Shadow and Light: The Transitory

Summer, 2004

Stephen Oliver

Three Poems

The Desert As Palimpsest
'St.Elmo's fire', 'fata Morgana', 'will-o-the-wisp',
'Castor and Pollux', 'ignis fatuus', 'corposant',

                        corpus sanctum, the sacred body made
                        the pale and foolish fire
blown thin over bombed out craters and rubble:

pink-mist (pingk mist) [US military slang] n.

A human body vaporized by 'bunker-busting'
bombs that leave only a 'pink-mist' as sole evidence

of human remains; a term first used by the US military
during the Afghanistan war in 2002.

                        Over the pottery-coloured deserts,
a pattern of stars wraps around the earthly vessel.

The Tigris river unwinds its bloody bandage at sunrise
through Baghdad, small-arms fire mingles with
                         the muezzin's call to the hour of prayer.

River mist or tankfire blur the stately date palms.

Baghdad is a display case, smashed, memory wiped;
in the Iraq National Museum, the night-filled corridors

reek oil-lit rags and the condensation of fear beading
the foreheads of the iconoclasts

                                   / the swarming rabble
looting the underground vaults
plundering Sumerian and Babylonian artifacts

from 5000 BCE, stone bulls,

cuneform tablets, ivory figurines, Nubian statuettes,
ceramic jars and urns --

Nineveh in fragments, Mesopotamia in ruins,

the City of Ur laid waste of its treasures in a city
cross hatched by tank tracks - back to an engraved

granite-quartz block, next to the trimmed hedge,
                       under the playing fountain
fronting Liberty Enterprises guided by the principle:

'war is the pressure valve of techno-determinism'.

Rashid the Pavement Artist
                         squats in the ruined market place
and makes a mosaic out of metal fragment

and glass shards - depicts scenes of Baghdad;

donkeys made of brick bits, Euphrates / Tygris rivers,
animal rib-bone curving back as scimitars

                        across a desert of potsherd:

life made frantic by the freedom anger engenders.

Let tribal memory float unperturbed upon
these two rivers where the sun places its golden harp.

Averroes holds in one hand 'intellect' in the other 'faith';
may peace descend on the desecration of this city.

Can the sandstorms erase the hanging question of
"double truth": is the shadow as real as the object that

casts it does ignorance make of anger a religion
are the lessons of destruction a philosophy to die by?

Bless this first land first witness to the Written Word. 

A Country Mile 
Consider the Lilies of the Field. Amongst landmines in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Eritrea,
Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Cambodia, and Egypt - which tops the bill with
twenty three million landmines. Wherever invading troops in retreat have left a tidal
slick of bone fragment, gobbets of flesh, stumps that were once children, old men,
women. Limbs vapourized.

            "Landmines Must Be Stopped" campaigns the UN. A small girl in a bright
dress picking up a shiny object. The dress made brighter. Consider the Lilies of the
Field, the exploding blooms of landmines, so spectacularly undramatic, a muffled
bang, a puff of smoke and dirt, from the safe distance of a news clip. Untidy air.

            But on a winter's night, bare branches before a rushing sky. A turbulent
moon. The earth smelling black, breathing, holding in these subcutaneous cysts, metal
implants, each a footpad for the crazy dance of death. Millions of them (est. twenty
years to clear at current rate) each with its own graven serial number, endlessly
patient, waiting the impress of heel, or lightly shifting step.

           This light over the land, made ancient by earlier habitations, wars, villages
and migrations, dismantling through the hours and days, over long stretches of time;
minefields - abandoned tracts of land. The Lilies of the Field so secure in their fate
that every spring they bloom here, as though announcing entrance to the cemetery
and underworld.
A Simple Tale 
On the destruction of two giant, ancient Buddha statues, near
Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, by the Taliban militia in the
Year of Our Lord, March 12, 2001.

In this stark country where light can be yellow
            it is difficult to measure time.

Bare mountains, seemingly carved, overlook
           ancient sea beds called deserts.

The Silk Road, or a tributary of it, drifted
           this way past the cliff face -

for a generation men on rickety scaffolding
           worked at the sandstone

to fashion the image deep into the cliff's face
           of a fifty metre high statue.

The mountain became grotto to the Buddha
            homaged by 1,700 years of dawns

and sunsets until the coming of the Iconoclasts
            in a drought-stricken land.

In two unhurried afternoons, much like any other,
            between the braying of donkeys,

with mortar fire and dynamite, they turned to
           dust and rubble the false idol.

The last piece to dissolve before dusk which is
            the traditional time for prayer -

was the impassive smile of the Buddha, and 500
            tons of face fell under the blast.