(and you gather with family in a restaurant in Philly)
You want to know why
it persists, this curse of the human,
pyromania at the heart’s core,
the dream and drive to master the Other
and the earth we torment into acid and ash.
six-time zones east of where you are gathered
with family at a neighborhood restaurant in Philly,
missiles explode over cities in Ukraine.
beside a large window in this Queen Village café,
your husband, sons, their wives. The baby claps a chubby
hand to his mother’s cheek. You coo at him, you laugh.
You side-glance at pedestrians trundling in hooded
coats along the icy sidewalk, tacking into the winter wind.
How to explain it,
but they cause you to remember your mother-in-law
whom you did not know very well while she lived.
She comes into focus,
a luminous streak out of infinite darkness—
in a restaurant much like this one,
translated from the Arabic years ago by her eldest son’s wife,
about the streets in Cairo where they all lived in those days,
especially in front of their apartment building—
a rent in the pavement so deep and wide.
If she tripped into it, the older woman quipped,
no one would ever find her.
Hyperbole, no doubt.
But to your ear, words
a frightened child might whisper—
your own words, in fact,
during a shopping trip to Gimbels,
when you and your mother got separated among racks of winter coats.
You were only three.
But you were old enough for the shock of clarity before grief,
old enough for your brain to form the silent words,
I am lost—
Then you began to wail.
At this moment,
six hours east,
fire rains down
on houses and hospitals,
on fathers and mothers and babies,
just as in Aleppo and Baghdad.
Need you say it?
That the living and the dead,
are no different than your own?
That the earth is no less a wonder
than on the first days of its birth?
But now how old and wounded unto death.
And you want to scream at God, We are lost!
Why did You give us such a craving for fire?
Why the hypnotic lure of flames?
Why a holocaust, O Lord, always a holocaust?
About the Poem
I’ve been long concerned about climate change and politics, with their synergistic effects on human societies and human relations. The most recent wars (Ukraine being of central concern presently) highlight the intersection of human folly and the negative fate of both innocent people and the natural world. My poem, which is a jeremiad, locates that intersection in the human heart.
About the Author
Maria Rouphail’s third collection of poetry, “All the Way to China,” is forthcoming in the fall of 2022 from Finishing Line Press.