Basra, Baghdad, 2016

Down the side of a yellow plastic soap dish, struggling
in soap muck, one of those tiny black ants
that can find a crack in the invisible
flees from the AK of my shadow, and looks
about to spring into the unparted Red Sea
of scum and froth that slimes its feelers
as it rubs and rubs its body
like a tarnished lamp with a genie inside
waiting to pour out in a cloud of diesel-smoke
from the refineries in Basra
before resolving into a human shape of fire:

could the ant be a sultan bewitched 
into the body of an ant? Is that why I hear it say,
Genie, build me a palace!
And in just one night, the genie builds
the Green Zone, it builds what the diplomats
call “the anthill”: two Olympic
swimming pools, tennis courts, the D-Fac,
barracks and offices for contractors and Marines,
the gym’s row on row of elliptical machines,
my block of prefab trailers behind twenty-foot-high blast walls
and protected by a corrugated steel roof against incoming
so that it’s always five p.m. no matter the time of day.

My sultan stars at its bewitched body
like body armor it can’t take off reflected
in the shallow sea inside the soap dish.
above my head, crossing the craters and shell holes
of a ceiling tile, a red ant rubs the lamp of its own body.
first wish: to be the slingstone
muttering to the wound in Goliath’s forehead.
Second wish: to trick the invaders into flying away
on the magic carpet of an IED.
Third wish: to make the blast walls vanish
so there’s no Green Zone, only a Red Zone.

But now my sultan staggers as if drugged,
moving like a patient moves in a locked psych ward,
some neurotoxin is destroying the genie
inside the sultan’s brain, it staggers up the soap dish,
balances woozily on the rim, and then falls into water,
legs and feelers waving weakly until I lift it free 
on my finger, wondering if it’s going to die, and set it down
on the formica where the sultan lurches and jerks along
and vanishes into the crack between sink and mirror.

First wish: to keep away the Annihilator.
Second wish: to speak the language of the wound.
Third wish: to trick the genie back into the lamp.

Originally published in House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Sleigh. Used with the permission of the poet.