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The Decline Of Arabia Felix
The architecture tips you off.
In the pagan temple at Marib,
what appears to be recessed windows
of lattice work, surmounted by louvers,
are in fact false. A cloistered Arab
stares at stone and rows and rows
of stylized ibexes spared by the movers
who left last week for England
with a fortune in artifacts.
And then the frankincense market collapsed...
It used to be that an entire
year's production crossed the sand
to perfume the burning funeral pyre
of an Emperor's wife. The old beliefs have lapsed:
Constantine's tastes in ritual are not
like Nero's. Those who came here first had thought
customs always stayed the same: frankincense
and myrrh, always in demand before,
to disguise a human smell or pimple,
would become the rage once more.
The future always seemed as simple
as the past to those entrepreneurs
who rode the monsoon winds to Alexandria.
(Altogether in another time, three star-crazed
Arab sheiks, the zodiac spinning in their minds,
traced the Rub' Al-Khali, sun-dazed eyes
watching for omens.)
Sun burnt offerings-the aromatic resins
of myrrh and frankincense trees --
scent the cities' ruins.
Two thousand years since the people packed up,
Two millennia ... no voices left to speak of.
But on the caravan routes heading north:
camel skulls, an alabaster head -- eyes
of lapis lazuli and paste -- charcoal,
earth, air, fire. Here the elements cast
ceramic chards, things from Hjar Bin Humeid --
another language in the luggage of the past.
-- Lorenzo de Tomas
I. The Christening
Sputtering candles banked a thousand thick
fumigate the hall with sweet odors of animal fat;
chained alunts cower at the feet of your father,
who takes the holy chrism from the bishop's tray,
anoints your head, and flings the rest
at the brazier at his side. Flames illuminate the rafters.
The alunts shrink into the shadows like smoke.
A christian now, you wail at the crowd
gathered in noonday drunkenness to cheer
your deliverance from original sin --
sins more original to you
will color their memory of this steaming festival.
How can theology compete with this clamor?
What mythic sacrifice can match the trampled
bodies of the peasants struggling toward the
assembled bishops at your side, and the music
of the tabors enlivened by the wails of pain?
No one inside tends to the mob; but your father,
the king, dips his finger in a gold wine goblet
and sticks it in your mouth. You suck and taste
the sweet-sour flavor of imagination's waste.
A brace of stableboys have led your golden stallion
from the gang plank, and beads of surf-foam fleck
its breast and stain the royal aparejo an even deeper
purple. The banners of your legions flock the dunes
even where nesting shore birds shriek and whirl and dive
as egg-gatherers rob them of their future.
Another invasion. Deputations of local merchants
offer peace terms and their best wares; shall you listen
or (what this time?) send their heads back packed
in camel dung? Have you grown to expect the unexpected
from yourself? A king, you think, must enact the
wildest dreams of each . . . Perhaps it's time for a vision!
And so with feigned abandon, remembering the frothing
fits of your brother, the epileptic, you writhe
on the wet sand and stealthily unsheathe
the sapphire-hilted dagger of bored omnipotence
and plunge it through the left eye of your
boon companion, general of the legions, stepson
of your mother's sister. You stop the seizure
and proclaim that none, that none should interfere
with the King's visitations from god.
But even before you speak it's clear that
the fit has had its effect: everyone is kneeling -
even the egg-gatherers on the far dune where
while birds dive open-beaked at their bare heads.
Yawning around your death bed, thinking this
another false alarm, the court daydreams in the night.
Sincere regret demands too much dissimulation
just before dawn. What a time to die!
Barely eighteen, you've vomited across a continent
on horseback welcoming each temptation.
But now the blood-stained linen cups your head.
The obscenities you mumble scarcely raise the censor's brow;
your mother mops them like pabulum from your fumbling lips.
Cowled historians record each traditional event:
the bishop's unctuous blessing, your mother's tears,
the favorite boar-hound's whimpering;
and through an arched window a strange conjunction
of three planets: such events have meaning.
No one sees the stealthy progress of your scabrous hand
under the sheet moving toward the thigh of an
acolyte who jumps at your fervid grip. You laugh
and gurgle spittle while the court scop writes your epitaph.
Nurses checked my blood pressure today
in the resident student lounge:
It's normal -- not just acceptably within
the healthy parameters for a person my age --
but exactly normal, right in the middle,
neither on the high or the low side of normal,
but really, the nurse told me, absolutely normal.
What's happened? Only months ago
my friends were "concerned" about my looks:
I look tired, they said.
My behavior was manic: awake and drinking till four.
Up, speeding away on my own adrenaline, at seven.
Then slowly I lost twenty pounds,
lithely slipped into my old jeans
and tennis shirts and celebrated my weight:
normal for my age and height.
The signs are unmistakable:
I have a Mastercharge, Bankamericard
and even though Sears took away my credit card,
I still have my New England Pet Supply Discount Card
so I can support my tropical fish
in the manner to which they are accustomed.
Live brine shrimp and color-growth food,
new plants every two weeks.
My fish are hostages to the future,
My credit rating is, despite all my work,
just fine. They're glad to take my checks
at Mahoney's Rocky Ledge and Lexington Gardens
where I filled my car with chrysanthemums,
Swedish Ivy, Cacti, Spider Plants, Creeping Jenny,
Polynesian Pot-ivy, Artillery Plant,
all for my room a jungle in the morning light
begging for song birds and vocalic reptiles.
