I was thinking of the day most splendid till I saw what the not-day exhibited.
– WALT WHITMAN
the wind gusts –
the gold pointless,
ground to powder –
Here in heaven
on the border of a field
a meadow where the stones grow
The arrival of three guests.
At first with diffidence
and then insistence
a slight hunger for the food
you offer, and a reticence
of taste still satisfied
with thirst and wonder –
longing for water but at peace
with thirst, with a pleasure
that the taste of water moistening
desolations will displace –
the three guests resting – pausing, intent,
waiting for the meal their host prepares,
delaying destitutions. I am
at a loss. We pause. I think of salt.
I wonder. Later gold is turned into a powder.
Then Gomorrah bursts the temples.
The cloth in strips, the peeling skin, the pavement curling at their feet, its fiery
imprints. Listening for the future. Waiting for solace, the complement of anger.
Three guests. Eager. Without speaking or enfolding, like a bell, a tongue, licking
at the roots: “I will not erase you.” How hard it is to rest with such composure –
the mind exchanging, the release of azure, of the inner face responding, the salt
moistening, tincturing and drying in the moisture, in a senselessness like kindness.
Opening heavy curtains in a darkened room, my hands
and knees were crying. Mother wrapped me in wet sheets,
she kissed me and said, “Run.” The sheets surrounded
me with sails…
…the likeness of an energy for which
this is the leading wave – ignitions, midair, birds,
the flaming moisture, washed with glancing tongues and
settling in the glistening branches – but the gleaners’
eyes are calming – dawning, in anticipation cooling
turbulent aggressions, briefly numbered,
holding to the distance their calamities.
Although my hands can barely
tremble, she says, “Run.” But
how am I to run when I can sail?
I barely still remember – the hillsides
blossoming with laundry, sheets as sails,
the calm the strangers offer as compassion –
cooling – nearing rain-clouds blackening remainders – eager swimmers wrestling into air.
Desolate children – random angels –
piecing wings from fluttering tissue,
membranes of porous anguish,
gleaning currents from the heat, the burning.
Neighbours of Sodom, children
of Gomorrah, somersaulting cinder
and incessant thinking, tastes
of ciders and the pitch of swallows.
Evening, in the summer, the imaginary
orchards of Gomorrah – fragrance –
and the pitch of oranges –
simultaneous desolations of wild
orchids and charred cedars.
Gomorrah in my memory burned at dawn – but later
bordering the Elbe, the Alster at her heart – this time
burning in the dark like Christmas colours or a prayer
flag’s, then in brilliant phosphorus dazzling constellations
under the drone of angels. Carbon darkness, later on
the morning, mixed with fluttering ashes, rain coats for
the faces – dead or not, their bodies, clothed, undressed –
burned asphalt with black mud, the pitch like squid ink.
She remembers eyes without their lids – she wants to go
to sleep, but, looking back, the lidless eyes are blinking out.
Their limbs detached from trees, they
are afraid, they run and balance on
an edge, afraid of heights, of water,
of the way ice melts as it turns gray –
the sky turns gray – an owl waits while
a gray cat washes – dawn-pink tongue –
the gray fur glistens – traffic barely
brings a whisper while the angels settle,
where they leave proleptically as
justice the destruction of the houses,
brightening disappearing structures
of a burning that takes light years, now
in conflagration. Gentle dissolutions of Gomorrah before morning – then
my mother and the sheets in which I sail.
Protesting, an alarm
on the verge of instability,
a sharp bark, gaudy
with morning, piercing
harshly. What did you
imagine? Distanced by sunlight,
the darkening in a house receding
through a window where the darkness
glimmers. Rubbing my eyes to reopen
Gomorrah, my love.
Shedding fire, I make
my way through water.
I swim the way smoke
spirals and arrive, I promise,
here – where you survive,
though not in fact – but
waking, curled the way
smoke makes its way
among the sleeping
faces of Gomorrah.
A gray squirrel like
an exposed heart.
