Swimming to Syria

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Swimming to Syria Sandy Feinstein

This book is funded by the Instructionally Related Activities Grant of California State University, Stanislaus. California State University, Stanislaus Penumbra Literary and Art Journal 1 University Cr. Turlock, CA 95382 Cover design by Penumbra Press Photos provided and owned by Sandy Feinstein Copyright © 2021 by Sandy Feinstein , 2021 All rights Reserved

Penumbra Press is an extension of Penumbra and Penumbra Online. For more information, see our website at www.penumbraonline.org

The Penumbra Press Selection Process: In the early days of our team’s meetings, we already knew that we wanted to highlight works that demonstrated original, evocative, and challenging content. We also knew that our chapbooks should be structured around a powerful central theme, be it cultural, historical, or systemic. We wanted to find works that brought us into places that we only seldom wander—those special zones of thought that express vivid bursts of insight and potent commentary. To our great fortune, we were met with a wealth of fantastic content, which truly tested our already high quality standards. After months of exhaustive and detailed evaluation, we found three poets who stood out as especially strong voices, those with keen talents for expressing both subtle and sublime imagery centered around powerful themes. We present those authors here, as Penumbra Press’s first ever chapbook authors. One of the qualities that drew our editorial team to Sandy Feinstein’s collection, Swimming to Syria, was the way she evokes an earnest feeling in the reader, using words to paint vivid pictures of a land many of us have never seen before. Her writing possesses a lyrical quality that makes for a lovely read. Poems like “Mushabbak Church” are particularly memorable, with lines that bring to mind geometric designs juxtaposed with images of olive groves and almond trees, allowing the reader to envision the scenery despite not physically being there. Sandy’s poems have a magical quality to them, transporting us not just in space but in time; her poems mix the present day with the historical facets of Syria. For example, “Roman Road” blends the mythos of Rome and its physical manifestations while delving into their impact on present-day Syria, all through the image of playing amongst the stones of an ancient road. Sandy’s poems have a charm about them as they take the seemingly mundane of everyday life such as eating a fruit in “Citrus” or a bus ride in “Aleppo Bus” and using them to talk about much deeper themes. Yet in these seemingly simple poems, there are layers that tell much deeper stories and display everything that this collection stands for. We hope you will enjoy Swimming to Syria and the unique experience it brings with each and every poem.

Table of Contents

9. In Syria 10. Citrus 11. Listening 12. As 13. Saô ne Citadel 14. Hama 15. Cyrrhus (Nabi Houri) 16. Roman Road 17. Mushabbak Church 18. Aleppo Leaves 19. Railroad 20. Soil in the City 21. Jabool 22. Farming 23. Al-Bara 24. Call

25. The Blue Beach 26. Burro Foreground, Golan Heights 27. Chance Meetings 28. Calling the River in Raqqa 29. Homs 30. Marquab 31. In Serjilla 32. Eminent Domain 33. Danger 34. Aleppo Bus 35. Casualties 36. At the Dam 37. Last Tour of the Season 38. Collected Thoughts 39. Moving Back

Dedication To those who invited me into their homes, into their lives, and into their families of which there were many more than I can list here. To Fuad, who found me when I was lost (literally) then introduced me to his family, where to jog in Aleppo, and the oldest private club in Syria that enabled countless bus trips to archeological sites; to Aziz who could expatiate on the architecture and history of all those places and so much more and, to his wife, Cindy, who offered insights of another kind; to Issa who made a place for me in the artistic world over which he presided; to Fuwaz and Wassim, physicians who provided insights on medicine and literature, and their wives, Taghrid and Lena, who offered a window into social and cultural interactions; to Juliet who did far more than any diplomat was ever expected to do for her Fulbright charges—locate the perfect apartment, take me to inaccessible places, or make arrangements for me to get to them, including the U.S. so I could see my father before he died; to my former colleagues, especially Najla and Rafah, who welcomed me to the university; to my former students who responded enthusiastically to whatever I inflicted on them pedagogically and to those who translated my poems into Arabic; to those friends who visited and with whom I saw Syria anew: Mari and the Armenian community, Hans Henrik and Inger with new historical insights; my sister Heide who managed to speak fluent food cross-culturally and my mother who I expect to spring alive to see what I’ve written about her. And, to Neal, of course.

