In anniversary, I took a box cutter & slit
the jute mat’s web of hay & smoke
& thrust a handful of manure into the wound
with a bulb of horsemint.
Under the windows of recovering men
in rooms quieted, the desiderata
of their blood slowing, we plant goldenrod
& butterfly bush on this ledge
of the converted convent.
The nuns of 182nd & Valentine
hollowed out these rooms as Saint Simon
lived years in a broken, living
tree waiting for the Virgin, who he called
by her other name: little rain
cloud. I knock the spade
against the copper, wipe clean the blade
on my jeans, the dung of camel,
gorilla, & ostrich bright in my nose,
a night soil we carted from the zoo
to be mixed with compost & ground-down
liter bottles. Yesterday, the elephants
were on hunger strike after a new cow
was placed in their pen. They huddled
under the turning maples—almost
as if they were asking to be tried for something
they knew they must have done—
while the lone elephant
lowered her trunk into a drum of water
& it began to rain.
Wasps in the date-bearing palm,
Herodotus believed, kept the fruit from dropping
before harvest, withered. Likely he meant the fruit
flies who carry pollen inside the warm guts
of the male fruit to impregnate the trees
lining the canals through Babylon.
Though Herodotus doesn’t tell us this, Amytis—
brought from the mountains to have the hanging
gardens built around her—kept a hive
of bees by her window for the same reason
I keep a jar of apple blossom honey
given to me by a friend I don’t speak to anymore.
Eating rock shrimp & black
edamame last night, Gabi said legalizing
prostitution might create a new species
of rights. And negative freedoms,
she said, lifting a piece of raw mackerel,
are what cannot be done to you.
Meaning that my friend’s sister
cannot be held by the neck, made to scream
in a forgotten room at a party.
Or how, like the other women in the city,
Amytis was made, once in her life,
to wait in the goddess’ temple
for a stranger, as was his right, to give her
a single coin, to be taken by him outside
on the steps in daylight, the coin on a cord
around her throat. Or how the difference
between liberty & freedom might be
what Herodotus measured between the river
& the green interior of the city: fifty cubits
of river brick & asphalted reed mats
strong enough to bear this much earth
& falling water, date palms
& bitter Persian limes the bees
were left only a useless memory of
when Amytis’ husband, as was his right,
kept moving the hive
so they could never find their way home
& each morning when she checked
the honeycomb she found it empty
save for a silver coin.
Control yourself, give, be compassionate.
Come up into the garden where the bald ibis
has lulled his migration. Tomorrow, radar
will follow him over the sea, hoping the wintering
grounds—thought destroyed—will be revealed.
No, you say, the thunder
repeats its praises,
& so do the angels, with awe.
Try to set the lands in order, the marshes
even, though no one will live here now, the water
birds gone, fish swallowed
by the cracked earth. A pride of lions
roams the white streets, starving, half-mad
with the murmuring hive the bombs
left in their ears.
If there were water—
but there is no water. Ask people what they want
done with the tyrant, & they will say to hang
a cage at the assassins’ gate so he can live
out his days—so they can taunt him
through the bars, poke at his withering.
Here’s a prophecy then:
tonight we’ll send a patrol to find the great cats
trying to find the zoo now as cratered
as the moon, as dim in their memory as the singing
grass of savannah.
The bird in his roof-tree,
a damp gust in the limp leaves
bringing the taunt of rain, has a name for itself
that is not another word for peace, not what
we’d have chosen. Not a kingfisher, an ibis—
where is your book of the birds of Babylon?
Of course there are dead sea swallows—
they are common in summertime.
And barn swallows
will erupt from the trees when machine guns
begin to open the beasts’ honey skin,
their bodies seeming almost to explode from within,
from a fire almost pure—almost wanting
to be the something else they become just then.
What is that sound high above?
Can radar follow the bird’s wintering
migration this far from the roof garden,
over broken cisterns, the bells
& small boats on the waves in faint moonlight
to this prison at nightfall?
What do you want?
you want to ask the man swaying above
the shouts of hell, hell, hell. Your camera—
what did you hope to catch, right then,
waiting for a door in the roof of the sky
to fall open? Awe? The feeble peace
of angels? Just then, was that thunder—just then?
Hear Colin Cheney read _Hanging Garden_:
**Colin Cheney**’s first book, Here Be Monsters, was selected as a winner of the 2009 National Poetry Series Open Competition, and will be published in April 2010 by University of Georgia Press. In 2006, Cheney was awarded a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Poetry, Gulf Coast, Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, and Kenyon Review Online.
Photo via “Flickr”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/laura-elizabeth/2409898301/