Judith McCombs

Should smoke refuse to rise, or drift?
Should the whorling, windswept earth stand still?
Should time slip back, and thousands live
where ashes blazed and towers fell?
Fire of safety, shelter, light;
fire of magma, terror, war:
how many cities torched the sky
before these burning pillars soared?
How many thousand lives fed flames
before our histories began?
The man necklaced with a burning tire:
the fleeing child, her skin on fire:
the men consumed who flew those planes
like burning spears into the towers
that rose and flamed and fell as ash:
these images replay, endure.
Letters and flowers for the lost
surround a pit of smoldering grey.
We breathe the embers and the dust
of those who found their stairwells flame
and those who raced the flames to save
till stairs and floors plunged down through flame.
Smoke takes its ancient, coiling shapes,
divides like clouds, drifts out like spores
to seed the swollen whorls of sleep,
the waking chaos blooms of war.

Here where so much has happened
not much will happen again.
We pass unchallenged through the gate of lions,
shaking the dust from our tourist sandals,
presenting our swordless, shieldless sides
to the chambers guarding colossal walls
nine chariots thick, nine chariots high.
Empty these three thousand years.
We circle the stone-ringed burial shaft
where a gold face mask of the beardless king
was found with bits of skin attached--
the king now proved not Agamemnon
but of earlier lineage, long unsung,
whose gleaming mask lives on.
We are led past doorless, roofless shapes
of store room, throne room, altar-scar.
We climb worn steps to the highest place
where kings slept safe, a stair so turned
one warrior could hold off a score.
Stub teeth of stones, still warm.
Outside, beyond the sortie gate,
I take a path that wanders back
to an earlier fort and altar space,
a rise of stones from a time so bleak
that only the ants seek treasure here,
only the dust restores.
Yet someone has scythed these thistles and grains,
laid down the bright sheaves like spears after battle.
Someone has heaped the narrow white shells
of a small land snail, gleaned from the ruins,
as if they were offerings, or a fleet of white hulls
becalmed in a windless gulf.
Sunlight and clouds scour the dark plain.
From the heights the old stories drift down
like gods taking shape in a blind man's song.
I take three shells in my hand, and descend.

Judith McCombs
Judith McCombs grew up in almost all the continental states, in a geodetic surveyor's family. Her work appears in Calyx, Nimrod (a Neruda Award), Poet Lore, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Potomac Review (Poetry Prize), Prairie Schooner, Prism, Sisters of the Earth, & online in Beltway, Innisfree Poetry Journal, and Not Just Air. She has held NEH and Canadian Senior Embassy Fellowships, and Michigan & Maryland Arts Awards.  The poems appearing here are from her most recent book, The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected & New, a 2006 finalist for the Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. She teaches at the Writer's Center in Bethesda MD, arranges the Kensington Row Bookshop poetry readings, and was poetry editor for the 2005-06 Potomac Review Hilary Tham tribute issue.



Current Issue
Contributors' Notes

E. Louise Beach

Anne Becker

Brad Bisio

Jane Blue

John Bush

Wendy Taylor Carlisle

Grace Cavalieri

Norma Chapman

James Cihlar

Ellen Aronofsky Cole

Ruth Z. Deming

Martin Dickinson

Moira Egan

Ronda Eller

Martin Galvin

Bernard Jankowski

Hiram Larew

Lenny Lianne

Michael H. Lythgoe

Judith McCombs

Susan Bucci Mockler

Miles David Moore

Kathi Morrison-Taylor

Bonnie Naradzay

Barbara J. Orton

Steven Pelcman

Roger Pfingston

Jacqueline Powers

Julie Preis

Eve Rifkah

Kim Roberts

Teri Rosen

Helen Ruggieri

Karen Saunders

Karen Schubert

J.D. Smith

Dean Smith

Rose Solari

Margo Solod

Colette Thomas

Steven Trebellas

Rosemary Winslow

Kathi Wolfe

Anne Harding Woodworth

Ernie Wormwood

Katherine Young










Email this poem

Printer friendly page






Last Updated: Sep 16th, 2007 - 08:34:32

Copyright 2005 - 2006 Cook Communication.