Tuesday, August 26, 2014

In Another Country by Philip Levine

In Another Country

A man spreads out dried fruit
on an old blanket and lets the flies
descend in a frenzy. When I try to shoo
them away he squats down to eye level,
takes my right hand delicately in his,
shakes his head, and mumbles
what might be a prayer or words
of advice or a curse. I don’t know
because no one here—neither the sellers
nor the buyers—speaks a language
I understand. An old grandfather
whose white hair halos his head
sits cross-legged on the damp grass
smoking his pipe, his eyes closed.
His wares: a pyramid of stained teeth.
Shall I assume he is the dentist
of the town? There is no town, only
fields of long grass blowing in the wind
and beyond the wind the gray mountains.
A young woman, her forehead
and cheeks a web of delicate tattoos,
holds out a bowl of red powder.
Her eyes are so alive I have to
look away. She licks a forefinger,
then jabs it into the powder and offers
me a taste. Blue and white pennants
fly from the tent poles. Women and children
on muleback stream down from the hills
or from nowhere. The powder tastes
like nothing I know, not bitter like
orange rind nor sweet like ground
rose petals nor bland like dyed flour.
I had heard there were storks nesting
on the haystacks and on the tallest
chimneys of the remote villages,
and that wild, black-winged falcons
circled the fields all day keeping
watch over the land, feeding on whatever
came to rest. I saw none of that;
the only birds were tiny and caged,
beating their wings against the bars,
chattering like distant voices in dreams.
I’ve forgotten how I got there. I know
I knelt to a cold stream to wash my face
and wakened to music, an odd beat,
a melody I’d heard before. I followed
the sound over a rise to the open field
where the sun poured down its grace
on the long grass, the animals, the men
and women. The wind kept prodding
at my back as though determined
to push me away from where I was,
fearful, perhaps, I would come to rest.

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