The needle of the minaret disappeared in fog
and we were walking between Hapsburg courtyards
and the detonated façade of the National Library,
the wooden scaffolding rising up the Moorish pediments,
the stripped cement and under-brick, and then
the sun came and the Coke stand burned red.
Out of nowhere a guard opened the black metal door—
his boyish face and soft goatee startled us, and you slid inside
before he could shrug as if he were breaking the rules,
as the blue poured through the metal grid
of the glass dome, and we were walking
where a carillon fell onto thumbed pages
where students worked in the dry air
of glue and vellum, under the octagons
from which the light converged invariant and mosaic.
Under the shanked-up arches I took a shot
of a patch of fresco and the paint flared—
a yellow star on a pink rosette:
Jewish/Muslim/Christian—and if it wasn’t
one of Duccio’s halos, it was drawn
a couple blocks away from where the gracious
open car of the archduke and his wife Sophie
traveled into the shadow of the image,
and then rail-lines were cut
and the city was a shrinking river running down
the hillside where the shelling began from Mount
Trebevic, late night August 25, ’92.
I followed you up a half-sliced staircase
into the memory of microfilm and quaint
catalog trays on a second-floor landing propped by a plank,
and then you disappeared with your camera,
into the dark apse-space where the steam pipes
melted under molten glass and spread to the manuscripts.
Back in the cool seminar rooms of the Hollywood Hotel
at the edge of the city our conference went on
in the green din of post-Soviet comfort where
every third channel was porn and the arguments
about ethnic cleansing were spliced by
the disco-falsetto of the Bee Gees
and through the giant windows we watched
the women sun-bathing in the weeds
next to a bulldozer and a pile of rusted cans
as plastic swans of garbage flowed
in the sulfurous river where Princip,
the archduke’s assassin, tried to drown himself.
At Birkenau there were just white birch trees for a mile
before we reached the caved-in crematoria—so lush
the skeletons of chimneys and incinerated piles of brick surprised us.
Your family disappearing south of Krakow into the soft Polish countryside
by train with their kitchen spoons and sewing kits would have
been confused by the green shade, and even though Euclid
said any two points can be joined by a straight line,
what does that make the line from Budapest to Birkenau,
and where does that leave us under this dome
as order comes down in thin spindles of light into the dust-filled air
where a man stands on a ladder re-drawing a window?
Had we fallen down some volute from the touristy hills
where we drank beer and looked out at the city
at the machines digging up the mud of Marshall Tito street
where no one was eating cabbage off sheet metal,
and the smell of roasting lamb was gorgeous
as it rose from the pavilions with their newly sealed windows.
Down the boulevard past the tavernas
with their burnt offerings of meat,
the Haggadah of Sarajevo was breathing,
and you copied out the marginalia;
the copper and gold almost liquid,
the letters like bullet wounds on the calf-skin pages
from which the ink flew into the margins
of deliverance or extinction—
where Aaron’s spear opened a chapter
the way the enjambed bullets hit the façade
after the lights went out and historical memory
was shaved to a hill of locusts on the flight out of Egypt,
as the silks were blowing into the yellow wind
against the Ottoman pavilions of the Bascarsija
and then it came down on us like roof-soot:
the burning pages of black snow
the phantasmal voices of index cards
the extinct dictionaries, the tongues washed away
in the puny brown river—between margins and colophons,
the residue of Quranic texts that left just a dusting
on the scattered silverware under the bridge,
the invisible wires of verbs in the acid-pocked sky
the burning glue and rag that rose
into the black hole over the library
over the vanquished trees where every letter
was a country lost between latitudes and an internet café.
Past teenagers making out
on benches in the Jewish graveyard
just under the hill where the snipers opened fire
we shot our heretical need
to see the horror of the past
through a wide-angled lens
and the shutter speed snipped
the light that unrolled the violets
sprawling down the hill
where more Serbian kids chugged Cokes
and pumped all night with their Kalashnikovs
from the Sarajevo-Pale Road to the high ground.
We heard the rhetoric of goats
as they hacked weeds and ate piles of cellophane-
wrapped nougats at the feet of the women
selling scarves and candy
along the riverbank where the sky
snowed pulverized paper and phosphorus shells,
where they had breathed the ash-packed bindings—
and letters broke into wings in the black zinc dish of the sky,
where commas and dashes hooked the uncrypted clouds
or reappeared outside the hyperlinks and cellular routers
returning to earth somewhere beyond the medusa
tongues of flags of foreign countries.
Past the houses of no windows,
where the sound of Arabic was less than guttural,
where the refusal to hear the Other’s testimony
was the distortion of a broken CD on a megaphone in a town square,
where the brandy bottles and spent shells
littered the picked-clean kiosk and the trace was washed away.
When we came down from the hills of Porticari
through swaths of fog and ruined houses
you said: we found no Other, just the extension of self in the scratch marks
on the photos of the disappeared.
The sculpted slabs of tombstones
were sinking in the mud, there
where the Book of Splendor opened
between the smack of bullets
and the caved-in mikvah
where the embroidered shawls
and the gold-embossed prayer-books
sank into ruts and the violets went red
like our eyes in the photo
beneath the light that untied the Hasidic knots
in which the soul had Houdinied out
into the wild air after the expulsion from Spain.
You asked: If there is no one to listen to the story, what’s left?
The blown out ceiling with its tinge of Duccio-color?
where we walked in and looked up
at the strange blue coming down through the triangles and octagons,
onto the plaster-dusted marble floor.
De-facing the Other is a response to the transparency of the event
look at the photos of the missing.
Books disappear like people, no tombs, the pages stink and then they’re soot,
and then the air is clean again.
The river was clogged with the dialectic of garbage
as we watched books disappear on the rock-barges
that faded in the hammered gold light
and sank to bronze before its aubergine
blotted out the hills, and we let the letters
go, the focus frozen on imagining the intractable.
The restaurant was grilling chops and sausage,
the cabbage sweet, yoghurt smashed with garlic,
Croatian wine dry and cold, the streets still buzzing.