40 Martyrs Church, Aleppo
A deacon points to each saint,
identifies well known iconography in cracked French:
St. John with his head on a platter, St. George and the dragon,
Mary with Jesus and the Baptist, St. Joseph, the Last Judgment,
the altar and the pulpit.
The patriarch, Gregorius, severe Armenian,
as if he expected to bear crosses
buried beneath his feet,
the fourth-century entombed
strata below these medieval stones
and the rest massacred.
Once remembered here.
Near the door, a vase of flowers riffled for one red carnation
handed to me without apparent thought for history.
Early March haze barely hides the sun
strong enough to make a donkey blink
as it climbs the ramparts of the castle and bows
its head under a pannier full of cola bottles
prodded from behind to find the rough grid
meant for Arabian stallions passing by two pairs
of stone lions, one laughing and one crying
at the ceremonial casket laid in state, St. George
taken from the crusades and entombed;
having risen to heaven, he’s left an empty box
draped in green silks, woven in local looms
perhaps on the main avenue of the castle’s
now shuttered souks beside empty cisterns
bleak as prisons. Arrows at right angles
mounted, difficult to imagine flying as torture
in the porcelain pots shaken from earthquakes
and excavations. Scattered pieces, catapult
with cannon and there the eunuchs’ quarters,
like Allah inscribed in stone as witness
to what’s been done and can’t be restored.
Learning to Write in Two Languages
English requires space, asserted autonomy
in separate seats expected to fit average knees
and arms kept an understood distance
from neighbors, untouchable,
a caste kept to the exit rows on airplanes
assumes the necessity for order
before dislocated rivets and bones
break from bodies arbitrary as letters
standing alone in Arabic: A not S, O not N
set apart by design revealing where they are
not where they’re going. L nudging B or T,
squeezes their sides, physicality
taken for granted like bumping into people
and boys holding one another’s pinkies.
Elba in June Without Tourists
would have been preferable to Jehovah digging in his Old Testament heels,
nodding at the pillar of salt and spousal disobedience in Sodom, as if history
didn’t make Assad nervous enough, this pile of stones as read by an Italian
archaeologist could be the very stuff of war, or at least guerilla action,
the Massad sneaking across the border and scooping out new territory,
carrying off armfuls of Syria and rewriting it as if it were Roman.
All those clay tablets, records of what came in and what went out, words.
This Year’s Living Legend
Mario Vargas Llosa
bows his head
for a thick ribbon
with a shiny medal,
“I do not want to die dead,”
the weight on his chest
not to be mistaken
for his working heart.
He’s eighty this week–
his new novel
It’s no December Dean.
But discreet, like his hero
with plans, a rebel
to epitaphs of praise
for what’s past.