Poetry and Poetics
HISTORY, NO GEOGRAPHY
—for Geoffrey Hill
What do they learn in a country without books?
The absolute circumference of a circle,
multiplying the number by pi?
The number of pygmies and angels
who could dance in a perfect circle
whose area is measured in Hilbert space?
In my dream I live in a time of smoke and fire
and rumblings under the hills. In a place
where children are taught no history, no geography—
only the atomic numbers of unseen substances.
I dream of how Bedouin
sail their camel across days of sand
that look the same day after day
by the position and magnitude of stars
at certain hours between nightfall and morning.
Of how forests collapse into desert.
How poets without balalaikas sing on the tundra.
At the edge of an island wracked by war and pestilence
a small group of people draw lots, prepare to embark
in coracles and dugout canoes
on a voyage of how many nights and days
no one is quite prepared to say. "Find
another land," instructs the chief.
"Build homes there. Raise children. Worship the old gods.
Tell stories about all you have left behind."
And what books were left behind
by the virtuous citizens of Pompeii?
What parchments did Schliemann unearth
on the site of Troy?
A thousand years from now
an archaeologist finds a burned fragment
of a page from the Revelation
of Saint John the Divine,
as curious and precious
as the scraps of the Dead Sea Scrolls
found in a jar in a cave
in the country they used to call Jordan.
© by John Drexel
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