The Road to Mazar
They said the north was safe
and so I went, stepping through
the snakes of the Kabul airport, face
and body draped in burka blue,
the laced slit through which I looked
webbing a new world. Sun. Dust.
A moonscape. The Hindu Kush
rose and heaved like dragons, the twist
of their tails forged in scales and stark
rock asleep in the summer snow. Below, the plains
we drove through limbed rivers, dark
arms of bank and stream dreaming of rain
to make green the almond groves again.
Villages sprawled on the lower slopes, baked
in bricks of dried mud, their walls a balance beam
where small girls tottered, the red and yellow ache
of their dresses a fluttering kite brightness,
a wish to fly up and beyond the shimmer of desert,
beyond the caravan of hooves with its promise
of travel, a route to someplace secret
and safe as a grave. Time and distance waver:
back in the moment, in the back seat
where women ride, we climb and descend, shiver
through a tunnel as we cross the Salang Pass, stop to eat
next to a river where they serve fried trout,
the eyes and bones intact. My driver and guard
pour me tea and crouch on a tribal carpet.
They tell me to call them baradar, the Dari word
for brother. They have driven two days
to take me north. We smile, pay, go, the road
soon passing a Russian tank which bleeds
belly-up in the sand, its rusted guts hushed
like the rush of silence before the blast,
before the echo. Here’s history, parched and now: at a turn
in the road we arrive at the military checkpoint, slow
way down, park. The ISAF forces, their sunburned
foreign faces, search my hosts, my brothers,
their guns steady and ready to shoot. No one knows
who the good guys are, or the bad. The soldiers
take my passport, read, are polite to me but nervous,
asking in broken English, have I been kidnapped?
I say no.Then they wave us on our way and again
we are traveling the road to Mazar, that ancient city trapped
in intractable heat, its mosque a burning blue as the pigeons
rise like the high white notes from the muezzin’s prayer.
One brother says we’ll be there soon.
From my back seat, I look and look. The road to Mazar
goes on and on in the pale gold light of the afternoon.
The Wind of 120 Days
Fahim called it the wind of 120 days,
the Shamali steppes in the north of the country
broomed by the non-stop lash and squall
whipping the dust and sand
the same way on the first day of Nawruz,
the Afghan spring, the buzkashi players
whip and boot their horses
in order to grab the headless calf, its legs
cut off at the knees, and drop it
into a hole like a grave,
the hallal, the circle of justice.
The Taliban banned both Nawruz
and buzkashi, they banned
all games and music, they filled in the pool
in the UN compound but never
could they ban this: what Haroon
called poison but cheerfully:
if you eat it bit by bit, in time
you are immune. Eat it we did,
all day, a dry grit between the teeth;
we spat, coughed, swallowed, hacked;
our nostrils burned like dry ice
in a summer where before this storm
I had only seen one cloud alone
in a blue sky seething blue.
Now the sky had become invisible.
There was only the bomb-tick gray
of blown-up earth in a whirl that would not stop.
The burka and keffiyeh began to make sense
as a functional ideology here in a place
where the wind and its hammers
kept on pounding, nights, it howled
and ran through the corridors
banging on windows, knocking on doors,
and I awoke each morning to find myself
newly skinned in dust, despite
the heavy curtains and the rolls of rags
stuffed into cracks and chinks by Mrs. Gul,
the cleaning woman, whose name
meant Mrs. Flower. The flowers too
in the UN gardens drooped, the roses
and the almond trees, the grape vines
and the pergola, this almost Eden
suddenly shunned by the light and turned to tin.
Everyone’s spirits began to fail. Wasn’t it hard enough
to brave the heat the days the power went out,
or in winter, the cold, the snow, no water,
to know on the roads you could be stopped
at any time by any number of unknown
events, lucky and unlucky, as if luck
mattered here, where a shepherd might cross
the road with his goats or a donkey might balk,
despite the whipping, or the gold fish vendor
pushing his cart will lean in against
the bullet-proof glass and show you a bag
with a glimmer that swims, back and forth,
just as he sticks a bomb beneath the door, or maybe
a month from now, the women I sit with
at the break of the fast will be gunned down
on their way to meet a warlord, to ask
if he’ll let the girls of the village
attend the brand-new school.