Cold among sun-
children climbing in the
laundry-flowering hills –
floating, the wind lifting
the particulates of cloth
like fluttering colours – and
the valley where the angels
are at work with iron brooms –
harrowing the ground –
calling the children down
like swallows into burning
houses on the sudden
clarities of air.
And strategies of angels – the familiar faces
though their names escape me – aimless,
chattering: “This will be forbidden, this will
be forgiven, this will be permitted.” But
I miss you! Swallows perched along a wire –
gathering clouds – a closed book’s surfaces
of glass. “This is piteous.” Faces beyond
ripening – transitory weather – like these
clouds their feathers hiding iridescent violet.
Facing east – no gossip passes our lips, drumming like cooling
metal. Quiet rumours. A river comes to take you for a walk,
whispering gossip, finding its water on my fingers. Across
a page of hills, even in my sleep, lying between my eyes,
the quiet touches me austerely, the minutiae opening and closing.
No one or someone. Mine or another’s. Mamre’s tree. Fingering
my longing, even in my sleep, the scavengers of Mamre, moistening
letters, laundering names, scouring Gomorrah on my lips.
Today we’ll speak of cruelty:
Think of X’s brain, how it atrophied through years of
civil cruelty, ossified, the calcifying arteries, the famished organ,
how it howled from hunger, how it raged and issued dictums,
cursing excremental adversaries, sweeping cities clean of human
waste, the rage hardening, hunger ravening, barbering the fields
for grains of wheat, accumulating salts that starved the brain.
When he died, they found the arteries were veins of rock, the brain
shrunk to a walnut. It has been preserved, you can see it, sectioned
in an institute with other brains, a lesson in comparative theologies:
the more it calcified, the more he raged. The more he raged, the
more it ossified until he cursed your beauty – cursing his
immaculate conceptions – desiccating every tender intimacy.
It hangs on the clothes. It accumulates. Anyone who looks askance, who can-
not without further ado be happy not to be there, who cannot bear the sight,
who sits on a stool and weeps like a baby because no one resisted – “how could
we? the actions occurred without incident” – anyone who cannot be master or
save what can still be saved, who refuses to hear things out, whose impressions
of day are blotted (the trees did re-leave – no one wanted to play the coward),
in the evening, face down in a row, ashamed and besmirched – attempt this
composure – abashed, unspeakable, astonishing – a defeat of the world enemy.
What a pity the nice citrus fruits you sent me are now rottin.
A message from Warsaw,
In the dark I find you crowning
the letters, softening membranes,
the articulated lineaments. Sensing
your fingers, tissues close upon
themselves. Peace is deceptive,
quiet fearful. Circling the invisible,
combing through the cuttings, you are
like a barber, cancelling the stalks.
A rabbi plants a small plant in the tangles and catastrophes
of God. The cunning of a small plant – or a meal – defers
solutions with a living space. The angels pause to eat,
Messiahs wait, Abraham follows the rabbis, the valley
almost breathes. The sun, half-risen, clambering from
the well, emblazes strictures, dazzling silence, but an
unsuspected blessing, even among angels, hungers for delay,
the kinship that despite their zealous rigors longs for kindness.
Flayed with iron combs, the rabbi celebrates
the quiet names of life, the thirst and hunger
they require, moisture, here at the end, kind
friends, flesh weighed at the market in the
summer while the Master of the Universe is
silent, iron combs are hesitant, sight fragile,
eyes on fire make a wall invisible. “Be silent.”
“Listen.” “As I have determined.” Threshed
with iron teeth, but choosing blessing, he
finds he loves Gomorrah more than God.
By day, enormous clouds of burning smoke. Scorching nights.
My friend, I hear your voice but cannot find your voice. A way
of longing intertwined with calling – a pervasive choice, an arching
tongue. What shall we play? Among the ravenous intervals, my angels
bring eternities to quiet. If their kindness could outlast this
offering, would they still become protagonists of ashes?
Sleeping faces, hands full
of water, wisteria colours,
iconostasis – just as
an ocean – a small plant
your eyes burn open.
In the pits of rainwater,
scraps of cloth, concretions,
not a person’s, but
unruffled smiles that
Who’s behind this?
