Buying Camels in Dresden

By Wong May Wong May
Like all great rivers
The Elbe is familiar at first sight.
The barges
             spic & span as the front parlors
Of model homes in Saxony —
The steam paddle-wheelers & other
                                               vessels,
No less impeccable — all run
With a near soporific efficiency.
You lean out
                   & the land starts up:
The parcels of pastures & castles
Bearing with them trees & cows & cattle-grids
         the crowned heads of daisies
Little knots of   human habitations,
Cigarette factory & garrisons
Floodplains, sheet pilings
Run
          All run,
As if   by an engine,
Some cement breaker from under the river
                                   torn turfs all
Bob up & down,
Brown
           like bears in bear gardens
The cupolas, cavaliers
Their ruinous sandstone reflections alongside.
Whether this is the famous effect
               Of   the Balcony of   Europe
Cork coasters chasing gilt coronets
              Maps loosely adrift on a map
So many teacups clicking,
Large balconies colliding
           Breaking up into smaller ones
Valley & vineyards
Mines, bridges, sugar-beet fields, villas,
Museum corridors
A Procession of   Princes
Chimera of   Chinese porcelain palaces
Cargoes of   homeland & meadows,
Other
Municipalities, the beer & beer mats,
Coal, forestry,
History atop Geography atop History
Flags roll unroll — coalesce
Black — red — yellow
Yellow Black
Red
Runs

White
Sunk trains with passengers
Trains sunk
               April ’45 Bergen-Belsen

Run   Elbe   Run


I pulled away.
I have come this day to the bank of the Elbe
To write a few postcards
In a tearoom.


                                  On the steps up
From street level to the Old Albertinum Museum
                                         some way from the tearoom
A man too is minding his business
On his lap a glass case
For keyboard
2 rows of colored sand in test tubes
Raspberry /burnt sienna /turquoise /Prussian blue /lavender /ochre
Or neutral — just sand.
Into a beer bottle he tips a little color
           & before you know
Our man has tossed one up in the air like a baby
& caught it roundly by the heels too,
Le voilà, not one grain escapes
It is shockproof, waterproof,
A world like a Swiss watch,
& time-proof —
You count three camels
It looks like 4, — any number could have been packed in the bottle
Which, when turned slowly in the palm
                                  An orderly procession,
: Camels against a horizon of   low sun
An irradiated sky,
Palm tree, undulating dunes
               A strata of deep watermelon subsiding to honey halva
The silhouette of a tent, hint of
A sandstorm in the air.
                                         Grit under eyelids
& should you prefer
From the array of   bottles you could take home one with
A full sun, an Egyptian sun-disk
& you have his word, — no fear,
             each hermetically sealed,
Will travel.


                                                 As if   to say not all the grains
Are sand, our man also works
With rice.
He’s a jeweler.
He will encrypt
On a grain of rice
                             a word,
Enclosed in a colored phial of water
           again hermetically
For all time
                    Like the camels.
A jewel, he said,
The word
                         a ruby, an emerald
Of   water
Should you forget, here his English broke off
But you understand
Yes, there is closure.
As I watched, a lady at my elbow
                        Like one at a séance, asked
For the name “Christine,” her grand daughter, she said.
& he, our scribe, answered he was from Iran,
           — not that anyone inquired.
Iranian, then
— Hence the camels
Though here in Dresden
He had looked Mexican
A second before.
I looked again & saw that he could be from anywhere,
It depends on where you stand.
This man has for good or ill
                         the face of the world,
Which he bears sadly
With some mirth.


I pulled away.
                     Another moment I would have
To come up with a name, a word,
Another world.


I was happy with my purchase of camels
On the Elbe.
Back home it holds Dresden & the Elbe for me in a bottle.
It runs
           for so long as anyone would care to look,
Not a drop more.
I would have liked to write a card to the bottler
Addressing sands
           sands of the world thereof
My migrant,
                 errant friend
I wish you all the grains
                       whatever you had set out for,
& always
Sands enough to take you,
                                just where you stand
Waiting for your No. 28 sunsets, No. 20,
The watermelon sunrise
& no end of camels.

Source: Poetry (November 2013).

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This poem originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2013
 Wong  May

Biography

Wong May first appeared in Poetry in September 1969. Her new book is Picasso’s Tears (Octopus Books, 2014). May lives in Dublin, where she writes and paints.

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Life Choices, Activities, Travels & Journeys, Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life, Class

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem


Your results will be limited to content that appeared in Poetry magazine.

Search Every Issue of Poetry

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.