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Poetry

The LORD is a man of war.
—Exodus 15:3

I. Jordan River, Golan Heights

I hadn’t expected it to be
so green. When I pictured what lay

between Dan and Beersheba, I imagined
arid, caked earth, like what I later found

in the Negev or at Masada. Here, instead,
the Jordan slipped like a shiv

between the sharp-arcing hills, and a diffuse mist
lingered above the ground.

It made sense, in the end, that lushness
precipitated all the violence.

These eucalyptus trees, the man driving me notes,
were planted as a trick. Targets for the bombs.

What was promised had to be
respite from that barren ground

that Cain walked, something emerald
and alive. Anything deadly

must have been hidden, implicit, half-
buried, like dark basalt rock

scattered among the green, or the gnarled
trunks of the eucalyptus twisting

upward like grasping hands.
When the wind blew,

the teal leaves hissed.
Farther down the road, barbed-wire

fences sprung up like serpentine vines, hung
with yellow land-mine warning signs

that burst like daffodils
against the green.

II. Valley of Tears

I stand on high ground,
beside an old iron bunker and
decorative sandbags

commemorating the great
suffering that occurred to place me here.

To the left, farmland sprawls away.
They say it is
blood-seeded soil.

To the right, dissipating fog
breaks up into clouds, pierced by what

I want to call heavenly

light: violet, lavender plumes churning
slowly in the air.

Come to wash the earth clean,
I think, or purge the sun-
blasted white buildings.

The clouds burgeon and sift
slowly over the landscape, right to left,
like yad to scripture.

Forty miles, someone tells me, and you’ll be
in Damascus. Further still, Aleppo.

They could hear
rockets last time they were here.

Indigo shell shock, I think. The clouds

wander out into that desert
(iridescent, divine), spilling
toward the wreckage.

It is easy to forget
dark horrors in the stunning azure
of day.

III. Temple Mount, Sunset

A cacophony
of prayer. God’s clamor.
One man tells me, “Don’t forget: this is
your home,” holding out tefillin
in offering. Behind me
a congregation of soldiers dreams
of decomposing under rosemary.
Reverence and dread make me
step backward from
the Wall, almost faithful
in the way God has asked. To love and fear
is a terrible burden. Who can live
when the center is a split
heart, a stony division?
Even Moses, I recall, was
told thou shalt not go over thither
and died
at the kingdom’s brink.

IV. The Viaduct

In America, when I see the vaulted
highway that splits my city, I think

of God, the kingdom of heaven: its force,

its tenebrous underpasses, its cement pillars
like a barred gate.

To the north, Canaan: forsaken
cottage-style homes sink and teeter,
paint stripping like rotten bark from the walls.

To cross south
under that ghoulish viaduct, like Dante
over the terraces,

is to enter the southern Levant: the whitewash,
the quietude, the still boulevards, For the LORD
has chosen Zion.

V. In the Desert

We had been lost
so long I hardly remembered
where we came from.

I had distant memories (dreams,
even) of vicious seas, water streaming

from rock. I remembered substance
given us from the sky. In the long light
of day, dry and static, I never recalled

waking, as though my life was
some uncertain miracle.

I had not even known
that word—miracle—

when I left. Now
my beard has grown long and gray,

and I forget a life without wonder.

Once, I was given
a sword and an order.
The blood

was like a dream, a miracle.
I do not recall

what faith, like a heart, I
consumed (consumed me)
in that wandering. I wondered,

must I suffer and sin
to find my way?

And still wonder, gnawing
on this strange meat,

tugging at my white beard.

VI. Exodus (Lydda, 1948)

I imagine the long line
_____ wending its way
__________out of Egypt,
_____ and the longer one
returning, blast

by trumpet blast,

_____wall by

_____crumbling wall,

to the land that was promised.

History and language

are like a hall of mirrors. Each repetition
warps into the implacable
green depths: from

exodus to diaspora, holy to just, crusade to massacre, holocaust to al-nahkba.

And I imagine that other long line
_____wending its way out of Lydda. The bodies
__________in the temple. The fingers that
______________followed orders (Who is
__________________for the LORD?) The impossible
______________________return, buried
__________________________in a history
______________________________held up before itself,
__________________________________bared and feral.

VII. The Golden Calf

I wonder sometimes if these words
are like the golden calf: molten,
as in a flame, and shaped
by doubt.

If they were pulled from my fingers
and cast into
the fire like incantations,
when my sentence was lost

in the high mountains. As though
through these letters I relinquish
myself from what was promised,
step into the page

and make myself new gods.

 

Gabriel Fine is a writer and poet from Colorado currently living in Brooklyn. He has received support from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and his nonfiction has appeared in Spin and the Los Angeles Review of Books. “What Was Promised” is his first published poem.


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

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