Thursday, September 1, 2016

Garden of Verse: Two Poems from Lebanon



            Two poems published last month in Verse-Virtual.com date from our recent, early summer visit to Lebanon. Both have their origin in our persistent wanderings in Beirut, both a magical and a very real city. Over a dozen years we've seen the evidence of the damage from the city's war years diminish, the luxury hotel towers go up, and, more recently, a growing concern that the traditional architecture of the Arab Mediterranean city -- Arab style houses, Ottoman buildings: ornate balconies, iron gates, tall windows, open stairwells, courtyards, rooftop gardens -- is giving way to new buildings that lack the charm but raise the rent. It's easier and more profitable to build a new building with modern infrastructure than preserve and restore the beauty of the old.
            Western cities have been fighting this battle for years. Now it comes to old cities in developing countries that attract investment.   
            Anne and I have been taking walks on our own in Beirut on the last few visits. Given Smartphone technology we're probably past the point of having to stop high school kids who study English to ask for directions back to our daughter's neighborhood. Probably; hopefully.
            Plenty of the old is still around. Wood and stone have long memories. Some moments find you and stop you cold. No one has found a reason yet to knock down a piece of wooden wall in the photo above. Here's the poem:


Old Wooden Doors  
(after a photo taken on a side street in Beirut)








What faces do we see 
in the bone mirrors of long-ago trees?
A long-closed portal 
to an unknowable life,
lost decades before like the city that was, 
hidden beneath the mask 
of an ancient plague called simply "the war."
No war now.
Merely the routine clamor 
of the mind-fogging traffic.
This wall of doors has taken the veil
Patient as the ages, it watched a city crumble,
reclaim its pieces 
burred with time like furred candy,
make up its face again
smile and grimace in the lightweight days of not yet summer, 
a day that lets the caged bird sing
from the balcony.



             Two years ago on a previous visit we were surprised to find women sitting on the sidewalks of a busy commercial district begging, with their children beside them. Well, of course, after three years of devastating civil war an estimated one million Syrian refugees were trying to survive in neighboring Lebanon, a country the size of Connecticut with its one big city. What did I expect?
            I wrote a poem called "Sidewalk Madonnas," that was published in a few places, and a commentary that the Globe put on its digital edition. Unhappily, poems don't stop humanitarian disasters.
            Last summer, two more cataclysmic years later, things are that much worse for the war's displaced persons. You can no longer hand a low-denomination Lebanese Lira note to a black-clad woman and go unmolested on your way.
            This poem describes that experience.


I Flee Them Now  

I flee them now,
the feral beggars of the Syrian Catastrophe,
that fiery execution and slow-burn decomposition of a nation
in which the New World Order
dumbly colludes, rubbing its two-faced chin
Why should they not run me down,
strip me of value, market my flesh and bones,
render my trace elements useful in the end?
I do no good for them now
my tongue dumb, my outrage numb,
my well-intended prayers for peace of no account
when what's required is salvation on-the-ground 

Robbed of their childhood,
denuded of home, country, kinship, future,
stranded in a world of strangers,
why not fling their hungers at the impotent bystanders
whose bellies are full,
whose tongues fail to shake the palaces of power
whose fortunate existences mock their stolen lives?
I have no country to give them.

(These poems and many others can be found at Verse-Virtual.com. Here's a direct link:

http://www.verse-virtual.com/robert-knox-2016-august.html )