In the rheumatic heat of July,
when Public Enemy blared
on the blasters
in a time when arbitrage
and foreign policy
were bureaus of each other,
I made a wrong turn off Broadway
and wound up at St. John the Divine
where I sat in the hot dark
until the traffic died.
And a voice comes over
some columns to the breeze of the Golden Horn
over the cypress groves
and flowing bougainvillea
where the bright blue weather and the old
seawalls come together,
where crates of cardamom
and musk are piled and
the cattle hang in blood
above the brass,
where the grain boats
stink and red pleasure
barges drift where Jason
sailed for his fleece—
a voice comes out of the dead water.
In great Sophia
light pours in rosy bars
on the porphyry and the green marble
till the air blooms,
and a chrysalis of lit crosses
makes circles in the air.
Light falls through the lunettes
like arrows of gold that could’ve
sneaked up the Virgin’s dress.
Had the Holy Ghost flitted in
it would’ve been lost in the glare
and the kiss of peace
Justinian blew from the ambo.
Incantations flutter and rhyme
in the apse like wings
in a cloud of incense
thinning on the gold-leafed
vaults where the tongue’s vibration
lingers in the upper air,
and rises and rises as if the dome could open
to a half-hemisphere of heaven
where in the translucent glitter of the Kingdom
the Saints are poised in gracious robes
with their thousand-year-frozen faces—
the one truth glued on the grout of their lips.
I sit with the incense of memory,
and a bath of dark pours
from the vaults above the pew
Outside, boutiques of money collide
with the street fires in Harlem, whole
skyscrapers are levitated by arbitrage,
and the only inside takeover I can negotiate
is myself in this pew with my herringbone jacket
which I should chuck in the Salvation Army bin
down the block, so I could join the line of choir-
boys in their last innocent ritual
as they stand before the mounted sermon sign
“he shall bring forth judgment unto truth”
(Isaiah 42:3). The Puritans because
they believed God’s altar needs not their polish
lifted the boulder of truth higher than the glittering
face of the Nazarene once leaded in glass.
For the spirit they swallowed stones
and shattered all the panes. But beneath the lavender
arch of a Canon Table in an old Gospel
I once tasted the consubstantial dewdrop
in the faded color of a peacock’s wing.
So while a stone sinks to the bottom of my
river, a peacock’s wing floats by the shore.
Who tells it like it is: Isaiah or Procopius?
I started walking backward
down the aisle
when I heard and thought I
saw in the strange fenestration
of that light—
first incoherent, and then sharp
as if it were in my ear
There is no reign that executes
justice and judgment;
is that why you whine?
“But Primo Levi’s image of a man—
a face that haunts every nation
on the earth—
Don’t soak lentils in your mouth.
“Be serious; what’s left to praise?”
The fig tree drops rocks
in the morning and the fig
tree drops figs in the morning.
It’s your new yard, am I right?
New house, 2 kids, and all that.
When a Santa Ana blows fire down the coast
do you run to meet it in a leisure suit
or with a silicon chip?
Does a squirrel stash nuts
of self-pity up its ass?
What are verses for?
And the raisin-light dribbling
in the clerestory faded,
and it was cold
as I backed down the aisle:
“We’ll talk more when you’re off duty.”
© Peter Balakian
Some other random works of this poet:
- Head of Anahit/British Museum
- Killary Harbor
- Warhol / Madison Ave. / 9-11
- Warhol/Mao, ’72
- Baseball Days, ’61
- “My Mother is a Fish”
- After the Survivors Are Gone
- Fish Mouth
- Parable for Vanished Countries
- Flat Sky of Summer
- Name and Place
- Ellis Island
- The Color of Pomegranates
- A Letter to Wallace Stevens
- Reading Dickinson / Summer ‘68
- The Oriental Rug
- Leaving Aleppo
- Ozone Journal
- A Version of Paolo and Francesca
- Wild Cherry
- Ode to the Duduk
- August Diary
- A Toast
- A Country House
- Slum Drummers, Nairobi
- World Trade Center / Mail Runner / 73
- Domestic Lament
- Going to Zero
- Here and Now