Saturday, September 03, 2016

PETER BALAKIAN: Head of Anahit/British Museum

For Michael Coyle and Donna Frieze


You said anyone could walk in
with a pack of explosives as we passed through
the crowds of tourists and school kids — 

under the glass-grid ceiling lit with sun.

I was saying: She’s our earth, our body, our sex,
as we drifted down the halls of statues and colonnades
and hunks of facades of Greek temples until we found

room 22, “The Hellenistic World,” where a bronze face
in a glass box on the wall stared back at us.

Head from a bronze cult statue
of Anahita, a local goddess
in the guise of Aphrodite (200–100 BC)

the text hung there in space — 

Found in Satala in NE Asia Minor
(Armenia Minor)

a left hand holding drapery was found with the head  //
and out of some bad Comedy Central joke,
my iPhone buzzed with a flash news update
about ISIS or ISIL, or whatever they called themselves that week — 

Temple of Baalshamin at Palmyra — blown up — 
the phrase re-circled — blown up — 


and my head was back in the white van with the TV crew in ’09
winding through the buttes and roadside gullies of the Syrian desert,
to the Armenian memorial in Der Zor,

before we went to Palmyra where I sat under
50-foot Corinthian columns — 
the corners chipped by wind and sand

in late May when it hit 110 at noon
and the sun melted the plastic rim of my cell phone — 
as our driver appeared out of nowhere with stacks

of zaatar bread and Diet Cokes — 
we found some shade under a portico
as the visionary pillars disappeared into blue sky.


Outside students were buzzing through the gates
of UCL and the brown brick of Bloomsbury was lit up
with sun after rain — 

inside the wunderkammer of Hans Sloane
and the collectors who hauled their stuff from the Middle East — 

(What is the Middle East? my Turkish publisher
asked an audience at NYU — 
Istanbul, Jerusalem, Mumbai, Srinagar?)

you kept asking: What is year zero to us?
Didn’t our war destroy some temples and museums?

I called the curator on the phone at the info desk
to leave my complaint on the message machine
about the signage:

“Satala wasn’t Armenia Minor/NE Asia Minor — 
it was central Armenia /Anatolia — make correction.”


What questions were we asking
staring at the misinformation on the wall
and the beautiful Armenian head of Anahit?

Why was I back in Der Zor at the chapel
digging Armenian bones out of the baked ground — 
scratching the marrow and dried mildew?


In the age of throat-slitting on Twitter
the imperial shock and awe of burning Tigris — 
the lynching of Saddam on the internet,
vanishing tomb of Jonah — 

which fetishized objects ... whose museum?


I’m gazing at the head of Anahit — Armenian
goddess of fertility and love — 
(no more local than the Brooklyn Bridge)

staring at the green and red paint still speckled on her bronze head.
I love her serpentine upper lip, her eyes of black space — 
I stare into the screw hole in her neck
the two curlicues of hair on her forehead
her august throat; her dense acanthine hair.

This poem appeared in Poetry magazine's September 2016 issue.

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