Gomorrah

[I]n the debris were
five eyes on a plank,
looking at me. Just
five people’s eyes…
I said, “Go to sleep,
I’ll come back.” But
when I came back
they were not there. [1]

Durch welche Öffnung entweicht der Traum? [2]

1.

Balancing
the wind gusts —

the gold pointless,
ground to powder —

Here in heaven
on the border of a field
a meadow where the stones grow
tracing fire.

The arrival of three guests.

At first with diffidence
and then insistence
a slight hunger for the food
you offer, and a reticence
of taste still satisfied
with thirst and wonder —

longing for water but at peace
with thirst, with a pleasure
that the taste of water moistening
desolations will displace —

the three guests resting — pausing, intent,
waiting for the meal their host prepares,
delaying destitutions. I am

at a loss. We pause. I think of salt.
I wonder. Later gold is turned into a powder.

Then Gomorrah bursts the temples.

2.

The cloth in strips, the peeling skin, the pavement curling at their feet, its fiery
imprints. Listening for the future. Waiting for solace, the complement of anger.

Three guests. Eager. Without speaking or enfolding, like a bell, a tongue, licking
at the roots: “I will not erase you.” How hard it is to rest with such composure —

the mind changing, the release of azure, of the inner face responding, the salt
moistening, tincturing, cooling in the moisture, in a senselessness like kindness.

Opening heavy curtains in a darkened room, my hands
and knees were crying. Mother wrapped me in wet sheets,

she kissed me and said, “Run.” The sheets surrounded
me with sails…
…the likeness of an energy for which

this is the leading wave — ignitions, midair, birds,
the flaming moisture, washed with glancing tongues and

settling in the glistening branches — but the gleaners’
eyes are calming — dawning, in anticipation cooling

turbulent aggressions, briefly numbered,
holding to the distance their calamities.

Although my hands can barely
tremble, she says, “Run.” But
how am I to run when I can sail?

I still barely remember — the hillsides
blossoming with laundry, sheets as sails,
the calm the strangers offered as compassion —

cooling — nearing rain-clouds
blackening remainders — eager
swimmers wrestling in air.

3.

Desolate children — random angels —
piecing wings from fluttering tissue,
membranes of porous anguish, gleaning
currents from the heat, the burning.

Neighbors of Sodom, children
of Gomorrah, somersaulting cinder
and incessant thinking, tastes
of cider and the pitch
of swallows.

Evening, in the summer, the imaginary
orchards of Gomorrah — fragrance —
and the pitch of swallows —
simultaneous desolations of wild
orchards and charred cedars.

Gomorrah in my memory burned at dawn — but later
bordering the Elbe, the Alster at her heart — this time

burning in the dark like Christmas colors or a prayer
flag’s, then in brilliant phosphorus dazzling constellations

under the drone of angels. Carbon darkness, later on
the morning, mixed with fluttering ashes, rain coats for

the faces — dead or not, their bodies, clothed, undressed —
burned asphalt — with black mud, the pitch like squid ink.

She remembers eyes without their lids — she wants to go to
sleep, but, looking back, the lidless eyes are blinking out.

Their limbs detached from trees, they
are afraid, they run and balance on

an edge, afraid of heights, of water,
of the way ice melts as it turns gray —

the sky turns gray — an owl waits while
a gray cat washes — dawn-pink tongue —

the gray fur glistens — traffic barely
leaves a whisper while the angels settle,

where they bear proleptically
injustice, the destruction of the houses,

the slow growing into disappearing structures
of a burning that takes light years, now

in conflagration. Gentle dissolutions
of Gomorrah before morning — then

my mother and the sheets in which I sail.

4.

Protesting, an alarm
on the verge of instability,
a sharp bark, gaudy
with morning, piercing
harshly. What did you

imagine? Distanced by sunlight,
the darkening in a house receding
through a window where the darkness
glimmers. Rubbing my eyes to reopen

a word,
Gomorrah, my love.

Shedding fire, I make
my way through water.

I swim the way smoke
spirals and arrive, I promise,

here — where you survive,
though not in fact — but

waking, curled the way
smoke makes its way

among the sleeping
faces of Gomorrah.

