Poetry | June 01, 2007

[This poem was featured as a Poem of the Week, March 3, 2009.]

“East of Carthage: 9”

Southwest of here is Apuleius’s hometown, his inescapable

destination having spent his inheritance on travel and studies.

“Lacking the poverty of the rich,” he’d splurged, a month-long trip

to the Olympic games; and openhanded, he gifted his mentors

their daughters’ dowries. Few return to Madaura once gone,


and when heading back shamefaced like him, they’d do as he did,

taking the longest route hoping the journey would never end.

Here in Sabratha, the widow hooked him, or he let her reel him,

and that’s how that sordid business happily ended as it began.

I look out toward Madaura, my back to the theater and the latrines,


Madaura, birthplace of Augustine, site of his first schooling-

little Augustine holding a satchel of scrolls, a loaf of bread for the teacher,

awakened by his mother, his tiny feet cold in tiny sandals,

his stomach warm with a barley porridge my grandmother used to make,

forced to slurp it, sweetened with a spoon of honey from the Atlas,


a sprinkling of cinnamon (they were that well off)

and crushed almonds from the family farm.

If the world is that sweet and warm, if it is that mothering,

why then this perpetual scene of separation,

this turning-out into the cold toward something he knew he’d love?


He lets go of the neighbors’ boy’s hand warming his own.

He refuses the warm porridge forever, renounces his mother’s embrace.

It only lasted a month, this partial answer, later to be pursued

elsewhere, because even then everyone here knew

that the sweet oranges they grew housed the bitterest seeds,


that piety is its own reward, while belief only darkens

and deepens like the sea before them, a place

meant for those seeking life other than on this dry earth.

That’s why prophets had been welcomed here, calmly,

because God was like rain and they like the saplings


drawing heat from another imperfection, and from the soil

which knows only the first verse to the sky’s rainless hymn.

And that’s why Africa’s tallest minaret looms unfinished,

visible from the next town over, and for fifty leagues from the sea if

it were turned into a lighthouse for the ships that no longer come.


The merchant who built it, money made from smuggling

subsidized goods to Carthage and used Renaults from Rotterdam,

ran out of money, could not afford the mosque that was to stand

next to it, leaving its gray concrete bleaching in the sun.

There’s enough history here to enable anyone to finish the thought.


It’s useless then to track the fate of these travelers;

some, without life jackets, had never learned how to swim.

Why not let them live in text as they do in life?-they’ve lived

without words for so long-why not release them

from the pen’s anchor and let them drift to their completion?


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