How many of my Afghan friends apologized
they couldn’t invite me for dinner, they couldn’t
show me their homes, yet still Nazir,
the day I left, came to the UN compound
and brought his boys, identical twins, ages 4,
to show me, his pride like a lion in spite
of the tempest of dust and wind he had crossed
to make this trip, the storm to him a teacup. Nazir,
my driver and malim, my teacher. You
are the reason I even attempt this poem.
Poem for D.
Dangerous places do not phase you.
Afghanistan, for instance, with its summer
craze of heat and violence, still provides you
silence at night to write by, and stars
in a scattering like Oklahoma buckshot.
Devastating women. An invitation
from Mustafa to swim in the river
though you can’t accept, since under your shirt,
the tattoo of a cross from your college days
marks you as once born again.
Evenings now you go walking
round and round the UN compound
all alone on the gravel paths
in search of words and hedgehogs.
The muezzin sings the prayer.
Happy Birthday. Have I said I am sorry
you have nothing to drink,
and no one yet to drink it with?
The Light on a Journey is Ever Changing
I flew home across the Atlantic
days ago, the hours changing
hourly as the sea rolled over
black dunes and undercurrents,
a desert of water cold and wet
below the flight and the light
on a journey that is ever changing,
into the night of swinging stars,
western moonshine, a return
to the flat American prairie known
from the unknown of Kabul,
far-flung distant cousin, whose mountains
bristle around the city
like wire around the compound.
The stars patrol restlessly there
like the dog when I’m in the house
alone. Summer lightening flares like matches.
The Welsh ex-Special Ops beside me
lights a cigarette and sings a Kipling poem.
Sundays in Budapest
City of intrigue,
how can you still
hate Jews? I walk
the cat stone streets,
the Buda Hills for hours,
where invisible dogs bark
behind the closed
gates of intricate iron,
past the phonebox
where kurva zsido—
whore Jew— is painted across
a swastika. I’ve walked
to where the Jewish Cemetery
slumps into ruin,
the moss and ivy
spreading like secrets,
a rumor of ghosts
the names of families
fading like names
scratched by fingernails
into the brick sides
of a church, the holding pen
before the trains departed.
If I ask about the Holocaust,
even in Hungarian,
I’m still shushed,
just as I’m hushed now
crossing the Danube
where a testament of shoes
lines the concrete riverbank,
someone’s art: boots
fished up 50 years after
rows and rows collapsed
at the crackle of gunfire,
fell like dominoes.
the city at rest.
In belfries and rafters,
the coo and flutter
of doves still mourn.
Letter from Ephesus
We shivered in a blizzard
in Istanbul as the city
blacked out from too much wind,
snow, Raki. Grim
as a trip in January,
eventually the bus arrived
at the dark station and soon
we were hurtling
down mountain slopes
with only lemon towels
to hang on to,
passed out by a pair
of ochre eyes, a hand
graced in henna. Black night,
we woke to a shriveled olive grove
and goats. Here, says the guide,
Paul wrote his letter
to the Ephesians; here
the beer is wonderful. In summer,
you can’t find a place to stay.
Summer. The snow kept falling
on the closed town, the wind
off the sea a mace of salt
beating the rotting walks
and shuttered doors.
Who would have thought
this was the place
we’d be lured away
into a shop thick with
carpets. Magic: how the
tea came swinging
in on trays by a young boy
in a lace hat, not a drop spilt.
Hot. Sweet. We each
walked out with a carpet
rolled like a cache
of weapons under
our arms. Later we bowed
on them. Later we flew
among cypress trees.
We feasted on almonds
and sticky figs above the streets
where men walked muttering
sheesh beneath their breath
and the bazaar gleamed
like a mosque of gold
under the winter stars.
We flew to the shore
where Paul’s ship wrecked
and watched him clamber out
counting his blessings,
borrow a pen
from some sad heathen,
pour himself a frothy glass,
drink, begin to write.