Friday, December 18, 2009

The Stranger

Dusk descends on the plaza
coated with desert dust.
We sit under the solitary tree
and drink coffee out
of miniature cups half-filled with sugar.
The hour is swollen
with jasmine.
Bands of swallows swirl
above us like airborne carpets
in the darkening sky.
The ruined buildings around the plaza
are not Roman but colonial
French, the language spoken by the men
—in twos and threes—around us
sitting at metal tables on iron chairs.
This is the time of day when Dr. Rieux,
in Camus’s The Plague, would open
the door to his empty apartment.
Far away, his wife is convalescing.
Rieux heads straight for the bathroom and soaps
his hands, that all day long have
handled dying Oranians.
But the doctor cannot wash away
the stench of death all over himself.

I haven’t come to Oran looking
For Camus—who is hated here.
He was on the wrong side of history,
or was he? I’m about to remark
on this to my companion when,
faintly at first, I hear a voice
not meant for us, but instead
for Heaven, a flute-like prayer
rising from the speaker attached
to the golden tip of the mosque.
Is it the appearance of the Pole Star,
in the wine-blue sky, the voice sings?
In four days, my mother
will be dead.

Published in Downtown Brooklyn, 2009