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And he sent forth a raven and it went back and forth, to and fro,
until the waters were dried up from off the earth.
—Genesis 8:7

To traverse open water searching for signs of life,
a seabird is more suited than a land bird,
which needs the trustworthy stubble of wheat fields
and faithful hills that never drift to find its way.
But the raven, weak from long restraint, does its best,
trying to glide on stiff wings as the albatross
and seeking updrafts as the fish hawk.

First it scouts the contours of a submerged city
from which towers rise to the surface like water lily stems
in a placid pond. Then it surveys a herd of ibex,
their recurved horns tangled in a mass of drifting reeds.
Expanding its search pattern, it marks the longitude
and latitude of a wine vat snagged on a pyramid’s tip.
But nowhere does it see a single living thing.

Come nightfall, the raven, wing-weary and famished,
rests on the floating carcass of a bull elephant,
passing the time till dawn pecking topographic lines
into its bloated belly, pondering the great circle distance
of mudflats now turned into seafloor while grappling
with the problem of how to plot bearings as straight lines
that drowned mariners can follow to reach safe harbor.

When sunrise brings no hope of finding an olive branch,
the raven wonders what Noah will do with a damage tally
that includes a child’s arm caught between fence posts.
Better to become a cartographer of disaster inking
a cartouche of ill omen than to return to the ark.
After all, what use are casualty figures to the dead
or promises of repair? Too late for them—rainbows.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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