Buying Camels in Dresden
By Wong May
Like all great rivers
The Elbe is familiar at first sight.
spic & span as the front parlors
Of model homes in Saxony —
The steam paddle-wheelers & other
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
As if by an engine,
Some cement breaker from under the river
torn turfs all
Bob up & down,
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,
A Procession of Princes
Chimera of Chinese porcelain palaces
Cargoes of homeland & meadows,
Municipalities, the beer & beer mats,
History atop Geography atop History
Flags roll unroll — coalesce
Black — red — yellow
Sunk trains with passengers
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
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,
As if to say not all the grains
Are sand, our man also works
He’s a jeweler.
He will encrypt
On a grain of rice
Enclosed in a colored phial of water
For all time
Like the camels.
A jewel, he said,
a ruby, an emerald
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.
— 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,
I was happy with my purchase of camels
On the Elbe.
Back home it holds Dresden & the Elbe for me in a bottle.
for so long as anyone would care to look,
Not a drop more.
I would have liked to write a card to the bottler
sands of the world thereof
I wish you all the grains
whatever you had set out for,
Sands enough to take you,
just where you stand
Waiting for your No. 28 sunsets, No. 20,
The watermelon sunrise
& no end of camels.