Do not lose despair!
In the dark, aimlessly alert – what are you
really? – lurking in the dampness, like a
heartening sun, a child the ground gives
painfully to water. Sometimes not
Gomorrah, but what happens happens
suddenly – so much like the ribs of a house,
so much like burning through the ribs.
My angels have a gift for silence that refers all questions
to the same extremes. I loathe their certainty, its rigor,
their serene tectonics – the cruelties they impose but do not
feel, blue clamour, green catastrophes, the yellow cancellations.
A new acknowledgement –
a man who hides his faces.
From Mamre, frightening,
dusty roads – a dirt track
choked into a basin, near the
parched embankments of a
vanished bridge, the scorched
ground liquefied, then cooling
From the hills above Gomorrah, displaced laundry
patches desiccating winds – my prayer flags.
Arid cold, a residue of water. The primitive
organs ache – they force us to be beautiful.
Angels aroused them: tired of landscape, mountains
moved to overthrow the frame, the park, the quiet lake,
the hills for which, as background, they were anchors,
crouched to comfort our fragility, a kindness we
assumed was ours by right. Then visibly their
motion, the monumental way they seized the clouds.
Gomorrah has become a name, the submerged
gatherer who collects the discards from beneath
the underground. She was the first, the spring seeds
carried by her messengers to Sodom. And Sodom
was the second, easier to recall, articulated episodes
attaching to her shame. Gomorrah remained speech-
less, tongue-bound, sum of knots,
Sophia of the underworld, my night-light.
In a fetid sky,
where men slaughter cattle,
three circle a chalice.
A sense of bewilderment, babbling
in tongues, roses from the heat,
hurrying to catch up – tree buds
hurrying – vendors in small trucks.
The softness is a sign we are alive,
implausibly, a reflex, less than nothing,
negative perhaps, beneath the sediments
of deadness, apprehended as about to be
on fire, vague because not yet…
To enumerate by threes – three angels,
gleaners, strangers pausing on the route
to our destruction. Only two arrive
to find us waiting at the destination.
And two cities, one arrived at, one
Collateral they submerged without
a word – a dove the Elbe turned to salt.
When you grew up in the residue
of flames, did you know you were
Gomorrah, that the lindens were
Gomorrah, that the North Sea
was the Dead Sea? Co-factor
the rivers. Rationalise the fire.
Water is water. Air,
air. Rise in desolation.
Texture the water.
Gomorrah is a wave
about to name its offering.
In Gomorrah your mother
protects you from angels,
the posts of her bed are
crocodile teeth. I teach
you the game of holding
your breath – breathe in,
you are gone – breathe
out, I am there. You
practice the magic that
hides in the dark and
hide in the sheets that
protect you from fire.
In Gomorrah your mother
protects you from angels.
The way the room burns – you are here –
if it were possible. Sit in this fire quietly,
this flame’s reflection, happiness, my daring.
Today I said your name. I named a feeling.
Gomorrah like a crystal seed accumulates
its facets, vanishing assumptions, coaxed
out of hiding. Angling mazes – waiting
for rain through the sun’s window –
fraying the strings, returning our faces to water. Like
widows, three angels fish through the faces,
vaporising colour, hiding in its light. Sub-
merged, Gomorrah offers its blessings,
welcoming strangers who never arrive.
Reeling in losses. At last what do I find – Gomorrah, my freedom,
in gathering. I did not know you in a way I could not know you.
Not the temple mountain –
not angelic incense
but the saline taste
before the sea died –
breached from fires –
how they loved each other.
If your love were like a blue dragonfly – and it is.