In Syria

it must be hot, the sky cloudless, all moisture from a median of weeds, jasmine pale as the limestone it entangles, and dusted with sand everywhere, blinds on windows, damask pillowcases, as if they could protect what seeps through pores and scalp, tasted in tea and kibbe, grainy enough to smooth stone and wood gradually as memory sliced clean as a razor flays a lamb into strips until it’s not the bleating kid. Before its butchering, I meant to count each animal to note who hid or wandered lost in the desiccated East where its carcass rots, scavenged by vultures. I meant to do more than graze the ancient sites— Arwad, Maalula, Mar Musa, Ebla, now vague citadels, shrines, frescoes, temples, palaces among shepherd and traders, like me, bringing to town what children herd.

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A bamouli1 must be consumed slowly, its thick skin peeled with a knife, each section membrane-pierced. I envy the exotic fruits here, the ritual required to get at sour pulp. Without the measured care of carving, it becomes something else, a huge grapefruit. I have no patience even with oranges forgetting to wash them, plunging my nails under their skin, quick stripping to white veins and sweet juice. It is the writing of a morning, what I peel methodically, what I forget to chew as I look outside the window digesting what I try to see.

Bamouli is a transliteration and translation of the Syrian Arabic for the fruit we call a pomelo. Swimming to Syria 10

Listening I stare out the window as if the sky could speak. A cloud blows from home, Ezra, my uncle’s name before he changed it. Would it have made any difference if he’d known the word means blue where his father first learned words? I can’t yet understand. I listen, separate the sounds—whistles, shouts, doors open and close, shoes scrape stone, a muffled television, phones and bells. At my door a young boy holds up a red rug with words. Opening the door a crack I see what I can’t say and only guess what’s said.

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My small vertical windowpane frames a strip of cloud stretching the length of a tall man, thin to the point of breaking, which it will, disappearing in the pale blue March sky, fading into the cloud bank. A painter might contain dissipating air, keep the original contours fixed until the canvas cracks or paint flakes, unlike metaphors trying to capture what white on blue means or horizontal dissolution above signifies below like oil shimmering in muddy pools, patterns depending on angles of declination, optical refraction, the position of the moving earth and the shapes light takes as it penetrates elemental gases forming and reforming without an end in sight, unrecorded history as parallel lines without clear points of origination or final destination.

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Saône Citadel

Saladin knew the weak point, the sloping shelf beyond the upper keep. How many times did he case the cliffs, pace the possibilities, note the towers where fewer and fewer crusaders kept watch? He must have won the castle in spring when the red poppies and yellow long-necked blossoms break through the phalanx of stones, push through walls as if they were not there, a minor obstruction. The riot of flowers poking through invincibility like so many mangonels blasting each barbican tottering at the onslaught of spring and soldiers disregarding the odds and imposing facades. Beyond the stone needle, a drawbridge no longer leads from a flat rise of scattered rock, the remains of out buildings, perhaps a hermitage for the converted or disillusioned now half hidden by tough gorse and encroaching thistle still growing.

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Hama draws water in circles in wooden pinwheels younger than the citadel that split the world— Hittite, Greek, and Roman families in orderly layers dispersed like so much inheritance to claimants in the capital, leftovers to populate a palace vacated by Damascus, now ruins of black basalt. Trace the mosaic: lion leaps a duck, horse canters over diamonds, ladies play glass bowls ancient instruments silenced for Hama’s dead, covered up like burn marks in Azem’s Gold Room luxury where once the wheel turned until burned.

