Near the Shrine of Saint Naum

translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid

I stood in the red church,
its tiny domes like buds
blossoming in stone,
I stood near the saint’s resting place
while a tourist laid her cheek on the tombstone
to hear his beating heart.
But I was no tourist,
and the saint left the room with me,
and the church the builders wrote in his memory
was nothing more
than a passing dream in his eternal sleep.

The tourists come in vain,
as do the believers.



قرب مرقد القدّيس ناعوم في مقدونيا


وَقَفْتُ في الكَنيسة الحَمْراء 
بِقِبابِها الصَّغيرةِ مِثْلَ بَراعِمَ مُتَفَتّحةٍ في الحَجَر
وَقَفْتُ قُرْبَ مَرْقَدِ القِدّيس
السّائحةُ تَضَعُ خَدَّها على بَلاطَةِ الضَّريح لِتَسْمَعَ نَبْضَ قَلْبِه
لَسْتُ سائحاً مِثْلَها 
،القِدّيسُ غادَرَ مَعي الحُجْرةَ
والكَنيسةُ التي كَتَبَها البَنّاؤون في ذِكْراه 
كانت حُلُماً صَغيراً في رَقْدَتِه

عَبثاً يَصِلُ السّائحونَ 

Related Poems


Everyone knew the water would rise,
but nobody knew how much.
The priest at Santa Croce said, God
will not flood the church.
When the Arno broke its banks,
God entered as a river, let His mark high
above the altar.
He left nothing untouched:
stones, plaster, wood.
You are all my children.
The hem of His garment, which was
the river’s bottom sludge,
swept through Florence, filling cars and cradles,
the eyes of marble statues,
even the Doors of Paradise. And the likeness
of His son’s hands, those pierced palms soaked
with water, began to peel like skin.
The Holy Ghost appeared
as clouds of salted crystals
on the faces of saints, until the intonaco
of their painted bodies stood out from the wall as if
they had been resurrected.

This is what I know of restoration:
in a small room near San Marco,
alone on a wooden stool
nearly every day for a year,
I painted squares of blue on gessoed boards—
cobalt blue with madder rose, viridian,
lamp black—pure pigments and the strained yolk
of an egg, then penciled notes about the powders,

the percentages of each. I never asked
to what end I was doing what I did, and now
I’ll never know. Perhaps there was one square
that matched the mantle of a penitent, the stiff
hair of a donkey’s tail, a river calm beneath a bridge.
I don’t even know what I learned,
except the possibilities of blue, and how God enters.

Entering Saint Patrick’s Cathedral

I have carried in my coat, black wet 
with rain. I stand. I clear my throat.

My coat drips. The carved door closes
on its slow brass hinge. City noises— 

car horns, bicycle bells, the respiration
truck engines, the whimpering 

steel in midtown taxi brakes—bend
in through the doorjamb with the wind 

then drop away. The door shuts plumb: it seals
the world out like a coffin lid. A chill, 

dampened and dense with the spent breath
of old Hail Marys, lifts from the smoothed

stone of the nave. I am here to pay
my own respects, but I will wait: 

my eyes must grow accustomed
to church light, watery and dim.

I step in. Dark forms hunch forward
in the pews. Whispering, their heads 

are bowed, their mouths pressed
to the hollows of clasped hands. 

High overhead, a gathering of shades
glows in stained glass: the resurrected 

mingle with the dead and martyred
in panes of blue, green, yellow, red. 

Beneath them lies the golden holy 
altar, holding its silence like a bell,

and there, brightly skeletal beside it,
the organ pipes: cold, chrome, quiet 

but alive with a vibration tolling
out from the incarnate 

source of holy sound. I turn, shivering
back into my coat. The vaulted ceiling 

bends above me like an ear. It waits:
I hold my tongue. My body is my prayer.

In Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy . . . ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t believe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Mohammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me . . . and I forgot, like you, to die.