The International Literary Quarterly

February 2008

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. 12 Preludes by Mimi Khalvati  

(i) The Amphitheatre

Two men are rolling tables,
round tables like golden discs
and now the legs are unfolded

and there are more, many more
round tables like golden discs.
The amphitheatre is entabled,

one golden arc of circles
on a bright green strip.
Now they are rolling more


from the rental truck, more
tables for the second strip
till the last man in blue comes,

rolling the last golden disc.
Now they wait, the tables,
the faces, the round golden masks

and the sky says nothing.
Now the white canoes
and the three white geese.

Now they peck in tandem,
pecking, pecking,
while an insect calls

from among the trees.
Where are the gods
of Iowa? The gods of peace?

The ‘drowsy ones’,
‘he who paints pictures’,

(ii) The Tree

A day so grey. I did my laundry.
There was nowhere I wished to go.
Whatever pain I had left behind

was better left. I switched on
all the lights in my room, all
the reading lamps and ceiling lights

and still the day was grey.
I will place a bookmark in my book
and look at the walkway and the sea

blueish-grey on the cover.
I will turn to the river and see
the same river I saw yesterday.

There is no one I wish to talk to.
I will sit quietly in the bookshop
and hear what the poets say.

All the many trees of Iowa –
Norway Spruce and White Pine,
Cottonwood and Maple,

Linden, Ash, and Sycamore,
are as nothing to this tree of light
pointing across the river

and the sky leans down to say
‘I am the tree their shadows create,
fallen, that you may see me,

shining, that you may float,
oars still, moving me in your wake
as the wind moves spruce and cedar.’

(iii) The Precinct

Not the grass but the road, every road
is made for dapple. Shadow
can be as shadow was meant to be –

grey and lovelier for being grey.
Red-brick paved, the precinct,
lined with bench and tree, is a flood

of dapple, a dapple that lends itself
to smells – kerosene, coffee, street cuisine –
downtown in every city of the world.

The floor of the mind must look like this:
thoughts that have barely landed
lit with pockets of sunlight –

unthoughts, the workings of a mind
not ours, glimmering beyond us.
I watch people walking through the sieve

unaware how they are registered –
pigeons of shadow slanted on a shirt,
bars on a wall, stripes on a pelt.

We walk in the cast of mind that dapple
gives us. Nothing, not even the bright
acacia, the red and orange dahlias,

sparrows darting among the berries,
is lovelier than the ground itself.
And now that our lovemaking

has accepted failure and limitation,
how gently we lie together, asking
for nothing, giving sleep permission.

(iv) The Sculpture

Right from the beginning
there’s already a sense of memory,
the dominant suspending them

above the home key, father and son
confined to their own stone square.
He’s squatting down to tie

the little boy’s shoelace, ready
for the story to begin. His mouth
is open – ‘like this’ he says.

The right hand says the same thing
twice but the left hand is moving up,
creating forward motion.

The boy peers down, riveted
on the knot; a change of key is created
by the smallest interval possible.

We walk round them as round
the benches, bins, the fountain.
Attention turns to the bass.

So many harmony turns
and a sudden darkening of the colour,
a middle voice like sobs, a very moving,

plaintive voice, still in that parlando
we don’t expect to hear again.
Everything is being told.

The little boy’s hands fan
like doves in silhouette,
both hands moving together.

(v) The Song

The song must come from elsewhere.
I can only hear the vowels. Oh oh oh
the song sings. Then oh again

like the sugar maple exuding small
gold gasps, then a kind of humming.
Me, the river sings, then ma, ah, ah,

then some incomprehensible
play on y from Burma. ‘A hermit country’,
Mr Moe explained. Far off laughter.

The song must come from elsewhere,
from some other organ. The word
‘organic’ was first used by Aristotle

to refer to parts of warships – parts
of a whole that made the whole thing work.
Suspended between the giant spokes

of the wooden starboard paddlewheel
of the William M. Black (32 tons)
as it turned on display were two spiderwebs,

one a perfect diagram, one half-rent,
demonstrating how the wheel evolved
from weightlessness to weight.

Why am I awake? I have climbed
out of the pit of sleep, out of the river
itself. Foghorns call over Iowa.

‘Here is the place’, ‘beautiful land’,
in all its spellings: Ay-u-vois, Ayavois,
Ay-u-ou-ez, Aiaoua, Ayoüs, Ayoës, Ioway.

(vi) The Leaves

People cling to each other
but no one has the strength
to be the branch – we are leaves

now, nothing but leaves.
Names destined to die
in contact lists. The river

is on the move and we
who have no claim to it,
who have claim to other rivers

in other cities, other continents,
are swept along with it.
Choi, from South Korea,

who says her language is
useless, useless, who has spent
her time translating it; Genti,

struggling out of Albania’s
fifty years of isolation;
‘Doc’, Ashur fom Libya,

who tells me my poems
are all the same, the same,
Doris, our femme fatale,

and Nukila who buys her clothes
in the boys department, Srijato,
sad to have his young wife leave;

and Choi again, stepping off
the path, saying in her useless
language she likes the sound of leaves.

