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Tower

Babel—
Where language is not so much an idea
As a location,
Where people build of stone and mortar
Or baked mud brick
What must have been a ziggurat
Or hanging garden of Babylon
Which God will send to smash
Divide us, into alphabets or ideogram
Hieroglyph, script, cuneiform
We'll speak Bulgarian, or Catellan
Ute, Polish, or Basque
Which like the Pueblo of Cochiti
Is in no traceable family.
God will separate
Phoenician from Farsi
Crack Indo-European
Into everything that names the birch tree or the honey bee.
The baby who says "mama"
Soon toddles around the corner out of the room.

Now, Babel is back,
The towers at the bottom of Manhattan,
A Dutch corruption of Algonquin.
And something comes out of the sky
To destroy with fire
Whose hand, what...

The witness is up on the roof, blonde and forty
Like a normal person with a cell phone
She sees first one
Then the other
Struck tower
Collapse completely.

The prophet Jonah
Has a problem with women and cities
Like all prophets.
God tells Jonah to go preach to Nineveh
And Jonah, like a normal person, runs. . .
On the ship tossed by the storm
The sailors are from many countries
They call to many gods
But when Jonah, who knows the storm's for him
Vlounteers to be tossed overboard
They seem to speak one language.

Taking the #4 bus
From 179th St. bus station
George Washington Bridge
Down Broadway, through Harlem, midtown, west Village,
To 14th Street—did I feel quote "safe"
Among killers and papayas?
Hassids who traced the air
As if with a calligraphy of honey,
Women in caste marks and saris
Bundled in overcoats against the cold,
New York as the top of the Carribean Islands
Black feathers of voodoo in the park
A place you must avoid—
definitely step around.
Reading in the gray-covered paperback
Breaking the spine in my carelessness
Langston Hughes translating Lorca:
"Oh city of gypsies,
Who could see you and forget?"

My whole childhood
Drilling beneath the desk
As if an elementary school desk
Could protect me from an atom bomb.
It was quiet under there
Gum wrappers, the smell of my own feet.
My mother once saw
The city of Manhattan in a dream
Sink completely beneath the ocean
Rise intact, brilliant, clean.

Jonah goes to preach to Nineveh—
They repent, God spares the city.
This doesn't make the prophet happy.
He's afraid he's lost all credibility.
Jonah, in a snit,
Sits in the desert.
God causes a gourd vine to grow and shelter with its shade,
This coolness like a kiss, a mother's hand in fever, womb like Leviathan.
The vine withers, Jonah pities it.
God says he will not destroy Nineveh.

And so despite this
Tower struck by lightning
Tarot card of destruction
Pulled from the deck
On an ordinary day of the week
I'll say the psalm—
You formed my bones
You covered me in the womb
You know my thought...
And I must forgive everyone
As I forgive myself.

—Miriam Sagan, September 2001.