Poetry at Sangam



The Al-A’imma Bridge by Brian Turner

                                                       “This will leave a scar in our souls…”
They fall from the bridge into the Tigris—
      they fall from railings or tumble down, shoved by panic,
           by those in the crushing weight behind them,
      mothers with children, seventy-year-old men
           clawing at the blue and empty sky, which is too beautiful;
      some focus on the bridgework as they fall, grasp
           the invisible rope which slips through their fingers,
      some palm-heel the air beneath them, pressing down
           as their children swim in the oxygen beside them;
      lives blurring with no time to make sense, some of them
           so close to shore they smash against the rocks;
      with the pregnant woman who twists
           in a corkscrew of air, flipping upside down,
      the world upended, her black dress
           a funeral banner rippling in the wind,
      her child never given a name;
They fall beside Shatha and Cantara and Sabeen,
      Hakim, Askari, and Gabir—unraveling years
           and memory, struggling to keep heads above water,
      the hard shock sweeping them downstream
           as Askari fights to gain the shoreline
      where emerald flags furl in sunlight,
           and onlookers wave frantic arms
      at Gabir, who holds the body of a dead child
           he doesn’t know, and it is only 11:30 a.m.,
      And this is how we die, he thinks
           on a day as beautiful as this;
      and Shatha feels the river’s cold hands
           pulling her under, remembers once loving
      the orange flowers opening on the hillsides
           of Mosul, how she lay under slow clouds
      drifting in history’s bright catalogue;
They fall with 500 lbs bombs and mortars,
      laser-guided munitions guiding the German Luftwaffe
           from 1941, Iraqi jets and soldiers from the Six-Day War,
      the Battle of Karbala, the one million who died fighting Iran;
      And Alexander the Great falls, and King Faisal,
           and the Israeli F-16s that bombed the reactor in ’81,
      and the Stele of the Vultures comes crumbling,
           the Tower of Samarra, the walled ruins of Nineveh;
The Babylonians and Sumerians and Assyrians join them,
      falling from the bridge with Ibn Khaldun’s torn pages,
           The Muqaddimah—that classic Islamic history of the world,
      and Sheherazade falls too, worn out, exhausted
           from her lifesaving work, made speechless by the scale of war,
      and Ali Baba with an AK-47 beside her;
      with whiskey and vodka, pirated Eastern European porn videos
           the kids hawk to soldiers—the freaky freaky they call it,
      and foil-wrapped packages of heroin, heroin
           thrown to the river;
The year 1956 slides under, along with ’49 and ’31 and ’17;
      the month of October, the months of June, July, and August,
           the many months to follow, each day’s exquisite light;
      the snowfall in Mosul, the photographs a family took
           of children rolling snowballs, throwing them
      before licking the pink cold from their fingertips;
Years unravel like filaments of straw bleached gold
      and given to the water—1967 and 1972; 2001 and 2002—
           What will we remember? What will we say of these?
It awakens the dead from the year 1258—
      who cannot believe what is happening here, Not a shot fired
           our internalized panic deeply set by years of warfare,
      the siege and adrenaline always at the surface, prepared;
The dead from the year 1258 read from ancient scrolls
           cast into the river from the House of Wisdom,
      the eulogies of nations given water’s swift erasure;
And the dead watch as they are swept downstream—
      witness to the soft, tender lips of the river fish
           who kiss the calves and fingertips of these newly dead,
      curious to see how lifeless bodies stare hard
           into the dark envelopment, hands
      waving to the far shore;
The djinn awaken from their slumber
      to watch the dead pass by, one fixed
           with an odd smile, the drawn out vowel
      of a word left unfinished, and they want to hold these dead
           close and tight, the lung’s last reserve given
      as a whisper of bubbles for the ear held up to it;
The djinn swim to reach the bony ankles of Sabeen,
           the muscled Askari, clasping to stop them
      from this tragic undertaking;
And some are nearly saved by others diving in
      to rescue the terrified and the stunned,
           but drown beneath a woman’s soaked abaya;
And the Tigris is filling with the dead, filling
      with bricks from Abu Ghraib, burning vehicles
           pushed from Highway 1, with rebar, stone, metal;
      with rubble from the Mosque bombed in Samarra,
           guard towers and razor wire imprisoning Tikrit,
      it fills with the pipelines of money;
      with marketplace bombs, roadside bombs, vehicle-driven
           bombs, and the bombs people make of themselves;
Gilgamesh can do nothing, knows that each life is the world
      dying anew, each body the deep pull of currents below, lost,
           and lost within each—the subtle, the sublime, the horrific,
      the mundane, the tragic, the humorous and the erotic—lost,
      unstudied in text books, courses on mathematics,
           the equations quantifying fear,
      or the stoppage of time this eternal moment creates;
           unwritten history, forgotten in American hallways, but still—
Give them flowers from the hills, flowers from the Shanidar cave—
      where mourning has a long history, where someone in the last Ice Age
           gathered a bouquet; give daisies and hyacinths
      to this impossible moment, flowers to stand for the lips
           unable to kiss them, each in their own bright beauty—flowers
      that may light the darkness, as they march deeper into the earth.