A gray squirrel like
an exposed heart.
Cold among sun-
flowers. Desolate

children climbing in the
laundry-flowering hills —
floating, the wind lifting
the particulates of cloth

like fluttering colors — and
the valley where the angels
are at work with iron brooms
— harrowing the ground —

calling the children down
like swallows into burning
houses on the sudden
clarities of air.

5.

Strategies of angels — the familiar faces
though their names escape me — aimless,
chattering: “This will be forbidden, this will

be forgiven, this will be permitted.” But
I miss you! Swallows perched along a wire —
gathering clouds — a closed book’s surfaces

of glass. “This will be permitted.” Faces
beyond ripening — transitory weather — like
clouds the feathers hiding iridescent violet.

Facing east — no gossip passes our lips, drumming like cooling
metal. Quiet rumors. A river comes to take you for a walk,

whispering gossip, finding its water on my fingers. Across
a page of hills, even in my sleep, lying between my eyes,

the quiet touches me austerely, my minutiae opening and closing.
No one or someone. Mine or another’s. Mamre’s tree. Fingering

my longing, even in my sleep, the scavengers of Mamre, moistening
letters, laundering names, scouring Gomorrah from my lips.

Today we speak of cruelty:

Think of Lenin’s brain, how it atrophied through years of
civil cruelty, ossified, the calcifying arteries, the famished organ,
how it howled from hunger, how it raged and issued dictums,

cursing excremental adversaries, sweeping cities clean of human
waste, the rage hardening, hunger ravening, barbering the fields
for grains of wheat, accumulating salts that starved the brain.

When he died, they found the arteries were veins of rock, the brain
shrunk to a walnut. It has been preserved, you can see it, sectioned
in an institute with other brains, a lesson in comparative anatomy:

the more it calcified, the more he raged. The more he raged, the
more it ossified until he cursed your beauty — curses were
immaculate conceptions — desiccating every tender intimacy.

It hangs on their clothes. It accumulates. Anyone who looks askance, who can
not without further ado be happy not to be there, who can not bear the sight,

who sits on a stool and weeps like a baby because no one resisted — how could
they? the actions occurred without incident — anyone who can not be master or

save what can still be saved, who refuses to hear everything, whose impressions
of the day are blotted (the trees did releave, no one wanted to play the coward),

in the evening, face down in a row, ashamed and besmirched — attempt this
composure — quiet, unspeakable, astonishing — the defeat of a world enemy.

6.

In the dark I find you crowning
the letters, softening membranes,

the articulated lineaments. Sensing
your fingers, tissues close upon

themselves. Peace is deceptive,
quiet fearful. Circling the invisible,

combing through the cuttings, you are
like a barber, canceling the stalks.

A rabbi plants a small plant in the tangles and catastrophes
of God. The cunning of a small plant — or a meal — defers

solutions with a living space. The angels pause to eat,
the valley almost breathes. Abraham follows the rabbis,

the past, the future. The sun, half-risen, clambering from
the well, emblazes strictures, hardening arteries to stone, but

unsuspected kindness, even among angels, longs for the delay,
the kinship that despite their murderous rigor leads to kindness.

Flayed with iron combs, the rabbi celebrates
the quiet names of life, the thirst and hunger

they require, moisture, here at the end, kind
friends, the flesh weighed at the market in

the summer while the Master of the Universe
is silent, iron combs are fragile, sight is fragile,

eyes on fire make a wall invisible. “Be silent.”
“Listen.” “As I have determined.” Threshed

with iron teeth, but choosing quiet, he finds
he loves Gomorrah more than God.

By day, enormous clouds of burning smoke. Scorching nights.
My friend, I hear your voice but cannot find your voice. A way

of longing intertwined with calling — a pervasive choice, an arching
tongue. What shall we play? Among the raveneous intervals, my angels

bring eternities to bear on quiet. If their kindness could outlast
this offering, would they choose to be protragonists of ashes?

7.

My angels have a gift for silence that refers all questions
to the same extremes. I loathe their certainty, its rigor,

their serene tectonics — the cruelties they impose but do not
feel, blue clamor, green catastrophes, the yellow cancellations.

