A poet stands on the steps of the great cathedral,
wondering if he has been a coward in hard times.
He traveled east, north, south, & seven directions
of the west. When he first arrived on the other side
of the sea, before he fell into the flung-open arms
of a long romance, the lemon trees were in bloom.
After a year, poised on the rift of a purple haze,
he forgot all the questions he brought with him.
Couldn’t he see the tear gas drifting over Ohio
as flower children danced to Jefferson Airplane?
Will he ever write a sonnet dedicated to the memory
of four girls dynamited in a Birmingham church?
Standing in the cathedral again, in the midst
of what first calibrated his tongue—gold icons
& hidden jaguars etched into the high beams —
he remembers an emanation almost forgotten.
He can’t stop counting dead heroes who lived in his head,
sultry refrains that kept him alive in the country of clouds.
Underneath the granite floor where he stands
loom the stone buttresses of an ancient temple.
When he was a boy, with his head bowed
close to the scarred floor, he could hear voices
rising from below, their old lingua franca
binding with his. How could he forget?
Copyright © 2011 by Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.