Song of Myself
I am a stubborn ox dreaming
of rain as the drover's fingers drum
around my eyes. But no: the wet
hum of flies distracted me,
and now the plow has drifted from
the line I meant to follow. See
where the damp leather of the reins
has worn the callus on my left
forefinger raw? Or was it the dry,
ash handle of my hoe? I can hear
the steel head singing as it strikes
rocky ground, the fresh-turned earth
swallowing showers of sparks. The tip
of my tongue goes dry. I touch my lips
to the soil as I once touched you, here
and there. A single knot of dirt
crumbles slowly in my mouth
with the taste of sweet butter dripping
from your thumb. This ground will raise
a heavy crop. I am the wheat
that flowed around your waist like water.
I am that lonely knot of earth.
Al Badr Street
Each night at eight my neighbor hacks and spits
a lump of sputum from deep in his lungs,
like an old, mad rooster greeting the moon.
All day the air was a blunt instrument
weighted with sunlight, but now colors rise
slowly from hollows, from under the stones,
with the gentleness of roses unfolding
in the warm shadow of a concrete wall.
I step out into the street. The moon floats,
huge, swollen with cold, above the desert.
A stray cat stutters on the filthy lip
of a dumpster. The late light streaks its fur
with rust. A flight of pigeons dips and swirls
as someone whistles from a nearby roof.
Bells shiver at their throats: a ghost of rain.
A shepherd flings a stone, a curse, urging
his flock down the street toward a vacant lot.
Dark wool surrounds me like a cloud of dust.
These moments in another man's routine
are my epiphanies. God seems always
about to speak. My neighbor crows again.
I can imagine, almost, I'm at home.
The Seventh Circle
In Umm Udhayna, roses lean like drunkards
on the soft shoulders of the evening air.
Their flushed lips mouth
the desert suns ebullient babble.
Were I to speak, I fear my voice
would pool on the dry surface of things.
The caked earth swallows nothing.
All day revelation drifts
like flakes of fire from the cloudless sky,
until the very bushes in my garden
blaze with eidetic exclamations,
and the burning dust hums
with the muffled voice of God.
When the earth turns its back
on the sun again, as fickle and predictable
as you or I, the solitary rocks unfold
collars of shadow in the sudden chill.
They hunch like con men jealously
guarding the artifice of their rigged shell-games.
I would wager the silt and ashes of my flesh
for one glimpse of the withered pea
called faith. Here it is, the dust cries,
and, yes, there it is, indeed, one moment, perched
like a pearl on a bivalve tongue,
or like a plastic Christ lapped in the crèches
tinderbox of straw. I cup both hands
to my ears, wishing to drown out all sound
but this: the ocean murmuring its distant
heave and sigh, and in that slow, heavy seiche,
the camels, white as butter, and the goats
as they begin to speak.
The Empty Quarter
In early spring, here in the Rub 'al Khali,
Gabriel swings his goad over the humped backs
of swollen clouds. They roar like angry camels
and thunder toward the fields of the fellahin.
At night, I dream of grass so green it speaks.
But at noon, even the dry chatter of djinn
leaves the wadis. The sun lowers its bucket,
though my body is the only well for miles.
A dropped stone calls back from the bottom
with the voice of a starving locust: Make it
your wish, habibi, and the rain will walk
over the dry hills of your eyes on tiptoes
as the poppies weave themselves into a robe
to mantle the broad shoulders of the desert.
The words uncoil like smoke from a smothered fire,
rising leisurely out of me as though to mark
where a castaway has come aground at last.
And yet I have not spoken. My voice limps
on old bones, its legs too dry and brittle
to leap like a barking locust into song.
But I imagine what was said or might
be said by some collective throat about
the plowman loving best the raw, turned earth,
or the caliph longing for his desert lodge,
where ghoulem whisper like the wind at prayer,
and poppies bow their gaudy heads toward Mecca,
each one mumbling a different word for dust.
The Ninth Month
"This is the book in which there is no doubt."
The imam’s nasal certainty enthralls
the faithful, and I mimic their delight,
touching my forehead to the frayed prayer rug
until the oils and unguents of my brow
shine like an offering on the clotted wool.
He might as well be calling, "Simon says . . ."
and me slow as an insect dipped in honey.
Everything I do or think seems backwards.
I wish I had not stopped here, however much
the mosque sashayed oasis-like on the rough
volcanic plain, its pale-blue, blistered walls
limpid and trembling in the liquid heat,
a concrete mirror of my thirst. But when
the muezzin’s muddy call came laboring
from a loudspeaker balanced clumsily above
the door, I longed to hear Muhammad’s voice,
swollen with holy words, his syllables
slurred by the fermented honey Gabriel
had poured into his ears. The thought of such food
sent tremors through my belly, which had gone
empty of everything but breath all day.
How does the saying go? In Ramadan,
the fast begins when white thread can be told
from black. So, like a tourist in this house
of hunger, I put by food to savor words.
Or should I say, their sounds? Or the idea
of what escapes me when I hear them spoken?
"Hamdullilah"—Thanks be to God—I know
enough to echo unfamiliar sounds and not
to eat left-handed, hold a holy book
below my belt, or pray with unclean feet.
Stiff-necked, I raise my head. The imam’s words
flutter their chitinous wings in my empty gut.
I open my parched mouth and hear, or think
I hear, a kind of song, like the glacial drip
of the fouwara in the mosque’s courtyard:
a song, indeed, after the dust of sight-
seeing among the Caliph’s desert castles
where the wind shrills through narrow windows keen
as locusts humming on the Baptist’s tongue.
Here, on the verge of milk and honey, nothing
grows as plentifully as words. Even the goats
and camels speak more often than they feed,
or so I fancy in this long ninth month
of taming my own capricious appetite,
imagining their gossip by the manger,
never doubting their mouths are full of seeds.
it ain't the heat
he says. Who'd disagree? The air
is ripe with possibility.
Dog breath. Stale beer. His own sour flesh.
He rubs his brow on a damp sleeve
then heaves a plastic tub over
the tailgate. Dab and amberjack,
sea robin, grunt. His belly falls
over his belt like a slow surge
of summer light.
Where is our native genius in
all this? Where is Lawrence's "clean"
desert? And where the clarity
of a landscape made of single
grains of sand? The rhythms and the
rhymes of excess haunt the larder
of American poetics.
Later, propped on his own back stoop,
he shucks fish viscera on spread
pages of the Boston Herald.
They rustle like a field of corn
on whose horizon a picture
snapped in the Holy Land last night
catches his eye: a city bus
blown inside out, still smoldering.
A few survivors turn their blank
eyes to the camera. No one
speaks. Only the disembodied
narrator drones on about the
victims and their families and
a stranger in a tweed coat stitched
with pipe-bombs and arid motives.
At this distance, what is there to say?
How can he feel, high in the nose,
the acrid loss, the blasphemous
reek of burnt flesh? His own flesh melts
in the day's swelter and lapses
back into life. The thick air rolls
a salty word on its tongue, then
slowly, smacking its lips, swallows.