Babylons (Part 2) by Michael Barrett
The birds have gone south on cue, my beloved
withholds his eyes and still I’m pinned
to the cedar, pierced by compass arrows.
Without his face the landscape wounds;
I wander in the reach of images,
fifteen miles from water to water
and a taste only for wine. My love
travels through winter while I search
for fall, hair mixing in leaves
at my feet. Lost, I look six
ways from Sunday hunting down his
desire—the body’s map, rooms
of memory, or my throat exposed
in receiving—but read instead
the tally of market laws that place
me here without change. I strip
to feel his points sooner,
suffer in labor of an idea
which continually bears itself.
He offers progeny vast as
the desert, wealth as fierce: I burn
in his promise. He shows me Babylon,
then disappears to teach patience
to the captive of his veil: the dark
heals my limbs. I lie at the third gate
and see a woman come as a ghost in
a rose garden. Near a stream where men sit
and weep, she blooms. I watch in silence
and envy, wake, anxious for home,
blind, the sun dawning in all directions.
Two men meet at crossroads: a traveler
and a dervish. The latter asks that his
drinking bowl be filled. “Speak,” says the traveler,
“I am thirsty as well.” Pebbles
follow them here, sucked smooth, marking
a path in the sand, a line.
The dervish spits his out, fixes an eye
on the horizon’s frame, adjusts his tattered
cloak. “Suppose seven men sit in a circle
and divide grazing rights and daughters.
Coals warm their coffee. A wind knocks
their tent down and it becomes flames.
They are burned beyond recognition. Who
names their bodies so that claims can
be settled?” The traveler considers
this a riddle having to do with days
of the week, whether God has memory
or the way Gertrude Bell kept notes.
The wives come to her and she tells them where
to find their husbands: she has it written down.
The women leave weeping. Bell falls asleep
with a pen in her mouth, journal on her lap,
Foreign Office documents at her feet,
archaeological reports beneath
her wicker chair. Suppose when she wakes
she can’t remember her dream about a
frustrated man with pebbles in his pockets
he throws, sometimes, at birds that fly disturb-
ingly low. He walks out of the blue
into a background wide as kinescope.
He believes he once had a home
because he misses his mother. She’s dead.
He sucks a pebble. The road takes a
body, the horizon a face: occasionally
his, bearing often an uncanny
resemblance to ideas. None tell him
how to orate this travelogue, though he
practices with a full mouth. A falcon
among owls, he’s in the wrong glory,
the wrong sky. The further he walks
the more he forgets. What’s left of
experience is pennies on the dollar—
coins passed along and effaced where once
were tiny copper wings. This is not an
allegory of love or death—he’d like
it to be—nor pleasing, although
desire brands each foot fall.
His trail is sand script, desert writing.
Memory leads, faithless but the only
account he has of himself. If
its corpses are summoned, standing
without ornament before him, the horizon
will yawn. He won’t know if he’s coming
or going. Maybe his arrival moves
from the future to meet him. When
it appears, he’ll know where he left from.
That would be his homecoming. Then he’d
find himself in a field of green,
hearing, at last, the faintest ring
of peals from some distant, bitter, bell.
The telephone rings Marshall out of a dream,
not about catching a rock edge
in a slide down water or granite,
nor the woman of whom he writes
as a drunk man would. It is not
a weightless trek through his childhood
home dislodged, disfigured by age
and real estate brokerage, the front
door staged between audience and props
for oncoming scenes. He doesn’t know
the next lines and his mother Marcia’s not
there to prompt him. Like me, he forgets as
soon as he answers the call. His sister
is on the other end: she’s forgotten
why she called, so they speak for hours
improvising on silence. This is how
it goes, sex strings the subjects together.
He gazes outside as he speaks:
streets, tracks, wires spread across the pane,
geometry partitions the morning,
writes its business as weight-bearing
wing structure ready to lift off the glass.
Their talk continues out of time,
the black sea dreams part,
words are a kind of exodus, invention
is forgetting and he refuses
to have his position categorized,
wishes only to keep talking through wars,
economies, loves and windows until
he tires of other voices and hangs up.
News spreads itself as names—The East,
Near East, Farther East, Middle East
(the sick man of Europe)—latitudes
of trade routes, the Baghdad Railway project,
longitudinal. “Geography is
an eye of history,” astrology
read in light of Germany, France, England—
ordinated spheres of influence—“They
move as borders, charter your goods
as long as they change your name,”
Sumeria, Mesopotamia, Iraq:
shaded groves on a chart, black and white
ordnance caught in American
video, broadcast over fourteen
channels—multiplied—soon to be
a movie with the setting, if not
scope of Lawrence of Arabia.
Wanting to fly from a middle age
crisis like the Jew, Arab, Englishman
across this space. The first looks for
settlements of his kind; the second
for hospitality and Mecca, the last
for advantageous maps, history’s
Anglo smile, the turn of the Euphrates.
“The River that cometh running
through Paradys” runs through them—
those who went looking there, those who
imagined they did and made it up for others,
a tightly knit cast of ten thousand years,
when one sneezes, they all get sick.
