Delectable little seeds
freckling the round cookies' crown—
kaa-iik, in Arabic, strands of skin-
smooth dough pinched together
end to end, each a circle
fitting in the palm of the hand;
speckled with anise seeds, baked
in the oven, golden brown.
Weeks later, I still have the shoebox
filled with them you left for me.
These last years, each new batch made
by your hands that near the end
had to see for you
instead of your eyes that saw,
you said, "only smoke."
After each visit I'd bring my stash
on the plane back to San Francisco
and in the kitchen dip one,
then another into coffee, lingering
over them—hard, edible
chunks of dust; inside, a horizon
taste of anise, after-
taste of the black licorice
we were addicted to as kids. Daily
dust we used to munch on
for hours, without their giving out,
kept in the battered tin can on the stove.
Over dishes piled with them,
women gossiped, planned weddings;
men discussed business and argued
the minutest variations of religious law.
Now I ration and savor
each one, since they're growing scarce,
and the recipe has disappeared
along with the maker.
Her cooking pots and pans—dented,
discolored, burnt black—
over the years took on
character, each taking on
a different face and shape,
like friends I'd recognize
in her small apartment. Kitchen folk,
who'd served her more than 50 years.
Friends of the family, in
and out of the fire.
Having arrived too late,
coffin already closed,
I missed seeing you
a last time.
Later, took a keepsake
from your dresser—
the old pair of scissors,
handles' black enamel
wearing off—I now use
to cut the manuscripts
you never saw, and trim
the beard you made a face at
on first seeing.
Make another face. Any
of your many mocking ones . . .
I wouldn't mind.
Laid in ground, July's end
evaporating, in slow-
motion recall: her never asking
"What's on your mind?"
but "Ish fee elbak?" Arabic for
"What's in your belly?"—question
whose grasp of the real
does not depend on any answer.
"Phish elbak" ("Satisfy your belly.")
she'd urge me to
go out into the street
when she'd find me poring over
my microscopes and slides,
staining an insect wing, or after
one of my successful chemistry experiments
which stunk up the house . . .
But I was already
happy, like the roaches
inside the walls
with a little garbage.
crystallized in the aluminum foil
lining the can of baklava,
she'd urge on me and I'd protest, having
too much luggage for the plane-ride back . . .
and now, late as usual, remorse
a near miss,
am glad I brought it.
Shaved slivers, thick
sugar chunks like coarse silver-streaked
quartz, sticky, fragrant with rose-water . . .
I pinch out
and melt under the hot tap
from the kitchen sink.
I have no use now
for so much sweetness.
calls I used to make to you Sundays . . .
I'll miss them,
and, as they say, regret
my lower phone bill.
She used to tease me:
"If you lost your mind
you wouldn't be losing much."
At the cemetery, nodding
toward the expensive pink marble
headstones among rows of grey slabs,
Louie says, "When you're alive
people are not so good to you,
but after you're dead
they're very good. In death,
September sun, lower
earlier each day,
and a hard soughing
wind high in the trees . . .
Summer, which did not come,
is not going to.
After 80 years, she still cannot read
nor write a word in English or Arabic,
not having been to school, neither
in Beirut or Brooklyn.
In more than 50 years, she absorbs
a few simple words in English in the way sand
absorbs water, and peppers her Arabic
with mockeries of the language
in which she feels herself a reluctant
Mimicking Pop's "Don't give me a lecture,"
with "Don't give me a rupture."
Another moon shot.
After the first man was landed,
she said, "Let's see them land a man
on the sun!"
After managing to scratch her name
in English (lower case, predating e.
e. cummings), a painstaking
legible enough to qualify
for citizenship papers back when,
she promptly put pen and paper down
Her illiteracy, a kind of stubborn
power of the old.
to say No.
Sad, the way old faces change so much
we can no longer detect in them
any similarity to our own.
In the absence of a tape, impossible to reproduce her speech.
Spoken Arabic comes from far deeper
in the throat than English, or what she often scornfully referred
"Frenjy": all that is quaint, mannered, and ultimately
Hawked, garbled, spit: Arabic:
arid and vivid at once. Desert parched
down to a mineral grit where dryness hones things to an edge.
Gutturals and consonants grind stones,
pulverize enemies into a pinch of snuff;
the stuff old Arab men stick up their noses.
Odd, from that place you did not see to here,
but from this place you see to there. If so, where
go to be seen
In the Koran, "Paradise
is under the feet
of your mother."
Paradise may be
all lust. If so, then aren't we al-
ready in paradise . . .
At times now, absently turning on the afternoon TV soaps
and game shows. Like you, watching without seeing,
listening without watching, leaving on without listening,
colored flicker, canned laughter.
At your grave we joked
about putting in with you your beloved
You keep coming back
to her whom you came from and fed on
She herself is gone. Now
you are not from any more, but to.
Passed on. But not gone? O.K. then,
is that which we have
to do without. For the faithful, God
the dreams one
never acted on.
All fresh grows
or word, what-
ever you cannot live or face,
Pop used to chide me: "You want things easy
and want to find things out for yourself."
And what I have found out for myself is that
things are not easy.
Curses in Arabic are like a secret weapon,
burrs attaching to the hated one and burning
through the genetic
channel of assholes descending in time
back to his ancestors.
Founded not on feast or famine,
Islam is a fire in the bowels,
extinguishment of the senses.
No wonder, Rimbaud's
rush into that inferno.
steam of fire
an enemy's traces
as surely as the desert
wipes out footprints.
We ought to study curses
to know what lies in store for us.
What would have become of Rimbaud in reverse?—
After Africa, poetry . . .
How tired of speaking, how exhausted
from appearing you must have been.
The older people become, the more their faces have
to carry the weight
of their entire body.
Ike telling about his father:
how in the hospital after a massive heart attack,
the old man (an avid cardplayer) in a coma
kept repeating, "Give me an ace, give me
a king, a queen,
give me a heart, give me a heart . . ."
an hour later, gone.
A certain logic of feeling?—
that what we hear leads us to want to hear more?
Forms a pattern oddly familiar
yet alluringly strange; leaps on us
surprise and fearful dread, words that must be
made to flow as easily as water; aqua
architecture, going through
you back to the beginning
before taking a next step forward.
Words that can sometimes rescue
if you're lucky
enough to be surprised by them.
On TV, the young woman in Istanbul,
after terrorists had gunned down worshippers in a synagogue,
quips, "My mother is Jewish, my father is Muslim;
we have our own Mideast
crisis at home."
In the future
slum or kingdom
mind the doves, the
wolves will do
streets and alleys
not be just wide
enough for one,
in which no two
Lately am getting practice in peering
into people's eyes at 8 in the morning
at the clinic, putting in Mydriacil drops
to dilate their pupils.
Patients call me "Doctor."
I don't correct them.
Most people squirm in their seats, flinch at the drops
that sting. But the old Asian women from Vietnam and Laos,
slender as young girls in their long, flower-print skirts,
are quiet and still when I lean forward with the dropper;
they stare straight ahead.
Photos of the eyes' interior
show light pockets of fluid and dark craters,
nerve webs, blood vessels, like the moon's surface.
Or solar coronas, helical patterns like the rings of Saturn.
Any of them could be your
Passing the cemetery, an elderly woman on the street
greets a neighbor and her two small boys.
Passing them, croons, "My, my, how you boys are growing fast!"
then turns away, muttering under her breath, "To what,
I don't know."
Under blue sky, red-breasted robin standing on funeral landscaped
grass . . .
as if these colors, day's variation of the rainbow, delectable
little seeds, could heal once.
And for all.
Jack Marshall, Sesame, Coffee House Press, 1993.