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John Canaday

John Canaday has published poems in New England Review, The Paris Review, Raritan, and Slate, among other journals and anthologies. His first book-length collection of poems, The Invisible World, was chosen by Sherod Santos for the 2001 Walt Whitman Award and will be published by Louisiana State University Press in spring 2002. He is also a winner of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in Playwriting and the New Millennium Poetry Award, and he has been the Starbuck Fellow in Poetry at Boston University, a Watson Fellow in England, and a tutor to the Royal Family in Jordan.

He has a PhD in English, teaches playwriting at Harvard Summer School, and tutors students in the Boston area in writing, literature, history, physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics. His critical study, The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombs, was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2000. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

By This Poet


The Empty Quarter

In early spring, here in the Rub 'al Khali, 
Gabriel swings his goad over the humped backs 
of swollen clouds. They roar like angry camels 
and thunder toward the fields of the fellahin. 
At night, I dream of grass so green it speaks. 
But at noon, even the dry chatter of djinn 
leaves the wadis. The sun lowers its bucket, 
though my body is the only well for miles. 
A dropped stone calls back from the bottom 
with the voice of a starving locust: Make it 
your wish, habibi, and the rain will walk 
over the dry hills of your eyes on tiptoes 
as the poppies weave themselves into a robe 
to mantle the broad shoulders of the desert. 
The words uncoil like smoke from a smothered fire, 
rising leisurely out of me as though to mark 
where a castaway has come aground at last. 
And yet I have not spoken. My voice limps 
on old bones, its legs too dry and brittle
to leap like a barking locust into song. 
But I imagine what was said or might 
be said by some collective throat about 
the plowman loving best the raw, turned earth, 
or the caliph longing for his desert lodge, 
where ghoulem whisper like the wind at prayer, 
and poppies bow their gaudy heads toward Mecca, 
each one mumbling a different word for dust.

Song of Myself

I am a stubborn ox dreaming 
of rain as the drover's fingers drum 
around my eyes. But no: the wet 
hum of flies distracted me, 
and now the plow has drifted from 
the line I meant to follow. See 
where the damp leather of the reins 
has worn the callus on my left 
forefinger raw? Or was it the dry, 
ash handle of my hoe? I can hear 
the steel head singing as it strikes 
rocky ground, the fresh-turned earth 
swallowing showers of sparks. The tip 
of my tongue goes dry. I touch my lips 
to the soil as I once touched you, here 
and there. A single knot of dirt 
crumbles slowly in my mouth 
with the taste of sweet butter dripping 
from your thumb. This ground will raise 
a heavy crop. I am the wheat 
that flowed around your waist like water. 
I am that lonely knot of earth.


Amman sprawls, sun-struck, on seven 
hills, like a latter-day Rome, only 
less so. It was, in fact, once Roman, 
as the ruined theater downtown attests, 
but today the grown children of sheikhs 
drive herds of camel-colored 
Mercedes down the steep wadis. 
These castoffs of the rich Gulf nations 
bellow in the narrow streets of the souk, 
where the voices of gold and silver 
merchants buzz in their beehive shops. 
The cries of muezzins from a dozen mosques 
buzz likewise on the outer hills, 
blunting their stings against the double-
glazing of the wealthy. A water peddler 
hawks the sweat of his brow in a neighborhood 
frosted with roses. How wild, how strange 
it all seems, as exotic as a rose 
thrown in the face of a thirsty man.