“I stammer with pleurisy, wondering
why, instead of getting up I don’t lie
down and die.” On her bed, “The museum
a short walk from my head board,” rose
bush at the foot. “I woke to Arab
graffiti on alabaster columns,”
after a nightmare of fossils in flint.
“The mosques rage on the word mandate,”
the problem with the translation, “not
the word itself.” In reprisal, bombs drop:
“the impossible angles of
politics.” “I had,” divided by love
“a general feeling,” and regulation,
“I was slipping into great gulfs.”
Mountain-climbing in the Alps, Bell
gains her metaphor, strengthens her hold,
“hanging by my eyelids over
an abyss.” Her first vision of Persia
split her, “Here I am not I,” as I
cannot be, “it’s like writing to
an idea, a dream,” until we live
there long enough, write back to families
who’ve become fantasy. We’re fastened
to directions that turn clockwise
ahead of us as we move, “in the chains
I live in, it’s right to bear them
easily.” She’s on a rock in Babylon.
I strain to see her rise, a jinn from
personal papers, before words bury her,
“A last greeting to the distant present.”
My niece greets me by pointing to objects
she’s named, refusing to say mine,
despite coaxing her since a few days old.
She runs from room to room showing
me things I helped my brother move
to a house with a bigger yard,
three miles from where we grew up, four
years from our mother’s death when South
America seemed the cure to
homesickness. She presses her face
to the back window and begins
a chant of syllables she understands
the world to be. It opens for her as
it opened for me, hungry at each edge,
staring at the cedar she tries to
fit inside. It grows in an exotic
grove outside the self peopled with
characters who dance in pain or pleasure—
we decide which until taken by our
own—what we seem to share shards of,
law written in its lack, the father’s
legacy to his poor sons and daughters.
Do others starve from absence? Do
we wait until everyone’s fed before
we turn the material over, dis-
mantle its administration,
air our hunger in the sky that’s
travel map, flight path, horizon?
Will we know it’s the same then or
doesn’t pain those who die instantly?
What happens when you can’t hear through
the tumult of bloodlines winding loudly
around your skull? Your headaches are
critical, force you into bed with others—
Marcia’s there. And Marshall. His sister? She’s
in America writing. Gertrude Bell’s
not in this poem. There’s a chance she
may be a virgin. No one knows—
the fact’s withheld. Biography’s
another fiction that falls now
in our reading: the vacuum of the lived.
“It might be found down here,” my knees
on a dirty floor. I’m waiting
for your call. Who had previously
been an unfaithful woman out of grace,
then a man with four faces, not enough
to nurse the stars, but plenty to
talk incessantly. Now, you’re quiet in
the company of ghosts and saints,
a strange marriage of suffering
and joy that crosses our flesh while
we wander in chains of substitution,
the rattling search for the familiar.
Sometimes, being chaste and forsaken is
the same thing—a virtue. The wind
beats on my window, the telephone’s off
the hook, the room’s empty—stations marked
by sign and number. They’re in a circle
around me. I stop at each one,
remember, will settle for appeasement.
He moves like Kovrin’s monk across
the steppe, his mind elsewhere. He
fingers a rosary, in his breast pocket
a bible, and letter addressed
to a merchant’s son in Odessa. It
asks that the beggar be booked passage to
Constantinople. From there he’ll ride
with goods on a ship to the Holy Land,
as Hugo Bell will, later, with Gertrude.
The anonymous pilgrim steps in time
with breath, his heart, engines
his will, pulls him toward Irkutsk, one
bead at a time. His understanding be-
comes an expanse that diminishes him
in perspective: poverty of the road
is sufficient condition for
humility, solitude profits
the soul in unrest. A bag of dried bread,
bark jug, an ounce of salt’s enough for
revolution the kingdom of heaven
promises. His mouth moves in his sleep,
praying. The dead starets taught him
this in a dream; often he reappears
and tells him what to read. In Odessa
he meets a banker who speaks of trouble
in Crimea, blood feuds in Palestine,
strikes in Chicago. Via telegraph.
The pilgrim finds the right address. The house
is shuttered. The son is dead. His widow
meets the beggar on the steps, sends him on his way.
You do not ask about ships docked
in the harbor, head north again,
relieved by the unworthiness
that empties you for ecstasy,
readies you for the bridal chamber.
You’ll be taken there in a shower
of light, a daughter sacrificed
when the son won’t do, a vessel
rising in tides of corruption—
what floods this world out carries you
closer to the voice that commanded it.
You listen to walls for their message,
leave no bones, only the account
of your travels, a monastery:
each cell holds a story of providence,
peasants whose paths you crossed, throats you
blessed, gardens you tended in exchange
for food. Architecture is narrative.
You are text. No Jews here, they’ll remain
unconverted until from Babylon
the clamor of discourse comes,
shatters into practice of the dying
day, a brilliant profusion of theories,
dusk even sense won’t swallow.
The noise agitates the sky. It swells with
indifference, darkens unceremoniously.
You are content, my friend, cloistered
in certitude, laid out below the deck
repeating three words you’ve been reduced to,
at peace, waiting for the rain to fall.
Click here to continue