Friday, October 18, 2013


Words carry stories phrases frame.
Periodically, sentences suspend
Cirques of flaming zodiacs,
Compound histories contained
As unrelated depths of light.
Thus the word-constructed mind
That contemplates mirrored night.
No manuscript of Hazar Afsana
Survives. Strange how we save
What we lose, the wound of the loss
More permanent than its recovery.
Something to fill with narrative,
Which abhors a vacuum. I say
That the original set of stories
Was complete, or almost, except
That the horrific frame of the tyrant
Who killed a wife a night, undone
By the wise sisters who knew
Stories could detain death a while,
Did not end well. All was lost,
Other than the alarmingly weird
Rewrite, asserting the sisters stayed
With the murderously jealous maniac
And his brother, bearing them sons,
Happily ever after, never telling
Another cliff-hanging night story
Again. Right. That and some lyrical
Fables and fooleries, saved,
All the really novel, philosophical
Manichean bits deleted. A woman
Wouldn't relate such things to a man
Who couldn't relate to them. Left,
The animal bits, morals attached,
Echoing Aesop and Vishnu Sharma,
But cut, the winging shadows,
The occult allegories of trees
That thought themselves midwives
Of minds. Cut out the witchery.
The rest became acceptable,
Popular among the new literati,
Entertainments for the gentlemen
Of The Lord. The earliest fragments
Are already an Arabic translation
Caught in the scraps of a lawyer
Practicing his handwriting. How fast
The easy, familiar versions circled,
How men labored later to fill in
The gaps of eight hundred or so
Missing stories, and to emphasize
Some justification for the king,
Necessary piety for the telling
Woman who only wanted a man
To let her stay alive and fecund.
I say what was lost was greater
Than the whole sum added later;
The oasis is larger than you thought,
Larger than the mirage you saw
Approaching murmuring penumbras
Of concentrated foliage too dense
To be a single palm. At the end
Of your expectations of refuge,
The refuge itself appears, dark
And knowing, a green thought
In masculine sunlight, an ink
Dream in feminine starlight. Home.
Outside, open desert, inside, Ereshkigal,
Owls, and ice rivers, winter deeps
No virtuous desert mind should hold,
As if Persia knew no cold mountains,
No ancient oaks, no Shanidar.
There's where the rest of their tales
Remain hiding and waiting, less
Pious, more minatory, whispering,
The lost hundreds and hundreds
Of nights and all their anxious,
Suspenseful days spent waiting
To see how the never ends. I can
Give you signs, but remember
We are not out of the woods yet,
And I am not the wise woman
Surviving, I am just a man,
Or the genie of a man hiding
In the cast-off jars of old words,
Atrahasis, agnosis, Aratta,
All the errata of forgotten facts.
The oldest story is prettiest, darkest,
Drawn from the time when woods
Were spreading, not retreating,
Many young and aggressive as men.
The stories begun the first nights
Did not pretend to moral or meaning,
Did not resolve conflicts, find lovers,
Circle back on themselves, account
For anything being as they became,
Explain. Those were stories of one
Word told to her sister in the dark,
Pretending not to hear the listening
Ear of the paranoid king, thinking.
The suspense was terrible, beguiling,
It hung like fruit in an orchard
Fortified by fences and soldiers,
Attended to only by bees, the true
Retainers of the birth of fruit itself,
The witless keepers of knowledge.
Imagine that orchard, immense
Enough to feed an empire, folded
Itself into the trunk below combs
Of honey the bees bartered for love,
The trunk as one sapling
A thousand arms around, small
By the ambitions of the advancing
Front of the flowering forest.
Climbing ivies, songbirds, mushrooms,
Yet unnamed moss-faced monsters
Later to be slain by men followed,
And within the rising sap and crowns
Of the world of trees, obscuring
The stones that slept blanketed
Under the hungry-rooted floor,
The orchard in each trunk brooded
On the fruit of one name. That
Was the whole plot, the whole
Mystery, the whole swelling anguish
And labor, the cauled birth, omen
And new thing, really new thing
In the world the princesses shushed
Each other speaking of, the Name
The murderer leaned forward to hear,
Expecting something unknown,
Uncommon, aristocratic, grand,
Hermetic, complicated, language
Not of men, of angels, gods, djinn.
But the princesses knew the simples
Of the already much reduced forest
Floor went by common, lowly,
Snail and slug terms, among them
The end and beginning of the first
Plot, the sealed word that rhymed
With seasons, nights, days, oases,
Fears, hopes, dreams of being
That bind, the word all metaphor.
And this was the story they started:
Once or twice, before this world,
The daylight stood in pillars, still,
And everything was as it was
Inside of always, always now,
No matter what happened, nothing
Happened outside of the here
Without here ever admitting
Everything that ever was was
What was gone or could be gone
By being right now what was here.
And although everything was
Becoming among the green leaves
And the cedars, nothing outside
Was outside or ever had been.
There were no names, no gods
Or spirits of distinction between
The one thing in here and the other,
Not already in here. It was is. Light
Shone as it could, darkness pooled
As it should, and all was alive, still,
Including dying, including hunger,
And thirst, and waste, and play.
Then came the thief, the thief named
With the first, great Name, to say,
From now on the outside will say
What the inside forest can say.
Humbaba is dead, and the name
Of the world that makes inner worlds
Is a name you will always and never
Be able to fight, bright, blinding,
However you try it, binding tightly,
Over and over on your tongue,
Saying it means nothing.
The name is . . . so ended the true
Princesses' first night.

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