(vii) The Void

That “cutting edge”, where all
true poems climb from and return to,
is the edge where the void begins.

True vision is a bridge from here to there.
Emily Dickinson sat in her room
and the galaxy unrolled beneath her feet …

I am thick with sleep, with reading.
And the river is thick with light,
the sky’s light I can see it reading.

She sat in her room and the garden
and the orchard outside her windows
took on the ghostly garments of infinity …

The journey in life, as the song says,
is a lonesome valley. And all the roads
that wind through the ten thousand things!

And that young woman reading
under the trees – lonesome, sure.
Even lonesomeness is enviable

because we recognise ourselves in it.
There are poets of the dark and deep.
Not all of us can go there –

some of us are statuary, seated,
bowed, like ancient mothers
of women reading under trees.

Some of us have missed the boat
– the boats we never saw for all
the lights – our greenhood in the seas.

(viii) The Cardigan

It was in blue, heather shades
of blue like a Fair Isle knit
but so finely done I knew

I couldn’t afford it. Bizarrely,
the names of American’s ten
most dangerous men were woven in it,

men who who had murdered
somebody close to me in my dream.
The Amish, like the Mennonites,

are pacifists but, unlike them,
they practice shunning. We pass
the water tower, schoolhouse,

the windmill and the cider press,
the birdhouse for purple martens;
the chicken house – caged layers

for 8,500 hens – the clothing centre
that fixes buttons, zips, sends bales
to third world countries; outhouses,

the Sunday School where services
are held in German, the silo,
Jo’s welding shop, brother-in-law

Simon T’s quality horses;
grandpa houses, the coffinmaker’s
yard and the new Kalona library.

I buy the rainhat I’ve been looking for.
I see unknown places, I let myself
slide down the slope of dreams.

(ix) The Island

A false fire alarm in the night.
We stand, shipwrecked on the grass,
islanded without our things.

To say ‘island’ as Milosz says
is to be separated from the world
by a barrier difficult to penetrate

yet one that remains transparent,
a brilliant blue, and does not offer
a barrier to sight
. To say island

is to reinvoke dressing gowns
and pyjamas flapping down corridors,
bells ringing, people missing,

girl guide skills. Is to make
a saucer, a saucer of the sea.
Is to become a tea-leaf, a fortune

in a cup, is to dig for termites
at the bottom of a tree. To say
island, island, is to name like Adam

all your things: your kotodama,
your virtues and your sins. Is to make
loneliness disappear for good

as naturally as youth does
for the island is ageless and time
is told, if told at all, only in beginnings:

when the Seven Samurai are chosen,
the elected are trained, on the eve
of battle when the lyric spreads her wings.

(x) The Black Angel

Below her, a red apple
still bearing a price ticket,
dimes and cents on the pedestal.

Around her, a footworn path.
Beside her, a bush of yew
hiding a carved lily at the base

of a tree stump monument
a midwife from Bohemia
had erected on her son’s death:

Do not weep for me, dear mother.
I am at peace in my cool grave.

Above them, over eight feet tall,

towers the Black Angel, who refuses
to look at the living, not unkindly,
but because she’s so intent.

She could be learning the gavotte.
She could be learning grace.
Arms outstretched, inclining

her head against one wing,
one knee bent, in the interval
between beats, about to take a step.

In a golden bronze casting
blackened by oxidation and exposure,
her arms and feathers mottled green,

thumbs and fingertips now broken,
she casts her kissing myths, murder myths,
cursing and redemption myths about her.

(xi) The Frith-Stool

In several English churches,
there was a stone seat beside
the altar known as the frith-stool

(peace-stool) upon which
the seeker of sanctuary would sit.
I move bench, following the sun.

The candle of the sun is enclosed
in a copper cylinder throwing
its shadow along the ground

much like the filigree of trees.
But the filigree is that of
letters, each perforated band

an indecipherable script.
‘They will be able to read
what I wrote, but what I wrote

is a mystery itself’ the chandler
said to the CIA who cracked
the code of an artwork similar to this.

I too have been a candle
filtering languages. Why else
would I sit, on the first morning

of wintertime, in a courtyard
outside the School of Journalism
& Mass Communication building,

if not to escape the cacophony,
the babel of other languages
I can’t hear silence in?

(xii) The Sound

How sad he was, Arvo Pärt,
not to have thanked his teacher
for the parting thought she gave him:

that the biggest mystery in music
is something about – he couldn’t
remember her exact words –

something about how to enter
a single sound, just as his janitor,
when asked how should a composer

compose, replied: he has to love
each sound, each sound,
so that every blade of grass would be,

Pärt adds, as important as the flower
(and the bent man on the bent road
picking raspberries, the soprano

holding a green pencil to mark
on her score where to breathe)
and the soul yearn to sing it endlessly.

This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence,
comforts me. I build with primitive materials –
with the triad, with one specific tonality.

The three notes of a triad are like bells
and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.

Tintinnabuli – itself the sound of grass,

blades moving like bells, harebells say,
though there are no flowers but stems alone
and a breath of wind to give the grass direction.

Iowa City 2006

This sequence was written during the International Writing Program 2006
at the University of Iowa.