May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth….
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse….
After the Holy Sepulchre, the souks
And the Wailing Wall, we stand here
Before another work of man’s wit,
Wystan, Alan and I. Nobody smokes
Nor thinks of smoking: six Arabs bathe their feet
And hands preliminary to prayer.
The Temple Mount like the Acropolis
Undoubtedly is a holy place:
Lavish, untended, bare.
I think of Yannis whom I loved,
Killed more than a year ago
Now and as entirely present as though
Like the present he had nothing more
Urgent to do than be survived.
So it is. I need no assurance here;
Nor as an afterthought could resent
The patched-up survival of this monument
God knows beautiful enough
For any faith to reverence and/or love.
I speak for myself alone,
For a second only unbereft.
Here, as back in our hotel
Too far, too dear, too overstaffed
With Arabs overanxious to oblige,
Two Jews by birth, one practicing Anglican,
Confine our elation to a state of siege,
A heavenly surround, as usual;
That much we can afford.
Through air clean of thought now and eyes
Stung over during a half-remembered prayer
At the Wailing Wall, clear
(Damn my eyes! I’ve always seen too well
To train a vocabulary of detail;
Easy recall sufficed me and undoes
The vision it refers to,
My present task; you will have to take my word),
I take in wonder, spellstopt, amateur:
Here is the Mosque with an arched portico, called
The Scales, to counterpoise humanely its upreared
Imposition topped by a dome of gold;
Ardent blue tile surrounds Mount Moriah’s peak,
Paling the heaven it swears to.
No fear: the oath is kept; belief requires a rock.
Here my Ur-father, daggered Abraham,
Wearing his Sabbath best, awe-struck,
Brought his dear son and, finding a scape-goat ram,
He gratefully made sacrifice
The center of the universe for his race,
Then took the good news home; Mohammed riding
El Burak, his horse, galloped to Paradise
From here, Solomon’s Temple here long down
To Rome’s levelling; and here I applaud Solomon
A court for money-changers to confirm,
Ever recalled in exile and in trading,
His choice of focal sanctity
Through every change of hands.
Dear souls of the departed, gathered in prayer
Under this rock forever, I pray you be
Forever faithless of your charm
To wheedle Charon’s fare so, have your funds
In deed well grasped, knowing how much David paid
To work your shelter as a threshing floor,
When you are herded out here to be weighed,
As once you lived by reckoning day by day
Sporadically, on Reckoning Day. (I come
By all this info from a good cheap Guide.
Am I convinced by it? I am.) I am
Single-minded in duplicity,
My natural preoccupation with getting my
Money’s worth, that is, what I expect;
It sets me up altogether taken in
By what responds to a live touristic yen
For picturesque authenticity
Outsoaring shade, outlasting doubt,
Believing all even as I half suspect
All true believers apostate
At heart; and heart I question if we dare
Set this all down as Mythic Architecture,
That poetry we called pure.
I wonder. Whatever mind or eyes
Can learn from knowing that the vexed
Design around the Mosque is Holy Text,
I am unready for such certainties
However they thread my spelled captivity
With gold, an artistic bent. ‘And Nature’s own,
What’s in it for them?’ I ask when through
My kenning two misguided bees
Worry from ruined rose to ruined rose,
From garden-plot to garden-plot with gapped
Rusty palings, powdery soil, as though
Their one cycled glory were to symbolize
The fruitless nature of change. ‘I won’t accept
That for myself or them or anything or man,’
I shrug at our surround. Alan counters me,
Exhorting, ‘Let the Heathen reign!
Look at Constantinople: the Turks
Have blessed it with neglect; how misbegotten
Greek effort would be, and in time redundant,
To tidy out the worst. They would overwhelm
The best in doing so. It never works!’
True enough, dear, and nonpartisan,
But it argues a free, always dependent
Duchy, Criticism; here is a Realm
However blotted and rewritten
Where words fail, as the saying goes,
To serve with what we feel
And how believe, absolute laws.
