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Ismene in transit

  • 18 June 2019


Selected poems


Ismene in transit, Doha


I step on the moving walkway. I am taken

by that dark river, past an army of shades

standing on the wrong bank with brooms, with mops,

with plastic bin liners. The women

are not veiled, the men don't stop

to look at the golden boys kicking

footballs on giant screens. But they are not

shades: each one I pass is a person,

held here by decree, by a boulder placed

across the mouth. If I walk through a temple

built by slaves, (sending a pittance home

to countries too poor for anyone

to bother waging war over), if I walk

through that temple— even if I see the truth

and look those people right in the eye — if I walk

through that temple, then, who am I? I am

moving through this terminal, not

walking. I am conveyed: a western purse

packed inside expensive luggage, fooled

into believing my own volition —

I could be falling down a well. I breathe

and I remember all that I see, a small stone

falling down the deepest well. No solid ground

to stand upon. Stepping off, I feel my feet swell.



These men are pristine in white, showcased

like fussy and urgent brides. They sucked

the oxygen out of the lounge. Oh, I was sure

I wouldn't banish myself to the family room,

wouldn't bend to the euphemism, but here

I am. Alone, I can breathe in this shabby

small room, nothing like the palace of servants

and alcohol and sweet delights just outside,

the blinds and curtains drawn tight. I lost

my nerve — tonight there were no phlegmatic

businessmen. I need only a sprinkling,

British and Australian passports are best: lumbering, loud, immune to the spell, drinking beer

and goading each other about the rugby score

though they have never met before and may

never meet again. They cut the tension,

give me cover. The British man, last time,

aware of the service he provided

while he cheered on his beloved Pakistani

cricket team (exiled here, in frank and dusty luxury),

he nodded over the screen of his laptop, and then,

had no further interest in me, which is just

what I want. The glory of civic space —

impossible to recall the taste when it's gone.



As if ripped out of my own chest,

a bird shoots up from behind the sofa, up

to the filthy skylight where a red streak

of dawn anchors the desert sky. It hurls

itself against the glass, hard, then falls,

spinning and cartwheeling like a shot down

plane. Twitches on the family room carpet,

one wing bent at an angle that must be wrong.

I begin to cry out but hold that