Issue 162, Summer 2002
And who will stand in His Holy place?
Those with clean palm.s and pure of heart.
Ri'e yazmin . . . —Shmuel HaNagid
Lejana y sola.
Jaca negra, luna grande,
y aceitunas en mi alforja.
Aunque sepa los caminos
yo nunca llegare a Cordoba.
—Federico Garcia Lorca
Madinat al-Zahra—wasn't that the name
of my jasmine ruin, my source of jasmine
when, trailing Lorca and the Sephardim,
I'd gone to feast my eyes on Southern Spain?
I was ogling Cordoba, lejana y sola:
its fleets of low white buildings shot with sun,
the mosque disfigured by a Christian cupola,
the synagogue intact, complete with psalms—
but there were rumors from Alf Laylah Walaylah
of red-gold stags and falcons dripping gems,
floors, whose leaf motifs, coral and ivory,
embraced tenacious lapis pentagrams . . .
Surely I had to splurge for a taxi?
When would I ever be that close again?
(I never dreamed a book of Hebrew poetry—
Shmuel HaNagid, a new translation—
would offer me its name from the introduction.)
When I got there, it was completely overgrown . .
I suppose that's how I came upon that jasmine—
my first jasmine—growing wild
on a hillside where a palace should have been;
my Blue Guide's promises were not fulfilled.
There were olive trees, grasses to my thigh,
a couple of marble columns, but no gold,
no walls inlaid with ivory, jasper, ebony . . .
I'd read too fast; that lush description
was only of long vanished luxury:
the golden bestiary—where each pearl or jewel
defining every eye or feather or mane
would repeat itself in droplets as they rose and fell
around the central courtyard's massive fountain—
had long been ravaged, with its fountain's marble
(chiseled in Damascus, ocean-green).
Nothing at all was left of the reception hall
for foreign envoys, whose affairs of state
dissolved into the quicksilver reflecting pool
that shattered any passing glint of light
into a hundred-thousand feats of incandescence . .
The one vestige of the dense, elaborate
daily apparatus of magnificence
(a hundred loaves a day just for the fish
in ornamental ponds . . .) was a fragrance,
an intoxicating fragrance, subtle and lavish,
at least to this itinerant self-deceiver,
thrilled when her own flawed world would vanish
in the face of any rickety leftover
from some lost—hence inexhaustible—domain . . .
I was always a born shill, a believer;