On a walk past bulldozers and trucks
pouring tarmac for the NJ Eisenhower highway
my grandmother said to me as we turned
into a market with olive barrels, hanging
meat, piles of sumac and coriander—
“he shakes away my blues.” It was 1959,
and what did I know about starving
in the Syrian desert or the Turkish whips
that lashed the bodies of Armenian
women on the roads of dust. I wouldn’t
have believed that she saw
those things. The radio
was always on the sink in my grandmother’s
kitchen. “He’s a whirling dervish” she said—
whirling dervish—the whoosh of the phrase
stayed with me. I too felt his trance—
even then—as she pounded spices
with a brass mortar and pestle.
The air on fire under him
the red clay of Macon dusting his bones.
What did I know about Sufism
Sister Rosetta or bird feet at the Royal Peacock?
In the yard the bittersweet is drying up,
the berries turning gold and red.
The way memory deepens with light.
His shaking gospel voice. The heart
going up in flames. My grandmother
survived the worst that humans do.
Copyright © 2022 by Peter Balakian. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 9, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.