Normal blood pressure for normal hobbies.
Should I take up the guitar? Buy Kinks records
and vote on election day? No, by God, No!
But the signs are unmistakable. Creeping responsibility.
I'm back to proper weight:
naked in the shower I can took down
and see my prick -- an average size pecker.
I've started going to the sports complex after teaching;
jog, swim (I even bought a bathing cap), lift weights,
roar through squash drills alone
fantasizing matches with Neiderhoffer-
a picture of me wearing only a jock
in Sports Illustrated which I've
actually started to read. Slow down.
Ambition beckons in the vestibule.
I may be going mad,
I've bought a station wagon.
My favorite section of Freshman Composition
is getting the impression that
I'm getting married.
There are rumors they say.
But no one knows where they started.
Are they trying to talk me into...
into getting it all together, as they say?
Though I don't as yet talk to my plants,
I have, well, imaginings ... not really fantasies,
about the sex lives of my tropical fish.
I think one of the paradise fish is gay,
I know the jewel fish is.
The cannibalistic mother guppy was eaten
by her son last week:
and uproot plants never actually getting laid,
I caught the silver catfish masturbating...
well, I mean I saw it masturbating, I think,
under the ceramic Mexican fetish
where it has ledged ever since the
butch convict fish jawed off its dorsal fin.
Does this help you understand?
My newfound Normalcy has even embraced
I swore for years I'd never make it,
but I have -- several times.
Everyone likes it, even me.
Don't get me wrong though,
I get nervous sometimes
and drive to Savenors Market
to buy fresh sweetbreads and brains
little quail, (I wish they'd get orlotans).
They take my check. I take their oysters,
stuffed grapeleaves, taramasalata,
oyster sauce. And then if that's not
enough, I drive to Chinatown and
pick up dried squid, thousand-year-old eggs,
chili-garlic sauce, kumquats, lichees,
star anise, lotus root, lily buds,
dried horseradish, wood cars, sea cucumbers,
and then when that's not enough,
I stop at Haymarket for fresh cheap fruit,
drive to National Lobster Co. for
a crate of lobster bodies,
park illegally in the North End
for tiny artichokes, sea urchins,
mussels, marzipan fruits, pignoli nuts,
bunches of fresh basil, cheese of all nations
and then, and then I drive to the radio
to the Cape and give everything away
to my sister and her little sons
and anybody else who stops over.
Again, this evening, they smilingly
took my check at Martignetti's -- beer and wine.
Every day I have to spend at
least a little money. I consume
with the best of them, and there are other signs.
Should I attribute this to age?
My dinner parties are getting to be
middle aged spreads.
I'm trying to give up smoking,
trying, trying, trying ... not very hard.
Go to bed before Johnny Carson
Get up before Barbara Walters
watch Conkrite, Chancellor, Reasoner,
comparison shop the weather reports,
But of course I'm leaving lots out.
And despite the creeping order
ossifying my days with food,
disco tunes, magazines, sports,
crying like a kid when the Red Sox lost,
teaching all my classes this year,
despite my normal blood pressure
I can feet every night when I wake
up for a piss in a cold sweat
to change my tee shirt,
I can know there lurks somewhere
in the recesses between classifications
of killing time the rough beast,
the golden codger tacking toward
Listing like an autistic drunk,
leering between swells
a metaphor moving beyond
the limitations of shaping up.
One spring day we'd always go
to the herring run and dip our
winter-whitened hands into the stillish pools
beside the little water falls shot
randomly with iridescent herring.
They wandered hoveringly into our
water puckered hands,
Small, pink, fringed gills in breathing slits
fingered the water like drifting seaweed.
Breathing suspended between our waiting thumbs
and crooked fingers, and they thrashed
with feeble fins at the air and our tightened wrists
and gasped with horned mouths at the new nothingness
pressing at their separating gills.
On the matted spring ground they flipped sometimes
completely over while we hovered from a ledge
with icy hands for others. Hearing the flop - flap
and seeing the iridescence dulled by spring earth
stuck to their slippery sides, we hung by pools
near waterfalls and saw the water surface
sliced by black dorsal fins that shied
as if from a heaved rock and skittered from a shadow
ear the river edge without sound. Dusted dull,
the staring herring stared because they could not
close their eyes- unless a piece of winter-old
leaf stuck like a patch to the glazed
cornea. Sometimes the sun caught their heaving scales
and flashed through the budding maples.
Rush of white water erased the other sounds
which we could only imagine watching
breathless, bumbly blunted horn-mouths
try to use the useless air pressing in
like the unknown.
In the backyard on newspapers they bleed.
The print sticks to their sides in senseless collages.
"Black and white and red all over," someone would say.
Close to the earth we smelled the spring
and the blood of the dead herring
stuck to our investigating fingers.
The air was colder than it seemed.
We took the gem red roe and white milt
and placed them in a pan of water.
In the morning we ate herring roe
and that evening we gazed at eviscerated
herring organs in our microscopes,
and named the parts and, like augurers,
told our own future.
Do you remember the night
after the Junior Prom and
after we had gone to all the
"after" parties and even
after we had gone parking
behind the water tower
with our dates? I mean
after we had taken them home
how I drove up to the lake and
how we hung our tuxedos on pine trees and
how we swam and then wrestled on the sand
and then in the back seat
how you said I couldn't without some grease and
how we searched the glove-compartment for
sun tan lotion that was not there?
How you grinned opening the hood and
pulling out the dripping dip stick?
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