Ceremonial by Aaron Brown
When in America, I sometimes think of names,
past names and present names from a desert life—
I’ve heard these names between millet stalks, mud walls,
on a mat in the heat of day
heard the names along a stairway,
on a bus bussing down East-West Highway, and even heard them
on the phone coming across ten thousand miles—names like
Habib, Mht Tahir
or Sadia, Fatima, Hawa
how can I even begin
to think of names?
I think of Issa sleeping beneath the stars:
his dreams swimming in the constellations.
He is lifted up upon his mat and hovers
in the air. Beneath him, his horse raises
its head to see where its master has gone.
I think of AmGobi sitting by the empty river
waiting for the rains to come and fill it up again.
How she holds shells in between her fingers,
drops them in the cracks that run the length
of the shoreline, in the cracks of her old skin.
I think of the little boy Moussa dancing
atop the ruins of a barracks built by the French—
he nimbly jumps from wall to wall,
jumps with the goats who have climbed
to nibble on dry nabakh leaves.
These names acquired like taste on the tongue.
These names acquired underneath the hajlij tree.
Names like Zakaria teaching a room of children,
the blackboard littered with Roman letters
and his pants dusted with chalk snow—
he teaches in the months the government bus
never comes, never brings his salary.
Like Miriam waking early at the rooster’s call:
she stirs noodles into her soot-smeared pot,
slowly guiding the boiling water in a circle
before draining it, adding sweet oil
to the noodles—dweddi that slips through
your fingers and down your tongue, morning
meal as the sun rises, the cows leave town,
the beggars knock on doors for an offering.
Like Haroun, named after my own name,
born in the lantern night. I was there
at his usbu when they named him
and those around me wished their best,
and I was there when the news came
that he had succumbed to sickness.
They told me he returned and flies
among the birds.
These names have come to my ears
in between sips of tea, when you must grip
the glass at its edges or you’ll burn.
These names have come softly like the sound
of brushing your feet sideways across
a sand-filled street, moving quickly
or else you’ll sink.
From beyond they can still remain with you—
though you, if not careful, could let them flit away in thought.
Names, though in different calligraphies, span oceans
and cross borders—share the same warmth
whether from a Youssouf or a Joseph.
Zara or a Sarah.
But where can a name cross into another land, untranslatable?
When in exile, unable to return, can a name never
find its equivalent, be the very word
your mother said at birth?
Knowing only the life along the border.
Knowing no entry either to your left hand or right.
When did I cease
to think of names
and begin to search
for the sense behind them?
Here, along the border, both in dream and out, wandering for my place,
I see a thousand grains rise from days’ dust-trails, rise to swirl
and skew themselves into a mirror image of myself, pleading for me
to turn, to follow the mirage of oasis in my past.
Always, I walk through the sandshadow, bursting its chest, my chest—
hearing the grains meet ground again, dust to dust,
and knowing I have once again pleaded for my end
and found only a new horizon.
I press on for a place to call my own, to name with a name
that will withstand the blast of wind and desert grain.
To move in progress is to regress into the present of past
to find myself
echoed in memory, rather than returned to who I once was.
My steps bring me to the shore, to the dry bed
of the ephemeral river
and in its bed, I lay arms spread, collecting in my clenching
hands, the shells of millennia, of Pangea, the fingerdust of God.
I might spend the rest of eternity here, along this shore,
or return tomorrow, I don’t know, only I know
that when the rain comes, I will push out
into the Batha—sit there while the current
grows. I will pass by the villages and the fishers
out for only a few weeks of the year, to see
if perch have come to be caught. I will pass
by the plain opening like a book and see the cattle
streaming across its pages. I will see the mountains
of Mongo to the southeast, feel the Saharan
wind coming from the north. I will pass by all the way
to MaTabke, the place of no crying, and I will
go beyond to the lake, to find that it is several feet
shallower than last year.
Aaron Brown’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Transition, The Portland Review, Ruminate, World Literature Today, and Tupelo Quarterly, among others. He is the author of the poetry chapbook Winnower (Wipf & Stock 2013). An MFA graduate from the University of Maryland, Aaron is an assistant professor of writing & editing at Sterling College in Kansas.