Christopher Merrill






On Translation


Oscula—this was the word on the tip of the tongue of the woman who refused to travel further down the coast without assurances that she could film whatever she liked. The soldiers patrolling the beach were negotiating the terms of their surrender to the insurgents, who had invited her to join them for the march to the capital, and she was surprised by her mixture of emotions at the prospect of peace. The enticements of the sun and sea were parceled out among the families gathered on the shore, the fishermen lining the jetty, and the feverish man pulling a barrel full of monkeys down the boardwalk. He stopped to wipe his brow and saw, riding at anchor in the harbor, a ghost ship laden with medicine and provisions. There was an old man collecting coils of rope in the wrack and rocks below the hotel, which had been attacked on the first day of the war. How it remained open throughout the siege was a mystery to everyone but the manager, who cautioned guests not to leave their satchels under the table, or else they would lose their money. Wiggle your hips, throw something out—it was all the same to him. Diamonds vanished from the market, and no one seemed to mind. The soldiers laid down their weapons and removed their boots, posing for the camera. Kiss me, the woman said, remembering—and they did.




The Festival


The ceremony is over, said the disgraced poet before he was led to the wall above the holy lake. His prophesies about the revolution had not come true; he had misread the hand-lettered signs of the protesters in the square; and from exile he had pronounced his best friend dead of snakebite, despite the fact that anti-venom serum had in accordance with tradition been administered after evening prayers. But there was a check, an orchestra played music from his war-torn homeland, and although no one clapped when he was presented with the golden antelope he still smiled for the cameras. There he stood under the plaque of Anna Akhmatova, dispensing wisdom to the international journalists bussed to the event, while the crowd wandered off to lunch or to look at the statues of figures, historical and mythological, who had created new civilizations—Genghis Khan, a goddess from the Ramayana, a pair of Russian saints, an African chief. Bright sunshine. Yellow fields of mustard covering the hills. Two hydrofoils circled the lake every two minutes. Pennants—blue and white and red and green and orange—imprinted with sutras fluttered in the wind. Beware of the well, the poet said enigmatically. The journalists wondered if the translation was correct. A hand was raised. Can you repeat what you said? The poet shook his head.




In Petra


I did not hear the Bedouin singing in the cave. Nor did I see the camel gallop off with a Canadian woman who had traveled here to track down her daughter. Nor did I figure that the guard standing at attention before the Treasury would take aim at a group of tourists before a soldier wrestled him to the ground. I stood before three djinn blocks counting my blessings: that the spirit of the place, carved in rose-colored stone, had revealed itself to be a caravan driver who could surely find his way in the dark; that the autumn rains had filled the cisterns, although the granaries were empty; that the bomb-sniffing dogs and sappers under my command had suffered no casualties, unearthing unexploded ordnance from the last war and clearing mines from the new offensive, which was advancing faster than expected. If the decision to pause the operation owed more to supply lines than to tactics, nevertheless I welcomed this time away from headquarters. No more smoke and dust. And all would have been well, if only you had agreed to join me for this journey to the origin—of what? I could not say. But I knew the Bedouin’s prayer would haunt me forever.











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 edited volumes and translations; and six books of nonfiction, among them, 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. His writings have been translated into nearly forty languages; his journalism appears widely; his honors include a Chevalier from the French government in the Order of Arts and Letters. As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Merrill has conducted cultural diplomacy missions to more than fifty countries. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and in April 2012 President Obama appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities.

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