The Dead Sea

A weekly poem, read by the author.
March 6 1997 3:30 AM

The Dead Sea

To hear the poet read "The Dead Sea," click here.

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Inventing a holy land,
who would have settled for these
neutral hills bare except for scrub and sage,
a sky unclouded as impenetrable,
now and then the timeless Bedouin tent--
which would explain, along that ridge,
a straggling flock of goats
with stretched-out, walking shadows?

And now the eastern approaches. Yet nothing
about the frontier's fenced compounds
suggests the traveller en route elsewhere
should stop--even if stepping on the gas
can't do much toward cancelling those pictures,
the color of pain, a visual undersong ...
Once coppergreen expanses of water
slide into view, though, no one could fail
to sense the difference in being
below sea level--air heavy
in the ear, oxygen-rich, cool, dry,
scented with desert, and holy enough.
A hand dipped in water ponders
the viscous feel of minerals in solution,
and little tumuli of salts and carbonates
build a submarine city sprawling
for miles under the hammered-metal surface.
On a shore hazed with distance, neat rows
of date palms identify themselves
with a green herringbone frond and ripen
foodstuffs for, say, the heavenly banquet.
Ritual ablution even so has coated
your skin with a pale silt glove;
and sea and desert are one.

Remember the hands, calloused and sunburned,
of the Quumran scribes, seated at a cave's mouth,
negotiating light that dawn brought back
with the promise of deliverance.
Shadow and light, black fire
on white fire, the unswerving word,
conferring a sacred indifference
to an urban, merely visual appeal.
The caves, dark sockets in a cliff wall,
return no one's gaze today,
even if they once did see
a mountain range of crumpled felt,
castiron eagles fixed on approaching spears,
and a southbound Jordan feeding the same
fluid body, ever more
mineral, ever heavier with salt.

Alfred Corn's seventh book of poems, titled Present, will be published in April. He also has a novel, titled Part of His Story, scheduled for publication this month.