Ex Voto

by Joanna Grant

Published in Issue No. 231 ~ August, 2016

For Daniel Albright
Somewhere Between Kuwait and Iraq, 2015

 

They’re everywhere here. Little piles of stones.

One on top the other, three or four or more, precarious.

Teetering. But somehow weathering. Never mind

the thunderstorms, hail the size of fists, angry torrents

of these humid desert winters tearing strange new

channels in this flat, sandy, rocky waste.

 

Such a strange beauty. Dust in the ether streaking everything

strange. Pinkish, ochers, oranges. How it can throw a glamour

on a tangle of barbed wire. An old bathtub. A blown-out tire

slung over a warped traffic cone. And flying from every snag

or spike a ragged, fading plastic bag. They say that, long ago,

 

They used to build a little cairn or stack of stones to mark

where something happened—an amazement, some local wonder,

or the way to somewhere else, or perhaps a source of water.

Since all the wars without end or beginning they tell us

it could be land mines. A little pile of rocks a reminder.

Be careful where you set your foot down here. Like most lessons

one you tend to learn too late to do you any good.

 

You never really loved me. Or perhaps you did.

I always meant to ask. Someday. I wonder

if you ever would have answered. Making the turn

toward Iron Horse where they fire the enormous guns

I remember your last letter. From the other side of the world

you wrote. Told me that my life had more explosions in it

than a well-ordered existence should. I can’t say I disagree.

You were always so much smarter than me.

 

I looked for you, in your birthday month. Like I always did.

To see how long your hair had grown. Your face always so smooth.

As if the years were loath to touch you. Until suddenly.

They said it was your heart.

 

I used to send you all the things I’d written. Even

from out here in this desert of the broken places.

You liked them. Mostly. So here’s one last.

From the Petrarch in me, the one you said you couldn’t need.

 

I wish I could have given you something you wanted.

But here, today, from these salty wastes where the world began

and might just end—just for today, in the face of truth and sense,

every plastic scrap, every stone piled on stone, every tire on tire,

every wild rusty twist of old metal and barbed wire—nothing but

your name, your name, your name flapping in the wind.

account_box More About

Joanna Grant is a Collegiate Associate Professor with the University of Maryland, teaching in a program offering college classes to American servicemembers on military installations overseas. These experiences of war and travel and displacement inform her work. To date, she has worked in Japan, Kuwait (twice), Afghanistan (twice), Djibouti, South Korea, and Qatar. Her critical study of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth century British and American travel narratives about the Middle East, Modernism's Middle East, appeared from Palgrave Macmillan in 2008. Her poems have appeared widely, in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Guernica, The Southern Humanities Review, and numerous other journals.