Jerusalem Poems is a collection of seven poems included in Meena Alexander’s book of poems Birthplace with Buried Stones.
Alexander, Meena. “Jerusalem Poems.” Birthplace with Buried Stones. Evanston: North Western University Press, 2013. pp. 52-69.
At three in the afternoon,
A girl tumbling out of an unmade bed —
Skirts juniper colored, she rushes out of the room
Sand in between her toes and in the creases of her knees.
She runs very fast
Towards what was once a prison yard.
She stops in a clump of rosebush and thorn
Strips off her coat.
Through a hole in a brick wall
She leaps onto the stage Palladio made.
Above her, a ceiling where clouds drift.
Is that a ghostly horseman?
Clouds sift a future that gods painted
In scarlet and gold can scarcely comprehend.
Why search for the seven roads of Thebes?
There are fresh tragedies waiting for her.
A bitter wall of concrete cuts the sky,
In its shadow a woman kneels.
Eyes shut tight she sings
To a lad laid in the dirt,
Bullet holes in his hands and feet.
In his wounds wild roses bloom.
We have come to Haifa where the sea starts.
The theater Al Midani floats by a tree.
I see this clearly though a dark filament twists round the moon.
I tiptoe through surf —
A rope someone left at the end of the jetty,
I knot it to my ankle,
Not wanting to be swept away by sudden longing.
Inside the theater, candles, a mountain of bloom.
Does Haifa have almond blossom?
Must they gather it from the edges of the sea?
Someone was shot point blank and killed –
A man who kept waiting for the good life to occur,
For the mouth to speak what comes before speech,
Sap in the tree and firmament of flesh.
A child approaches me in the darkened theater
And whispers in my ear — Yes we are waiting for Godot –
I am overcome by the scent of tuberoses
And cigarette smoke and can’t reply —
Yes, many friends of the dead man are smoking .
Six or seven take turns reading from a poem
They pass the pages from hand to hand –
I left my gloom hanging on a branch of boxthorn
And the place weighed less.
A woman in black jeans forces open the windows.
The moon uncorks herself and blows away.
So this is how the sea starts: increments of longing,
Mostly in half darkness
Then a white light as waves rush through.
Cobblestones & Heels
By Herod’s gate,
In a twelfth century courtyard,
A woman in sweatpants,
Nails flashing crimson.
By her, a parrot in a cage.
–Tu tu tu tu hutu tu — the parrot cries.
By the cage stones shift.
See this foot? She lifts up her heel.
1967, they napalmed us.
Imagine that, stones where a saint knelt,
Pitted by fire.
Baba Farid, you know him, yes?
We buried grandmother in her dress of flame.
I keep her chain, always
She pointed a foot –
Gold swirled over torn bone.
On the ankle, under a loop of gold,
She fastened the stiletto shoe,
Against a parrot’s cage.
Hutu tu –tututu – I hear it moan
Shadow hopping on a heap of stone.
I wear heels now –
Take pride in my flesh,
Display what cuts.
We are strangers to this life
I and you.
Using a white hanky
She veils her face
Then rips it off, goes on talking.
We see signs, that’s all —
A dragonfly on a heap of green almonds,
Right by Damascus Gate,
Water in our taps
Turning the color of burnt salt
Then blazing like stars
In the night sky over Jerusalem.
By the leaking gas station
On the road to Abu Dis
Spray painted on the separation wall,
Huge letters —
Boys do it
When darkness falls –
Love sees no Color.
Dirt whispers, I’m coming home.
Yesterday, it rained so hard
Lemons spilt from the lemon tree
And rolled over cobble stones in my Jerusalem courtyard.
I thought of Baba Farid
Who came on a pilgrimage centuries ago.
In a hole cut from rock by the room where I sleep,
He stood for forty days and nights
Without food or drink. Nothing for him was strange
In the way his body slipped into a hole in the ground,
And nothing was not.
Rust in the stones and blood at the rim of his tongue.
In the humming dark
He heard bird beaks stitching webs of dew,
Sharp hiss of breath let out from a throat,
Whose throat he did not know.
Was it his mother crying O Farid, where are you now?
It’s what she did when he swung
Up and down, knees in a mango tree,
Head in the mouth of a well,
Singing praises to God.
Crawling out of his hole, welts on his cheeks,
And underfoot in bedrock – visionary recalcitrance.
A lemon tree wobbled in a high wind.
Under it, glistening in its own musk, the black iris of Abu Dis.
Wild with the scents of iris and lemon he sang – O Farid
This world is a muddy garden
Stone, fruit and flesh all flaming with love.
Garden in Nazareth
Already birds are flying into your garden,
Lark and quail, sand in their wings.
The garden is in front, the desert is not far.
Somewhere a bus is burning.
Your wife enters, tray in hand — heaped with fennel shining,
Cut apples, loquats, pears.
Sweet and cooked scents rise in your sick room
Man-mountain sitting up in bed,
On your head a cap of wool, a blue stripe on it.
You balance a thimble full of coffee in your hand.
I stare at your furrowed palm, fit to clutch pen or spade,
Dig for memory.
How long have you been in this garden?
Twenty million years! Your voice is hoarse —
A stream under red rocks.
I think of Saffuriyya, your village destroyed,
I think of a girl with auburn hair, where is she now?
Do you know the Panchatantra,
The hare and the tortoise story?
We are like that, the tortoise in the dry land.
It lives in our head.
You look to the side, fall quiet.
A tear rolls from your eye.
I cannot bear it now and say — Taha Muhammad Ali , Sir,
Your poems are a garden. The sky is beyond us.
The garden will outlast us.
