local_library Hard to Say Where the Figure Ends and the Background Begins

by Joanna Grant

Published in Issue No. 184 ~ September, 2012

Helmand Province, Afghanistan

The earth is the color

of the sky which

is the color

of the dirt

They tell us

we breathe the dirt

up here. Moon dust

and dried-up shit.

With intake of breath

the silt. Coats the spongy

pink of the lungs.

On the dustiest days

we cough up mud.

If it ever rains it

streaks. Dirty tears.

Some days there’s a mountain

tipped with wisps of snow

off on the horizon. Some days

just a flat grey scrim. Haze

over the ghosts of old dead rivers.

The dust chokes out the satellites.

Unusable, your dish becomes a nest.

No internet for days—laptops turn to paperweights.

We rediscover writing. Tracing the shapes.

In the blackouts

our grey-booted feet

learn the dark and the rocks.

One of my boys brings me an old dead bullet.

I bored a hole through the top, he says,

so you can wear it on a chain. With luck

the only one you ever stop.

Children, I tell them in my lecture,

many thousands of years ago

the people here believed

in a place they called the House of Dust.

The place where all our souls went down

to wait for who knows what. Slowly

feeling the change. Some said the waiting ones

began to sprout soft doves’ feathers. As if maybe

to fly. One day. Wings the pink and gray.

Of the swirling dirt.

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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.