Issue 157, Winter 2000
Is this what comes from wanting to make art
out of the Middle East's sunbaked back streets?
Or from some larger inability
ever to escape one's foible-ridden self?
God knows I've tried. You judge with what success.
Wherever one begins, it's soon apparent
that the living water he imbibed years since
still seethes like a smothered fountain in his gut.
So what? No harm was done, one might well say.
And how could he have spurned the proffered cup,
though cracked and pitted, bearing traces of
God knows how many lips besides his own,
without an unforgivable hauteur?
He felt like an ambassador of sorts,
albeit penned in tourist class. He thought
he had a nation's honor to uphold.
Or maybe it was something to live down.
Sometimes he sensed his shadow gesturing
behind his back, though whether swaggering
like John Wayne's ample shade toward center stage
or shrinking from the midday desert sun
that spotlit all of his deformities,
he couldn't tell. He tried to shrug it off.
Week ends, he'd brave the natives' knowing looks
and circumnavigate the neighborhood.
At first, he merely smiled and nodded left
and right; then, feeling bolder, "Marhaba,"
says he, in a hearty tone. He butchered it,
of course. But still a voice replied: "Ahlain."
"Be welcome here." And where was that, you ask?
Let's say, half living room and half front yard.
Though in the New World it would not have passed
for more than weed-strewn dirt on which some soul
had spread an old wool rug between the road
and what his foreign eyes had misconstrued
at first glance as a cinder-block toolshed.
Should I apologize for his mistake?
Dilate my sympathies again? No thanks.
It took this long to separate myself
from him. And as for those romantic sots
who cant of "tranquil recollections" —well,
they only half-remember what went on.
For all their prattling of things sublime,
they far prefer soft-focus memories,
their mental lenses hazy with a scrim
of Vaseline. Just bring them cheek by jowl
with human bestiality and watch
them build an artful firewall of words.