You seem not to hear.
You slip against the pillow, push yourself up again.
I lean forward adjust the blanket.
The birds, I say, there are many birds in your garden.
Your face lights up. Sunlight on your face.
A thread of gold breaks the sky.
You stretch out a hand
Reaching for a world we have not seen,
A life of sound and circling sense
Vivid air, the wound of mist,
A woman boils milk, on an old stove,
Pours it into a metal cup
Hands it to a man just back from the fields.
A boy cradles a quivering mouse in his hands,
He’s rescued it from a trap.
A girl with auburn hair,
Dressed in checked skirt and white blouse
Plucks apricots by a stream.
Overhead clouds part.
Close at hand, beside a mound of sand
A broken comb, a burning bush:
An old, old story — the bush burns
And is not consumed,
The leaves are scarlet,
The leaves are filled with singing syllables.
(In memory of Taha Muhammad Ali 1931-2011)
At Herod’s gate
I heap flowers in a crate
Poppies, moist lilies —
It’s dusk, I wait.
Wild iris —
The color of your eyes before you were born
That hard winter
And your mother brought you to Damascus gate.
My desire silent as a cloud,
It floats through New gate
Over the fists
Of the beardless boy-soldiers.
You stopped for me at Lion’s gate,
Feet wet with dew
From the torn flagstones
Love, I was forced to approach you
Through Dung Gate
My hands the color
Of the broken houses of Silwan.
At Zion’s gate I knelt and wept.
An old man, half lame —
He kept house in Raimon’s café,
Led me to the fountain.
At Golden gate,
Where rooftops ring with music,
I glimpse your face.
You have a coat of many colors — impossible grace.
The nymph of the wept for fountain…
She waits for me under a green almond tree
Right in the middle of the cemetery,
In front of a broken stone marking a man’s death.
Glyphs dissolve — her voice clarifies:
Why are you here in Ma’man Allah Cemetery?
You should have stayed in the market place in Nablus,
With mounds of sweet konafa
Gleaming vessels filled with tea,
Or stopped with the children playing ball
And flying kites of bristling paper
Right by the separation wall –
Barelegged children, wind in their hair.
You could have sat in Bethlehem
With women sewing bits of cloth,
Threads iridescent, like sunbirds’ wings.
Why come to this nest of lamentations?
I come I said for love alone
–Though I barely know what this might mean —
And because I heard you calling me.
Black hair blown back over her face,
Hair stung with flecks of golden chamomile,
I watched her gaze at me.
Her eyes bloodshot, soot under her lids,
And all about on dusty ground
Dropped from the almond tree, half-moons of green
Torn and pecked by passing crows.
Her voice surprised me though, low
What is it you want to know?
She rose, swirling her skirts:
Stuck to the gleaming silk
Hundreds of shards
They looked like crawling silkworms,
Maggots even, sucked from earth.
Don’t be scared, come closer now:
After the bulldozers,
After the men with cardboard boxes,
I kneel in wet grass,
In between the torn gravestones
And the ones defaced with paint
I gather what I can.
She held up her wrists, bruised,
Dark as a sparrow’s wing.
I have work to do.
I wash my hands in moonlight
Then gather up these precious bones.
Bit by bit I polish them
Using my hands and hair,
Using smooth stones.
I breathe on these ancestral bones
Until they glow — miraculous metamorphosis —
Winged things, they soar into a wheel of stars
High above Jerusalem.
Yes, I admit my life is odd.
I sleep in that tree,
The one with black flowers.
It blooms by the gate you came through,
Easiest that way,
No rent to pay, no landlord to trouble me.
Don’t you agree?
Then something took hold of her.
The creak perhaps of a lorry at the gate
Or was it the mewl of a cat from the parking lot
Paved over the unquiet dead?
She wiped her face with the back of her hand,
Settled her skirts
– O incandescent burden –
One hand gripping a green branch
She leant against the almond tree.
Her words were notes struck on a painted oud,
An abyss broke between us:
When you stand in monsoon rain,
Remember me —
The child of Lamentation
And sister of Memory,
Youngest of the muses,
The one who whistles in the wind at dawn,
Who kneels by the clogged stream
To open the fountain of joy:
I am a creature of water and salt,
Of bitter herbs and honey —
A torn sail on the river Jordan,
I long to be free.
— April 16, 2011 Nablus – December 26, 2011, Tiruvella —
“Teatro Olimpico,” “Nocturne,” “Cobblestones and Heels,” “Indian Hospice,” “Garden in Nazareth,” “Impossible Grace,” and “Mamilla Cemetery” appear in the limited edition chapbook Impossible Grace : Jerusalem Poems ( Jerusalem: Center for Jerusalem Studies, Al Quds University, 2012). My thanks to Huda Imam.
The poem “Impossible Grace” was set to music by Stefan Heckel (winner of the Al Quds Music Award) and sung by baritone Christian Oldenburg, Hind el Husseini College, in Jerusalem on October 7, 2012. My thanks to Petra Klose.
I composed this poem in Italy, after a visit to Vicenza. Somehow the separation wall came into it. I had the poem with me and read it out a week later, April 7, 2011, at the Al-Midani theatre, Haifa, during a memorial for Juliano Mer-Khamis. My thanks to Khaled Furani for taking me to Haifa.
The lines in italics come from Mahmoud Darwish, Mural, trans. Rema Hammami and John Berger, (London, Verso, 2009)
In April 2011, I visited Mamilla Cemetery. This ancient place of Muslim burial was being torn apart by the Israeli authorities in order to build a Museum of Tolerance. I am grateful to Huda Imam and Jamal Nusseibeh for taking me there.