Soft Power

                   Damascus, Syria 2009

Atop a shanty near an open sewer
a rooster shouts.

                                           A muezzin answers.

Here the tongues of church bells are
replaced by human throats.

                            for T.


alarm                  no, shortwave                frazzle, hiss

hiss of the weekly radio check, our safety
here at the far edge of the city tested


ssssshshshssssss T-bird, T-bird, this is Raptor, copy. Do you read?

I’ve felt you toss through dawn’s call to prayer,
through the needle of widening light at the point
when white threads shine distinct from black.

Now on the desert’s rim sun perches, spreading
wings of heat.

By voice, you recognize the new Marine from Tucson.

T-bird here, Raptor. I read you loud and clear.

Now a shower, luxury in a region of drought.
A shave. A suit. And you depart for another day
reporting on trials in the criminal court.

While I pass my morning in a poem’s cool bosks
                 With a Bobolink for a Chorister

While I read in the meadows of solitude
                 Where the mockingbird sounds his delicious gurgles

While I roam what I call the democracy of letters, accepting
                 nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms

A hood of shadow must blind you as you step
from sun into the shuttered courthouse.
Then your pupils widen, letting in
signers of the Damascus Declaration,
eleven men shackled together in a cage.
Or a young lawyer arrested for blogging
critiques of the martial law, his charge
“weakening morale in time of war.”
Activist Kurds. Members of the Muslim
Brotherhood. Old Marxists the regime
wants to shed. Your pupils widen on all
Adra prison will swallow.
Wives rock, fingering their beads.

And those who know you meet your eyes and tap
right hand to heart, showing they recognize
your eyes among the observers
allowed in from the embassies.

Your pupils, widening, sore.

When you leave the court, you carry
cages       babies       grains of barley
details you can’t talk about with me

Against the bars of the cage women pressed babies
born since the men were arrested

stories I can only guess by counting
how many cigarettes you’re smoking

Collected burnt grains of barley from his soup each night
in solitary, he says, until he had enough to make a pattern
filling his cell’s floor

scraps chewed by silences

                           had to crouch in a corner
kept his sanity by making and unmaking
every day        for thirteen years        the same design

silences you’ll translate into text I’ll read
in the State Department’s Human Rights Report.

While I’m in the republic of poetry
                  Walking the old hills of Judea with the beautiful gentle god by my side

We’ve come to Syria for the wedding

Because this is not the old war

Because we catch more flies with honey

Because if a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others
                  it will encounter less resistance to its wishes

Because if its culture and ideology are attractive
                  others will more willingly follow

Because art’s a golden band
and diplomacy a silken gown

We sugar
We sweet
We sticky

We thick syrup
as the glasses clink

Saturday, our anniversary. Before dawn the Ramadan crier
whomps down the street with his drum: Wake, O faithful! Prayer is better than sleep!

A friend’s teased you that our marriage is hardly proper
minus a ring. So with coffee you proffer – surprise! – a tiny package

ribboned with wit: “We’ve re-engaged the Syrians diplomatically;
it seems only proper I re-engage my wife.” Bleariness blurs

to diamond tears. Ten years. You take my hand in yours
and band it. What silly laughter then in our little luxe nest!

Not till noon does a phone call pluck our calm.
A civil rights lawyer you admire is under arrest.

The two rings overlap, warm platinum
wedded to chill digital purr.

We talk of doves and hawks
as if there were no other birds

Ramadan Kareem flicker the wee genie lamps over Ammar’s shop.
My second cup of tea is drunk and with great show of head-
shakes and wrung hands    my friend I’m too poor this week

I’ve declined buying a carpet. Ammar has already sold me
the loveliest Qashqai in all the east; we’re market cousins now;
I can’t pass his shop without some chitchat and a sweet.

Below the portrait of Khaled Meshal I squat on “my” ottoman.
Ammar thanks me for the New Yorker I’ve brought.
“Roz Chast – oh, she splits my sides!” Then the muezzin cries,

breaking the fast. “Alhamdulillah!” Ammar studies the tray and,
delicately as he chooses idioms, selects a rosewater jelly.
He nibbles a corner “just to keep you company, my friend.”

As if there were no doves or hawks
we talk of other birds

Citizen of letters with her hot cumin tea
                  Agonies are one of my changes of garments….
I myself become the wounded person

Hot cumin tea and all the morning for reading
                  My hurt turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe

At the new mall beside the old neighborhood
where Hezbollah slogans brighten broken walls
women in small clusters, scarved or baring
sunstroke blonded hair, buy Revlon lipstick,
Pixar movies, corn flakes from Battle Creek

You can feel soft power slipping in
through Billie’s smoke-tranced croon,
film noir américain,
hip hop, Whitman

Power so soft it makes others want to be
plugged in to its source
simpatico   comrades   d’accord
without the need
(without the whisper)
of force

Citizen of poetry I wander
                  And sore must be the storm –

                  That could abash the little Bird

                  That kept so many warm –

Studying Arabic in Washington while reading all we could on Guantánamo
including the DoD’s online Gitmo album that made the compound
look like a Cuban Club Med – what, as the management types kept saying,
was our take away?

                          We want
to send the inmates home but their own countries can’t safely restrain them

                                                     We have
no information about where they may have been in transit to our custody

                                                                               We mark
an arrow pointing toward Mecca on the floor of every cell
in fluorescent paint
so prisoners can pray in the dark

bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim       in the name of God most merciful and mild

Awake in the land of the poetry of my land
                  I am not to be denied….I compel….

                  I am jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics….

                  Every room of the house do I fill with an armed force….

All morning
                  The smallest Citizen that flies
                  Is heartier than we

A mourning dove settles on our balcony in Kafarsouseh.
I find her litter of twigs and needles

crotched among packing boxes we’ve never recycled.
On it, she’s laid two alabaster stones. They help me weigh

your absorption in your work: you who miss so little
hadn’t noticed she was here.

She grows calm with me coming out to watch her.
Some mornings when my thoughts are less

coherent than blowing sand
I just stand, studying the colors of her neck.

Wide from the dark inside, my pupils take
long seconds of daylight to narrow

on fired lilac, emerald gray.
A hot, gassy blue.

Raptor here, T-Bird. T-bird, do you copy?

Once, you told me, at home, walking into the woods
an hour before the dawn, the oaks

were alive with owls calling back and forth.
A pair of great wings dropped with that barely audible

creak of air through its plumes and hung a few seconds
just above your head. Uncertain, you said,

if you were threat
or food.


Kharoof, kharoofain, kharaweef,
the single, the dual, the many.

Sleepless while the clock ticks
I still count sheep in Arabic.

V. Penelope Pelizzon is the author of two books of poetry, Whose Flesh Is Flame, Whose Bone Is Time (forthcoming 2014) and Nostos (2000), as well as co-author of Tabloid, Inc: Crimes, Newspapers, Narratives (2010), a study of sensation journalism, photography, and film. Her poetry and essays have appeared widely, and her awards include the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, a Lannan Foundation Writing Residency Fellowship, The Norma Farber First Book Award, The Hollis Summers Prize, and a “Discovery”/The Nation Award.

Her poem “The Monongahela Book of Hours” also appeared in At Length. You can read it here.


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