Hotel Poetry, Three Poems by Christopher Merrill

Christopher MERRILL has published six collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many works of translation and edited volumes, among them, The Forgotten Language: Contemporary Poets and Nature and From the Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe as Icon; and six books of nonfiction, The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer, The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, and Self-Portrait with Dogwood among other titles. His work has been translated into nearly forty languages, his honors include a knighthood in arts and letters from the French government, and his journalism appears in many publications. As director of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, he has undertaken cultural diplomacy missions to more than fifty countries.

Recording credits: Ramsha Ashraf


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One thought on “Hotel Poetry, Three Poems by Christopher Merrill

  • November 8, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    The first poem, titled as "Ghazal" is a dedication to Chris' close friend Agha Shahid Ali.

    for Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)

    There’s no sugar in the Promised Land.
    Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land.

    I heard your laughter in the jackal’s howl
    When the monks chanted in the Psalmist’s land.

    They knelt on the mountain top, pilgrims of the Book,
    Until the viper in the rod hissed, “Stand!”

    Prophets, oracles, and bards agree:
    The tyrant always plays the dumbest hand.

    The way you danced along the crowded bar—
    The saffron harvest in a star-crossed land.

    Our teacher, moon-tanned, slept with one eye open.
    He was the absence of field, the sodless strand.

    The faithful praying in the catacombs—
    Do they measure what they must withstand?

    These orders from Iberia remain
    In effect: Like unto like. All others banned.

    They set sail without charts or compass, searching
    For the lost tribes, and never missed land.

    Lava and salt spray and your final couplet:
    New worlds inscribed in parchment, pumice, sand.

    The cemeteries above Sarajevo
    Extend the boundaries of a lost land.

    Your favorite show: General Hospital.
    Shall we go for a walk? No! I’ll get tanned.

    In Beirut, Baghdad, and Jerusalem
    The war photographers are in command.

    The heart turned terrorist when the poet died.
    Now all the world’s a revolutionist land.

    If Paradise is full of stationary, write
    To me in your most lavish, embossed hand.

    Eat seven olives, my grandmother said,
    And you will never live in a famished land.

    Another war in the imperium?
    The poet’s warnings can be read, glossed, scanned.

    Unwitnessed in the night, the empty mosques
    And temples burn in the Belovéd’s land.

    The new exhibit in the war museum—
    Portraits commissioned in a possessed land.

    Ragas at daybreak, Motown at midnight:
    You sang for everyone, a wind-tossed band.

    Will this Christ-bearer find his only friend
    In the Promised Land—in blesséd Shahid’s land?


    CM: Afghanistan

    She said what I saw I did not see; a Predator drone taxing down the runway of an airbase near the border with Pakistan and taking off towards the mountains. And where I went I did not go; a house in which young women wrote in secret, nibbling tea cookies in a narrow white room that looked out on a snowbound garden. And what I heard I did not hear; a story told by the crippled woman seated by the woodstove, who used both hands to straighten out her legs. Let’s go to school, her father said when she was little, School; a marvellous word for a girl confined to her house. What did I see? An old man rubbing his dislocated shoulder beyond the street of butcher shops. A bomb sniffing dog biting its trainer’s arm. Soviet medals for sale on a table covered with knives. Where did I go? The gym, the canteen, and the Duck and Cover— a windowless bar on the other side of the tunnel. What did I hear? The whirr of helicopters, the footsteps of an aid official running on the treadmill, acronyms: PRT, IDP. The armored vehicle that took me to a roundtable discussion was called an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected); the soldier swivelling around in the turret, aiming his mounted gun at cars and buildings, couldn’t believe the mission was for poetry. The word on everybody’s tongue was kinetic — i.e. dangerous. I was marking days off the calendar in my hooch when the duck and cover warning sounded. Under the bunk bed I crawled to wait for all clear signal. What did I see? A photograph of a green-eyed Afghan woman before the Russian came. Everybody knows her.


    Music Lessons

    Carved out of cherry wood, with a black rubber
    Mouthpiece and keys that stick, this clarinet
    Was passed from one child to another, like a cold.
    No one could play in tune. And no one cared
    Except the band teacher who needed winds
    To balance the percussion and the brass—
    The instruments of choice for the boys in his class.

    And so the boy who wanted to play drums
    Would suck on his reeds until they split, adjust
    The joint to no effect, and inspect the worn
    Pads on the keys, like moleskin around a blister.
    Delaying the inevitable lesson,
    Of which he would remember nothing beyond
    The teacher’s aggravation of his sound.

    His lapses in rhythm, his awkward fingerings.
    If only you would practice! His favorite thing?
    To pull the swab from the barrel to the bell,
    Soaking up his saliva, then look inside,
    As if to clean the bore of the .22
    Locked in the gun case. O what did he ever hear?
    Aiming his clarinet at the chandelier?


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