The Dead Sea
To hear the poet read "The Dead Sea," click
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 10th book of poems, Tables, will be published this January. He spent the earlier part of this year as a visiting fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge, working on a new version of Rilke's Duino Elegies.