Brother on the threshing floor, body like wheat,
and the red dirt that binds us, that nothing will release us
from. The fig tree, the date palm, the treacherous murder
unleashed into us now, the call blazing from vanity’s lungs,
jutting us to a future of mindless rain, wayward blizzards
of sand and snow. We were born to ward off this desolation
that grinds mountains into floss, bores into our books
for a whim that ordains blood, our blood
and others, our sisters, mothers. Without such fear
who will we be? What will we do without
this aching chord, without the bright morning that tore
the silver’s towers? Fire and the parched red dirt
that binds, the water stolen from our wells,
a black magic dredging the lower rungs of earth.
We dream of clover. The soft scent of young lambs
is the first letter of our alphabet, and the prophets
who tighten ropes around their waists to stifle hunger's
pangs, supplicant brows seeking light from earth’s core.
What will we do without the angel’s voice, a tide
sending us heavenward, a harmattan ushering us into the hell
of its lows. How can we live without such turbulent hope?
How can we accept the certainty of our quiet graves?
How can we stop waiting to witness the Lord’s face?
And what will we do without the hardened gaze?
The girls walk past, hair fluttering like commas
between poems of musk, a dream of touch like water
gently falling on smooth, warm stone.
What will we do without the anemones’ mournful dirge
stroking the dagger’s spine and the gelding’s nightmares.
Our hatred for our scoured hands, our love of the moment
when the sun drops only for our eyes? Who else will hear
birdsong as prayer, who will cleanse himself with the stroke
of sand? Who keeps the earth rotating with praise
of your name? And what will this spinning,
hurtling mean without our voices shouldering it
toward some ripe, sweetened pause?
What will you do, dear God, without us? How
will you fare, alone again in the empty vast, in the dark
of your creation, without us giving you your name?
Copyright © 2019 by Khaled Mattawa. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 20, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,
the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark's shadow,
that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor
the plangent harps of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,
and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages
looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,
brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw
of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?
Sir, it is locked in them sea-sands
out there past the reef's moiling shelf,
where the men-o'-war floated down;
strop on these goggles, I'll guide you there myself.
It's all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,
past the gothic windows of sea-fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;
and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,
and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,
and that was Lamentations—
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;
then came, like scum on the river's drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,
and at evening, the midges' choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God
as His son set, and that was the New Testament.
Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves' progress,
and that was Emancipation—
jubilation, O jubilation—
as the sea's lace dries in the sun,
but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;
then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,
fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,
and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns
and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo
of History, really beginning.
"The Sea Is History" from Selected Poems by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 2007 by Derek Walcott. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.