Stunned heat of noon. In shade, tan, silken cows
hide in the thorned acacias. A butterfly staggers.
Stamping their hooves from thirst, small horses drowse
or whinny for water. On parched, ochre headlands, daggers
of agave bristle in primordial defense,
like a cornered monster backed up against the sea.
A mongoose charges dry grass and fades through a fence
faster than an afterthought. Dust rises easily.
Haze of the Harmattan, Sahara dust, memory’s haze
from the dried well of Africa, the headland’s desert
or riders in swirling burnooses, mixed with the greys
of hills veiled in Impressionist light. We inherit
two worlds of associations, or references, drought
that we heighten into Delacroix’s North Africa,
veils, daggers, lances, herds the Harmattan brought
with a phantom inheritance, which the desperate seeker
of a well-spring staggers in the heat in search of—
heroic ancestors; the other that the dry season brings
is the gust of a European calendar, but it is the one love
that thirsts for confirmations in the circling rings
of the ground dove’s cooing on stones, in the acacia’s
thorns and the agave’s daggers, that they are all ours,
the white horsemen of the Sahara, India’s and Asia’s
plumed mongoose and crested palmtree, Benin and Pontoise.
We are history’s afterthought, as the mongoose races
ahead of its time; in drought we discover our shadows,
our origins that range from the most disparate places,
from the dugouts of Guinea to the Nile’s canted dhows.
The incredible blue with its bird-inviting cloud,
in which there are crumbling towers, banners and domes,
and the sliding Carthage of sunsets, the marble shroud
drawn over associations that are Greece’s and Rome’s
and rarely of Africa. They continue at sixty-seven
to echo in the corridors of the head, perspectives
of a corridor in the Vatican that led, not to heaven,
but to more paintings of heaven, ideas in lifted sieves
drained by satiety because great art can exhaust us,
and even the steadiest faith can be clogged by excess,
the self-assured Christs, the Madonnas’ inflexible postures
without the mess of motherhood. With this blue I bless
emptiness where these hills are barren of tributes
and the repetitions of power, our sky’s naive
ceiling without domes and spires, an earth whose roots
like the thorned acacia’s deepen my belief.
Poetry (December 1998).
Source: Poetry (Poetry Foundation, 1998)