I am this way
I am quiet
For me Gomorrah began with Andrei Roublev’s 13th century Russian icon, The Old Testament Trinity, in which the three angels who visited Abraham at Mamre are seated in a semi-circle around a table that bears a sacrament. In the background are bare indications of a tree (the terebinth or oak of Mamre) and a human dwelling (not a tent but a columned house, its window and door opening out into the bright sunlight from an interior that houses darkness). Roublev’s Trinity can be inexpressibly comforting. As the Russian philosopher Pavel Florensky writes: “amid the restless conditions of his time, amid the strife and internal dissension, universal savagery and Tartar raids, amid the deep peacelessness that ravaged Russia, an infinite, imperturbable peace… was revealed to Roublev’s sight”, the “inexpressible graciousness of the mutually inclined figures”. And yet for all this radiance, this incontestable grace, it is still possible to be shocked by an unwilled memory the icon does not picture – like a prefiguration of the savagery in Roublev’s day and every day, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for which the miracle at Mamre was the prelude. The name “Gomorrah” means “hidden” or “submerged”, and of Gomorrah’s history almost everything is submerged. Of Sodom we know a little, of Gomorrah almost nothing. Abraham is justly celebrated because he bargained with God for the survival of Sodom: if there were ten just men in Sodom, the city would not be destroyed. Was Gomorrah included in the negotiation? By any reckoning, God did not keep his bargain. When two of the three angels arrived in Sodom and were attacked by a mob, they responded by destroying both Sodom and Gomorrah. Only Lot and his daughters were saved. Lot’s wife was lost because she looked behind her and was turned into a pillar of salt. The just were never numbered. The angels never visited Gomorrah. Later “Gomorrah” became a name for other catastrophes – in the Second World War, the 1943 fire-bombing of Hamburg was code-named “Operation Gomorrah” – but in Genesis, Gomorrah is never more than an afterthought. How to hold the eternity at Mamre and the destruction of Gomorrah in a single thought? I wrote “Gomorrah” because I was unable to hold eternity and the destruction in one thought, and because paradoxically this inability conferred a surprising freedom. I no longer knew what to think. For me, “Gomorrah” has become a name for this freedom that compels me not to know what to think.
The field at the beginning of part one is in South Bristol, Maine, by the ocean, where I was reading Florensky’s Iconostasis.
Gold in the icon is not an illusion. An icon painter grinds gold into a powder, then moistens the powder into paint.
“Gomorrah bursts the temples” is my memory of a phrase I read in Richard Rhodes’ history, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It is the recollection of a child who survived Operation Gomorrah. This child’s memories recur throughout Gomorrah and merge with other memories.
Florensky says that an icon is the likeness of an energy for which it is the leading wave.
When refugees stop by a river to wash their clothes, the hills by the river often blossom with their laundry. A friend witnessed this flowering during the Kosovo War in the late 1990s.
When my wife Sara and I visited Marrakesh in 1983, the hotel where we stayed was bordered with an orchard of orange trees. Everywhere there were birds, and everywhere there were cats who seemed to us to feel they were in paradise. Perhaps there were orchards like this in Gomorrah.
The “lidless eyes” are the memory of a student nurse, Wanda Chantler, who survived Operation Gomorrah: “[I]n the debris were five eyes on a plank, looking at me. Just five people’s eyes… I said, ‘Go to sleep, I’ll come back.’ But when I came back they were not there.”
During the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution – and later during the planned starvations of the early 1930s – there was much talk among Soviet leaders of sweeping the countryside with iron brooms.
“This is piteous”: in my mind a recollection of Thomas De Quincey’s in Suspira de Profundis, where “God smote Savannah-la-Mar, and in one night, by earthquake removed her, with all her towers standing and population sleeping, from the steadfast foundations of the shore to the coral floor of ocean. And God said – ‘Pompeii did I bury and conceal from men through seventeen centuries: this city I will bury, but not conceal. She shall be a monument to men of my mysterious anger…’” De Quincey is guided in Suspiria by a “dark Interpreter” through the streets of the drowned city, “where the children were all asleep, and had been asleep through five generations. ‘They are waiting for the heavenly dawn’, whispered the interpreter to himself; ‘and when that comes, the bells and the organs will utter a jubilate repeated by the echoes of Paradise.’ [And] then, turning to me, he said – ‘This is sad: this is piteous: but less would not have sufficed for the purposes of God.’”
