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Monday, April 26, 2010

The New Babylonians



In Iraq, so the Baghdad museum's curator tells me,
the Assyrian was once king.
                  He shows me its symbol --
this great, hulking thing --
as he says: the bull's body conveys strength,
the wings embody
the magnificence of flight;
the head of a man means enlightened wisdom

I look it over in that empty museum.
This winged beast -- created eight centuries before
the dawn of the Christian era; fourteen centuries before
the beginnings of Islam -- is a striking
representation of a seemingly invincible power.

Its time, of course, would end.
                  The Babylonians would sweep away the Assyrians
as comprehensively as the Americans,
twenty-six centuries later or so,
have swept away in the same vein.

Back then, a famous Sumerian writing an aeon ago
had described the looting and killing
with nobody knowing who the king was any more.
History repeating is nothing but intriguing.

And I decide to ask the curator foolishly now
whether the Americans are the new Babylonians.
                  He looks at me as though
I am playing some geological word game.

Not at all. His words shoot out unthinkingly --
but with feeling -- his mouth a gun,
like bullets from the artillery -- I imagine --
that had knocked rudely on his museum's door.
                  The Babylonians were Iraqis he tells me,
and will say nothing more.


There is silence in the curator's museum.
                  Only -- now and then -- the scraping
of American soldiers pasting in bullet holes
can be heard, and of course the soles
of our feet tapping against the fixing,
as we walk through the creaking historium.

There have always been stages
such as these in history
, he says suddenly,
turning to smile apologetically at me.
Each can last centuries, but it passes again.

I nod and explain this was what I meant.
                  Nothing is new. Nor does anything last, I knew.
Neither the American, nor we too, will remain.

But I can see in his face the pain.
                  His museum is still open only
intermittently; a ray of sun through rain clouds
he says -- it's a wet metaphor,
but I'm not one to knock
a sore point when the museum's emblazons
are empty of visitors.

Lifeblood is rapidly in need
for the history it keeps, it's a sentry
of ancient manifestations
of the things they managed to save,
covered in the dust of yesterday's sift
and the ashes of today's war;

and as I leave I try to reassure him
that even a museum closed by war
can still teach me something:
that everything passes and nothing
is quite what it seems in life's conundrum.
                  And that the Assyrian
might have got it wrong to use
a man's head to mean enlightened wisdom.

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