Dry this stream bed, flowing through not desert
heat but Neolithic outcroppings, hills
they call them, marking the border. The dirt
here is sweet, sweeter than whatever spills
out on the other side. I have wandered
through these hills, down paths that even shepherds
couldn’t get their flocks to follow. I’ve heard
the sound of paw-pads on rock, like drunkards
kicking stones. Later my neighbors would tell
me ghost stories of the heathen times, back
when goddesses of wind, fire and shadow
roamed the hills. But I was under the spell
of youth, where having Cantor and Cossack
blood was all the safety I needed to know.
It’s odd how one starts a poem about the river that divides Armenia from Turkey and ends up writing about being chased through the hills by unseen forces. I suppose it’s all about where the rhyme takes you.
This poem comes from my time spent in Gyumri, Armenia, as a Peace Corps volunteer. The city is surrounded on two sides by mountains and between the endless flat land the towering mountains are the foothills, which were bizarre when I first looked on them. The closest I’ve ever seen as a comparison is the Glastonbury Tor, in England, which looks like a huge burial mound. There were hundreds and hundreds of them, spanning the eastern and southern sides of the valley Gyumri is located in. It took around four hours to hike from the city center where I lived out to the hills, but I liked it because, for some odd reason, no one else seemed to venture out there. One night, though, having decided to go on a midnight stroll, I ended up getting lost and coming to the conclusion that something was following me. Perhaps I was hearing things, perhaps it was something as innocent as a wolf. Whatever it was I never found out, for even when I turned around and began looking for the source of the noise I couldn’t find anything. When I asked my neighbors why the hills were deserted they began telling me stories about the pre-Christian times of Armenia, with tales of fire whirlwinds, goddesses that caused goats to dry up and dragons that lived on the slopes of Mt. Ararat. I suppose they thought that since I was an American I’d be willing to believe in anything.
The Cantor and Cossack reference is personal, for as far as I can gather from the little information I have found, my grandfather’s father on my dad’s side were both holy singers and horse soldiers during the days of the Russian Tzar. But that’s just family lore, what I know is that he came from a small village in the Ukraine, near Minsk. The difficulty of pin-pointing my ancestors isn’t just that everyone on my father’s side is dead, it’s that since they were Jewish and everyone else in the surrounding villages during WWII the Nazis rounded them up and executed everyone, afterward burning down the villages. There is literally no literal trance of my father’s roots.