Old Mountains


There were mountains in the old place,
the place of old bones, and the mountains
were like bones, only browner, sandstone,
though sometimes bleached pale as bones.
And dark goats moved among them,
and the people who grew out of them
were like goats, small and dark
and quick when the sun was not pure
poison, moving about their business
which was not our business, theirs
being soil, which there wasn’t much of,
ours being oil, which came out of the ground
by the ton and snaked through the hills
and desert in pipelines inevitable
as the azure, steel sky itself. Perhaps
they were not real mountains so much
as up-thrust foothills, craggy plateau
a man or goat could climb in a day,
stand at the top of, and feel Moses
come down from.
                         They were holy mountains,
and under the holy mountains was oil
that sometimes still made bushes burn
or the Red Sea part for the islands
of deep-bellied freighters, pregnant
with crude.
                         And if they were not mountains,
they were at least the high steppes
of the horsemen, grown ghostly with time,
and my sleeper’s body slept among them,
and my dreamer’s body, which was only smoke
from village chimneys in winter, or the black
eyes of the skulls of their huts in summer,
saw the quick shimmering emerald of the fields
and crevices in spring, the flash of the bright-dressed
girls of the waterhole, their ankle bracelets
saucy as the glitter of crime in Salome’s eyes,
and the black eyes under the black wind
of the black chadora
billowing around the husks of crones.
They were the sacred mountains camped
at our outskirts, while our fathers
mined oil from beneath them and hardly
saw them.
                         But their graves sang to us
in the evenings, and the thin smoke
of their cook-fires rose like ghosts,
and they lay down with us in our dreams
like beasts, breathing and patient.
we thought, as the Persian blue sky
swaddled their shoulders, as the black
night sky lay down on their backs
with its pinprick stars. They rose
like continents in the black sea
of nightfall, then rose again like the skulls
of sacrificial beasts in the dawn. And perhaps
our white mothers heard them and started
drinking harder, savaging the servants,
quarreling with our sad sack fathers.
Distracted in the midnight, they paced cold tiles,
their bare feet lisping the hours—
ethereal, haughty, silken whisperings.
And the mountains were theirs, too,
and the dirty hands of the servants
who needed such scolding. Some absence
lurked in their eyes like the shadows
of mountains, among the coffee klatches
and beer-swilling mornings.
                         But we
were the children of the mountains,
and they entered us as easily as sky,
as easily as night, and what they showed us
was fire and shadow, dancers under the worn moon.
And we saw how time moved in ripples toward the horizon,
shuddering under the noonday sun. They moved
in us like the spirits of Alexander or Herod,
Nebuchadnezzar, Ashurbanipal, Xerxes
or Ataxerxes – slow fires
in the waking midnight.
                         And our incongruous
fathers waited at the bus stop – white,
short-sleeved shirts, clip-on ties
and crew cuts. They talked of Oklahoma
or L.A., Atlantic City or Baton Rouge,
but never of the bleached mountains
on the hem of whose skirts they stood
dazed in the morning light. Their gaze
was too calculated, the sheaves of paper
in their briefcases too diagrammatic
and impersonal. Children of the Depression,
their souls had suffered foreclosure.
They had bankers’ eyes.
                                                  They are mostly
dead now, copies of Forbes Magazine
strewn on the night table. And we
who were children of the mountains
search nightly on the News for glimpses
of the pale, pitiless sleepers – there
behind the reporter with blank banker’s eyes,
beyond the rolling dust of tanks, bomb blasts
and squalor, the rubble of apocalypse.
We have joined the absent ones.
Nothing there now remembers us but the mountains
etched behind our eyelids.