The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Christopher Merrill

Expeditions

 

The traveler in Arabia was not lost in a sandstorm, contrary to what the land surveyor reported to the police. Nor was he living in a desert compound built by a prince eager to impress foreigners. In fact he joined a caravan leaving for the Empty Quarter, disguised in a mask made of raveled hemp and a robe stolen from a sleeping dervish. He crossed himself as he mounted his camel, and as he rode into the blazing sunlight he murmured, There is no God but God… In that region the judges stayed in bed all day. The prophets borne by the wind had nothing good to say about the prince’s guests—scoffers and scorners and bearers of a spirit from beyond the sea. The land surveyor also noted in his report that the contaminated oasis was evaporating faster than ever. As for the traveler? He gazed into the watery distance, vowing never to return to his homeland, even if the wolves howling at the camels until morning moved in for the kill.
__________

Are we other? The answers came in two colors, fuchsia and ochre, which had gone out of style in the first year of the siege, and when we asked the oracle to address us in a fashion more to our liking there was no response. We measured the ensuing silence in the bolts of fabric—madder red and mauve—ordered for the outdoor concert to celebrate the end of the war, an extravaganza canceled at the last minute, due to inclement weather. The musicians lined up to perform from both sides of the divided city still demanded payment, and we could not counter the publicity generated by their protest, which took the form of an album recorded in the twisted remains of the bridge that once united us. They played their hearts out by the river; they promised that proceeds from the sale of the album would go to the restoration of the library and the orphanage; they knew they would not be audited. So we asked the oracle again, politely.
__________

─ Bad timing, she said. I leave for Algiers on the 17th.
─ I was hoping to see you again, he said.
─ I know, she said.
─ In this country, he said.
─ Ah, she said. There’s the rub.
__________

The fatal gene he carried did not begin to replicate until after the disputed election, the results of which were accepted only by people like the goatherd throwing stones at his kids to keep them from straying into the single paved road through the desert and gun-runners who never voted. Nor did he start to waste away until the coup plotters presented him with a plan to take over the palace, airport, and radio stations. And he delayed drawing up his will until a new constitution was approved, which included a clause granting him immunity for any crimes committed during his time in office. In a statement released to the press he said he looked forward to spending more time with his family, who had gone into exile, and in his final weeks he called his disease a legitimate exercise of power. His last request? To meet the train conductor who had missed the signal at the crossing—which made all the difference.
__________

In Acre we resumed our study of fortifications, knowing that whatever contributions we made to this field of inquiry would merit little more than a footnote in the next history of war. Two kings, two palaces, two scribes: which road to take? I called in reinforcements, neglecting to use a secure line, which gave the colonel an excuse to deny my request, declaring that our position had been overrun—though there were no reports of enemy activity in the area. He was only too happy to complicate my life, having earlier blocked my appointment to the war college, citing irregularities in my scholarship. He had also dredged up a rumor of an affair with an intelligence analyst whose security clearance was later revoked, and she was with me in the citadel when he gave the order to evacuate. We were hiding in the enchanted garden, comparing notes on its reconstruction. I loved her more than anyone would ever know.
__________

─ Next year in Jerusalem, she said
─ Very funny, he said.
─ Tangier? she said.
─ Now you’re talking, he said.
─ No, she said. I’m not.
__________

The tentmaker went to Andalusia, not to salvage his reputation, as some suggested, but to work in a different medium, stitching and unstitching strips of canvas dipped in vats of vegetable dye—red and blue and yellow—on which to inscribe instructions for another way of being. The messages he sent to his followers, sewn into bags of spices and fragrant oils and smuggled along a trade route abandoned by merchants in favor of the new sea routes to the Orient, ended up in a style of plain chant adapted by the authorities to their own purposes. In this, too, he saw the hand of God, countering the arguments of those who accused him of betraying them when he slipped out of his chains and fled to a land where he could practice his trade without distractions. I say to you, he liked to say, arranging his colorful bags atop the donkey. They would fetch a good price in Damascus, if they weren’t confiscated at the border.
__________

The fishing boat listing in the harbor became the soldiers’ target as the sun set over the sea. They shot at its hull until it was too dark to distinguish it from the warship riding at anchor beyond the jetty, and as the lights came on along the waterfront they didn’t hesitate to abandon their post, confident of their commanding officer’s judgment: they would never face disciplinary action for patrolling the bars by the dock. For they garnered valuable information from the drunken sailors and merchant marines about the wind and tides, the customs of women in ports in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, the price of silver or tin, which they passed along each night to the old man who waited for them at the end of the pier, whistling “Tom Dooley.” They assumed he was unarmed, not because he paid them well for their meandering reports but because they thought their luck would never run out. And who could blame them?
__________

─ Drink up, he said.
─ I feel sick, she said.
─ Me, too, he said.
─ Not likely, she said.
─ No, he agreed. Not likely.
__________

They boxed up the classified materials and sent them to another embassy, saving the expense of an investigation that would reveal what they already knew: their archivist could not be trusted. He had warned them not to ship anything by sea, pirates having turned the coastline into a free-fire zone, and for his counsel his budget was slashed, his security detail taken away. Not that he was overly concerned for his well-being. His nocturnal forays into the capital’s seamier precincts were what had brought him to the attention of three different intelligence services, each of which turned his predilections to their advantage, securing blueprints, field manuals, and reports dating back to the founding of the republic—and yet he was allowed to copy and catalogue files, which he duly passed along to his friends. They told him he had nothing to be afraid of—repatriation this late in his career was out of the question—and they were right.
__________

In her strange syntax we heard the bells that had not rung at daybreak—and this was our cue to leave the imperial city before she finished saying her prayers. For we had stayed the night only to listen to the divine music of the belfry, which had, alas, been destroyed in the war (a fact omitted from our guide books); hence we were on the alert for anything that might hinder our ability to obtain any documents concerning the fate of the search party sent out after our last mission. We never learned why our negotiations had been called off just when it looked as if war might be averted, nor what became of our interpreter, a gifted young man escorted from the palace under armed guard. Too distant, he cried—and still we could not muster the courage to speak. The rest was the silence of our complicity in a crime whose victims would receive no justice. Too distant: this was what the kneeling woman sang in a loud, clear voice.
__________

─ There was a big storm, he said.
─ Don’t start, she said.
─ Lightning everywhere, he said.
─ No, she said.
─ Everywhere, he said.

Iowa City-Essaouira-Fes-Casablanca-Jerusalem-Washington-Sozopol, April-May 2010

 

 

 

CHRISTOPHER MERRILL has published six collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many edited volumes and books of translations; and five works of nonfiction, among them, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars and Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain. His latest prose book, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, chronicles travels in Malaysia, China and Mongolia, and the Middle East. His writings have been translated into nearly forty languages; his journalism appears widely; his honors include a Chevalier from the French government in the Order of Arts and Letters. As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Merrill has conducted cultural diplomacy missions to more than fifty countries. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and in April 2012 President Obama appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities.

 

 

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