locked?
We could not read the poem, and we went,
Not knowing what it meant.
Two names for the nameless One, the father,
Though the ancient cult of the heart is another,
The dawn-star in the crescent,
Foam-born, the All Mother.
Phallic talismans in picrolite
(The bitter stone)
Repeated through the ages
Evolve to female figurines
With outstretched arms
Or infants at the breast.
Grave goods, fertility charms—
They stand attentively behind vitrines
As if somehow human, warm,
And not schematic,
The mother says to her daughter:
The heart is an island.
To reach it,
You must cross saltwater.
This is what the daughter fears:
That joy, like sorrow,
Must be reached by shipwreck
Or by tears.
Surfeit of the heart:
Brings more meat
And more remorse:
It chews what it must choose,
Impossible to refuse.
The sky flies its banner, blue and white
While military music sounds below:
Autonomy, says the heart, just so,
Is not the Yes of Night,
But the Day of No.
There is another banner, white and red,
Not flying overhead,
But blazoned on the facing mountainside
As on a distant shore;
You wonder how it looked before
And are preoccupied.
In the heart of the island, in the mountains,
In the village where the pomegranate trees
Crack open their ruby lamps,
Soft and damp,
Night stoops swiftly and silently
As an owl’s wings,
In the heart it is cool and green,
And the source springs.
An ancient bone-white vessel shaped like an owl
Brims with delight,
Two eyes are holes, the work is fine—
For water, perfume, or for wine?
The mind wanders, though not far,
To another crepuscular fowl
We call the nightjar.
I’ve never heard the nightingales of Platres,
Sleepless at the sill,
I never understood the odes and sonnets
That hymned that silvery thrill;
The three-toned threnody that sounds the forest
Where I keep vigil still
Is not the Philomela of the poets
But poor Hank’s whippoorwill.
Has been here before. Her feet
Take her to the end of a barricaded street
Where a weary sentry
Forbids her entry,
And only cats and dreams
Pass to and fro across
The old acre of loss.
There is no way to get there now, it seems.
You wander about
In the museum of confiscated saints
With their eyes scratched out,
Out of sight,
Pondering the quaint
Stubbornness of paint,
Saul blinded in the damask of the light.
In this frame, Saint George is still
Murdering the absurd
That stands still as if tethered,
Craning back its scrawny neck,
Brandishing its wings
Like an endangered bird,
Scarlet and irrelevant and feathered.
From the ancient mosaic
The hound gazes up,
Adoring and agog,
Forever laying a partridge at your feet.
Beside her, someone has inlaid
Painstakingly in tesserae in Greek
“Fair Hunting,” though the pup
Awaits something more prosaic,
Gets up from its bed,
Arches its back, and stretches, very neat,
It crosses without passports
On padded feet
And curls up in another head
In another street.
The insomniac weeps.
She is still awake.
Church bells wash the air
With buckets of a bright
Clean music, and the urgent human cries
Of minarets punctuate the skies.
Hearing the day break and break
Finally she sleeps.
The diptych icon’s title:
Lady of Love, Lady of Sorrow.
The city stands
Beside herself, with love, with grief
Against a field of pure gold leaf
Cradling that sacred child
In her hands.
Rising from the sea
As on a foot-worn stair,
Rose-fingered dawn is scrubbing the light
Till it is raw and bare,
Sluicing away the night,
Calling us to prayer.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.