To the Embalmers

G. C. Waldrep

i.m. Mahmoud Darwish

I went into the desert for the velvet flesh of two white fish.
And when the heat of the desert was withdrawn from me
I settled my chair by my heart’s black flame. A shepherd
taught me the echo of the stars’ exquisite math which sounds
in the night like a mesquite blossom. Small and golden

I approached the bridge I had left inside the unfinished book
where my faith lay dammed. Dip your finger in the rods
and cones of the desert’s perfect eye, all who could not die
were singing up to me. There is no “final rose,” I replied,
only a succession of beds on which the clouds take their blue

rest. In the arroyos a trickle of honey gathered in search
of the bees that had chained it to a prayer. I gazed into it
and saw my name spelled again in the worn boards
of a pine floor, a stitched cloth over which the brass gears
of my father’s war presided. My father went into the desert

for a new flag to drape over the sleeping body of my mother,
who had rubbed salt and cumin into the twin clefs
of her neck and shoulders after she, impoverished, received
the emperor’s summons. Now I ask the moon to testify
to my body’s chill, the unaccompanied music that bandages

the return of the dead. I have no patience and the almond
cake is bitter on my tongue. What am I to call you
when I see you freshly clothed in the catenaries of swallows?
I who chose exile from the land’s sleep-script, its strange
harvest borne upward by a wind from deep inside the earth.

If I go there now I will find another poet in my house
from which my Christ has wandered, a shadow falling clean
across the sea’s torn hem. I will follow Him into the smallest
wilderness. There is no Babylon like the soul’s Babylon,
its hanging garden wreathed in the voices of created things.

Strike the pen from my hand if I have misunderstood how
the dust returns to us, through the smallest dances.
In the coasts of my adoption I grow colder, I cross my chest
with a map of all the sun has denied. The temples lie
behind me now as the bodies of women. Breathe on me,

my childhood in the lost city of love. Let me be the only
casualty, the waking wound towards which the forest
of my fading heat is climbing. This is the basket I have plaited
for you, from strips torn out of the oldest monographs,
with the ocotillo’s passion. Beneath me, buried in rubble,

a silver is waiting to be born into such commerce as belief
may lend. You may name it for my body when you
meet it by day at the judgment seat, by night on the narrow
road that sheathes my brother-song, green with pine
boughs I have stolen from death and death’s trine passage.

G. C. Waldrep is a poet whose books include The Earliest Witnesses and feast gently, winner of the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. Waldrep lives in Lewisburg, PA, where he teaches at Bucknell University.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


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