Sleeping faces, hands full
of water, wisteria colors,
iconostasis — just as
an ocean — a small plant

your eyes burn open.
In the pits of rainwater,
scraps of cloth, concretions,
not a person’s, but

unruffled smiles that
someone misinterprets.
Who’s behind this?
Do not lose despair!

In the dark, aimlessly alert — what are you
really? — lurking in the dampness, like a

heartening sun, a child the ground gives
painfully to water. Sometimes not
Gomorrah, but what happens happens

suddenly — so much like the ribs of a house,
so much like burning through the ribs.

A new acknowledgment —
a man who hides his faces.

From Mamre, frightening,
dusty roads — a dirt track

choked into a basin, near the
parched embankments of a

vanished bridge, the scorched
ground liquified, then cooling
into lacquer.

From the hills above Gomorrah, displaced laundry
patches dessicating winds — my prayer flags.

8.

Arid cold, a residue of water. The primitive
organs ache — they force us to be beautiful.

A smile across the world, grinding the human salt.
I know when reason fails your kindness helps.

Angels aroused them: tired of landscape, mountains
moved to overthrow the frame, the park, the quiet lake,
the hills for which, as background, they were anchors,

crouched to comfort our fragility, a kindness we assumed
was ours by right. Then visibly their motion,
the monumental way they seized the sky.

Gomorrah has become a name, the submerged
gatherer who collects the discards from beneath

the underground. She was first, the spring seeds
carried by her messengers to Sodom. Sodom

was the second, easier to recall, articulated episodes
attaching to her name. Gomorrah remained the speech-

less, tongue-bound, sum of knots,
Sophia of the underworld, the night-light.

In a fetid sky, where
men slaughter cattle,
three circle a chalice.

9.

A sense of bewilderment, babbling
in tongues, roses from the heat,

hurrying to catch up — the tree buds
hurrying — vendors in small trucks.

The softness is a sign they are alive,
implausibly, a reflex, less than nothing,
negative perhaps, beneath the sediments

of deadness, apprehended as about to be
on fire, vague because not yet…
To enumerate by threes — three angels,

gleaners, strangers pausing on the route
to our destruction. Only two arrive
to find us waiting at the destination.

And two cities, one arrived at, one
collateral — submerged without a word —
a dove the Elbe turns to salt. When

you grew up in the residue
of flames, did you know you
were Gomorrah, that the lindens

were Gomorrah, that the North Sea
was the Dead Sea? Co-factor the rivers.
Rationalize the fire. Water is water.

Air, air. Rise in desolation. Texture
the water. Gomorrah is a wave
about to name its offering.

In Gomorrah your mother
protects you from angels,

the posts of her bed are
crocodile teeth. I teach

you the game of holding
your breath — breathe in,

you are gone — breathe
out, I am there. You

practice the magic that
hides in the dark and

hide in the sheets that
protect you from fire.

In Gomorrah your mother
protects you from angels.

Gomorrah like a crystal seed accumulates
its facets, vanishing assumptions, coaxed
out of hiding. Angling mazes — waiting

for rain through the sun’s window — fraying
the strings, returning our faces to water. Like
widows, three angels fish through the faces,

vaporizing color, hiding in its light. Sub-
merged, Gomorrah offers its blessings,
welcoming strangers who never arrive.

10.

The way the room burns — you are here —
if it were possible. Sit in this fire quietly,

this flame’s reflection, happiness, my
daring. Today I said your name. I named
a feeling.

Reeling in losses. At last what do I find — Gomorrah my freedom,
in gathering. I did not know you in a way I could not know you.

Not the temple mountain —

Gomorrah’s moisture,
not angelic incense

but the saline taste
before the sea died —

breached from fires —
how they loved each other.

If your love were like a blue dragonfly — and it is.

Without weighing
or thinking
I am this way
too

finding because
I am quiet
it hovers
finally.


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REFERENCES

  1. Wanda Chantler, Hamburg, July 24, 1943.
  2. Durs Grünbein, Nach Den Satiren (1999).

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