"The Crusades" is a selection from Carnations (Princeton University Press).
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
In the plaza, tender with the light of candle lanterns,
twelve Christians are murdered for their imaginations
of the wrong god… Please god, I think, speeding off
beneath the city, may that be my last day of work,
but the seat I’m stuck to slumps me toward tomorrow.
In the twilight of the tunnel I dream of this tomorrow;
it’s the one I always dream, the one I won’t describe,
the fine day for which I want no measure… Likewise
in history a smoke line appears, bronze above the desert
hung atop clay roofs. Likewise a second plume soon
bruises the wind. Two, now three black flags lean east—
the British bombarding Alexandria. As I walk home
the trees explode. They buckle slabs of sidewalk,
dark hands lifting blaze leaves up the brownstones
to the boxes of sky on Joralemon. I cannot say why
all of a sudden this happiness. Could be all my work
with poetry, though I’m not a poet yet. Could be weariness
—my every morning ride up the same swift chutes
rising bright in rectangular blues of empty windows,
and knowing each evening I’ll retrace these shadows.
I’m hungry, which means our children are hungry,
but there are no children; the streets are empty.
I realize nothing about this may sound like happiness.
Still, as I stop with the trees and the city hums
with the distant rush of honey bees on expressways
—and however dreadful or imagined it seems—
I believe the trees explode just the way it sounds.
Their warmth on my face, I believe the grass-made
cracks in the streets burn too. What becomes of me
when nothing terrible happens, and yet I see
a terrible beauty spiriting its embers to the awnings,
blushing the very sky? With beauty Cavafy says
men sit expecting barbarians that never come through.
He’s wrong. They rush this poem’s quiet plaza
as they rioted, merciless, in the poems of Cavafy
whether he saw them or not. The trees explode.
And the mind sets off once more across the prairie
between a dead bus hull and my building’s stoop,
where the lit debris falls, scentless as evening mists
fall, cool, erasing faraway capitals. It’s that quick.