We remained infidel
Chattering in the cab to our hotel,
Eternal tourists, never quite at home,
Three good New Yorkers, our one scope
‘As obscure as that heaven of the Jews,’
In being here is simply to be here;
Saved, we would like to hope,
From the eternally addressed
Gyrations of a tourist hell
Not by Saint Christopher
But by unminted, hence superior
Personal Saints, Leisure and Taste;
Nor ever about, good God! like some
Whose every trip, I gather, is taken to muse
And winkle out another stale new poem.
Wystan is gone; a gift of fertile years
And now of emptiness: I found him dead
Turning icy-blue on a hotel bed.
Yannis had worshipped him; Alan reveres
Him and his work with studied irreverency;
I shared his work and life as best I could
For both of us, often impatiently.
So it was; let it be:
I say, yet cannot leave it blank,
That overplus of bedrock and of good,
And try to think what I have learned of him,
A teacher born. I never learned to think
As passionately and dispassionately
At once, nor feel the world a personal affront
And personal joy, preoccupied as I am
With taking sporadic scrupulous account
Of personal feeling; but if I sometimes feel
That I feel nothing, he has taught
My hands to spell it out,
Trusting the heart’s recall.
Everything changes, nothing does,
Eroded wisdom puts it, as the river flows.
Love too, if you will, answers the paradox,
Or the belief in love; so watch your step, lover,
Keeping the just balance of a true believer:
A home-made love of justice raged
Round this old City, once again beseiged,
Entered and levelled all the Synagogues;
Much truth, much love and much belief recall
Mea Shearim Jews to the Wailing Wall
A differing truth and its companion love
Had made a public convenience of,
With tears of joy; they kiss their apostate
Army who labored and shed blood no doubt
On Sabbath to allow them back,
Then bulldozed every house in sight
To spare them any less than just attack
From snipers. Let them live to bargain: like those
Who cram the Churches with their votaries;
Like Arab villagers who flock over
The Jordan with produce and take home their well
Grasped wages of fly-blown meat; like affable
Israeli boys in uniform who must race
Into the Holy Sepulchre whenever
Orthodox Armenian and Russian
Fraternally clash on orders of procession,
To haggle a peace at any price;
Like them off-duty, tourist conquerors,
Ritually frowning in an Arab shop
Through the exchanges of money asked and offered
Lest they be jewed for souvenirs:
Here’s your Esperanto faith, your river
Your feeling purity recovered!
Old enemies practically embrace;
They muster and relish their loves
With daggers up their sleeves
Like true lovers; they throng the narrow streets
As thick as May-flies on nuptial flights
Dying, dying, the eternal gift of life.
What is the name of the month
In Hebrew and Arabic? Good grief,
What will guide us living from this labyrinth?
Where runs the Via Dolorosa not?
Where is the Rest-room? At the Dung Gate.
How are we doing? God knows. Alan grew
Dizzy, I dim, Wystan ploughs through
Blindly as ever, as ever making
Chaos good soil and bearable.
Things look up. There improbable
And visible hover atremble
Our patron Dioscuri, half human flesh,
Half papier-mâché, outspokenly celestial,
Invoked by his presence, gardant, real,
Wired with love, putti gracing a crèche:
It was too incredibly heartbreaking;
I made myself note how they resemble
Our passing selves perhaps a shade stouter
Alas. Alas, I note too, my tenses fall
Into improper sequences; no matter,
When I have gathered and have as undertaking
To picture it elementary to outlast
Verbal conveniences like The Past.
Thus I stand here then:
I question and would recall
My ancestral tears at the Wailing Wall;
I question the Holy Sepulchre, a gaud
of pi gimcrackery; I am afraid
Of the eternal questing appetite of men
After the bloody reek of lamb
Lining the souks; I cannot give a damn
For their questionable yen
To worship something somewhere; and I pray
Dear Yannis and dear Wystan pray for me.
December 12, 1974