By tradition Mamre’s terebinth or oak is a tree that can still be visited at Hirbet es-Sibte in the Hebron region. The land was purchased in 1868 by the Russian Orthodox Church. A 5,000 year old oak tree, the main trunk died in 1996, but a root sprouted again in 1998.
“X” was initially Lenin; the description of X’s brain is a fairly accurate description of what happened to Lenin’s brain, what led to his stroke, and what was found and preserved for posterity after his death. Those on whose clothes “it hangs”, were originally a police battalion from Hamburg whose killing operations in Poland during the Shoah are detailed by Christopher Browning in Ordinary Men. Hamburg was the site of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp which supplied the city with slave labour from 1938 to 1945 and janitored the desolations after Operation Gomorrah.
Richard Lichtheim, the Geneva representative of the Jewish Agency during the Shoah, received two coded letters from Warsaw in September 1942. On 4 September: “Mea Alafim has had to leave and has been invited by Herr K to his country house Kever.” And on 12 September: “What a pity that the nice citrus fruit you sent me are now rotting, but my Uncle Achenu is now dead and cannot make use of them. I feel very lonely.” On 18 September, when the United States Government asked Lichtheim to “review the position of the Jews of Europe”, Lichtheim responded that “the Jews of Europe are today no more in a ‘position’ than the waters of a rapid rushing down into some canyon, or the dust of a desert lifted by a tornado and blown in all directions… You [have] wanted facts and figures… Think of the facts behind the facts… Try to think of the last thoughts of the three Jews who were paraded through a Polish town… Use your imagination, friend.”
According to Rabbi Yohanen ben Zakkai, “If you are planting a small plant and someone tells you ‘Behold, the Messiah is here!’ – finish planting the plant and then go to welcome the Messiah”.
The Romans martyred Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph with iron combs in the market-place of Caesaria in 135 CE.Throughout the ordeal, Rabbi Abiba chanted the Shema. When asked by his torturers how he could celebrate, Akiba ben Joseph answered that while he had always wondered if he could love the Lord God “with all my life”, only now for the first time was he sure that he could.
In the Talmud, when Moses ascended onto the heights to receive the Torah, he found the Holy One, crowning the letters. Moses said to Him: “Master of the Universe, who holds You back?” He said: “There is a man who expounds each letter.” Moses said: “Master of the Universe, show him to me.” He said: “Turn around.” Moses found himself in the classroom of Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph. He sat behind eight rows of students and did not understand a word. He could not follow the Torah that he himself had written, but when Akiba said, “this teaching was given to Moses”, Moses was comforted. He turned to the Holy One. He said: “Master of the Universe, You have such a man and You give the Torah by me?” He was told to “be silent because this is the way I have determined it”. He said: “Master of the Universe, You have shown me his knowledge; now show me his blessing”. He heard: “Turn around.” He witnessed Akiba’s flesh as it was weighed in the market-place. He said: “Master of the Universe, this is the Torah and this is its reward”? He heard: “Be silent. This is the way I have determined it”.
From Yossel, son of Yossel Rakover from Tarnopol, speaks to God, a fictional monologue from the last hours of the Warsaw Ghetto, where the narrator, Emmanuel Lévinas writes, “echoes the whole of Torah”. Of God, Yossel ben Yossel says, “I love Him, but I love His Torah even more”.
“Do not lose despair”: Anna Akhmatova’s counsel to Joseph Brodsky.
The Sophia, or Wisdom, dances before the face of God in Proverbs. In Judaism, she is the Shekhinah. In Blake she becomes Jerusalem, the freedom of the Human Form Divine.
During Operation Gomorrah, the heat from the firestorm caused the roses in Hamburg to flower more quickly and the trees to bud once again.
After hatching from their eggs, young crocodiles sleep for protection in their mothers’ mouths. The mothers fast.
“I did not know you in a way I could not know you” – Of American poetry since Whitman, Leslie Fiedler writes, that it is shaped by the “vague pronominal romance… between an ‘I’ whose reality is constantly questioned and an even more elusive ‘you’”. Gomorrah, for me, has become that elusive you.