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Cyrrhus (Nabi Houri)

The wreck of rocks overlooks plowed earth, red with recent rain, reveals a jagged ring dramatic as the stage below overgrown with dry thistle and young grass, the raked rows of seats expectant, the players stolid columns, headless, the capitals so many feet planted, the silent chorus of the dead memorialized by a tower tomb, its hexagonal sides narrow to a point capped with a button like a bird’s nest. Windows facing forward and back, six directions simultaneously as one might expect for death’s sentinel.

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Roman Road

Boulders litter the landscape as if scattered by careless gods, Jupiter hurling his thunderbolt and cracking the dry earth, splitting peaks that spit up whole orchards, roots pointing to heaven and dying under Apollo’s summer gaze under which this plain of building blocks emerged vast as visions of chariot wheels racing from Antioch to Mesopotamia, drafted peasants hefting picks, prying plans from rock and dirt cut and dug into a line meant to extend the desert Empire dissolved more than a millennium ago before now when one young girl peers from a scarf, her small hand offering a pale rose. Retracing her steps on the uneven wet path, she heads back to a home nudging the road ending in cultivation and stray stones.

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Mushabbak Church

among these rocks where full moon tides pulled the ocean bottom to the top absorbed by a sun unlike today they say to explain this calcite plateau, boulders built into a byzantine basilica heavy lintels, open doors and windows— three rounded Roman frames above three horizontals steadied by diagonals imprinted with interlocking signs in circles read by pilgrims on their way to see Saint Simon, to drink the waters collected in great stone pits, north down stone steps into a cistern, south a huge deep pool, dry as the pink light settling on gray ridges and tethered mules. Below, rows of olive groves, greening after February rains warm enough to lick two almond trees into white bloom.

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Aleppo Leaves

She said the leaves change here, too. I didn’t believe her. October was hot, and it didn’t rain at all. It looks the same now in November, though it rained once, a slight drizzle. Nothing anyone remarked, except me. Yesterday I walked the same way, past limestone building after building. I noticed a man slapping spackle, upward. The old ceiling must have been flaking, like leaves ready to fall. Then I saw them. They were red and yellow. Dusty like everything else. Men with red hoses wash cars and trees. They make puddles in the street. Sidewalks are drier, but you can’t walk on them either—too many entombed trees that grow wide, not tall, the leaves hanging low. Maybe that’s why I didn’t see the gold leaves until they’d been cut and left unraked in my path. I’d seen only green, olives and cypress, jasmine still in white bloom, what belonged to my way of thinking.

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Railroad Trains come in colors, like some memories, the army green cars chugging students slowly from Helsinki to Moscow, pale yellow tea served with the winter sun, loose leaves floating in glass lifted in its ornamental brass base unavailable from Kolding to Copenhagen speeding bluer than the Skattegut crossed on ferries into which sleek cars disappear and reappear unlike New York subways, gray as age winding underground where the city darkens despite new mosaics, shiny tiles, and mayors who know nothing of Syria where light is color no metal makes half recalled by foreigners who notice an old woman with bags of food, offering thick dry cookies, sandwiches of soft sweet dough, tangerines to the French woman speaking six languages, the American pointing to the full moon, mouthing Arabic, Amar, as the bleached mountains pass enveloping it and the unspoken formal kh sticking in the throat as the walnuts cracked and passed around into hands assumed to be open when closed as a moving train jarring enough to pass imperceptibly inward as peeled fruit.

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Soil in the City

sung as an Arabic refrain understood as spring, word gardens with flowers hard to recognize. I don’t have to look to see what it is, this sound going up and down the road with a wooden cart pulled by a scruffy, thin horse lacking patience for my petting, used to work, walking to the same notes repeated for hours until all other human sounds are reasons to nip. The cacophony of cars elicits no reaction, its scabbed neck unruffled by horns blasting at its slow pace, unmoved as dirt is scooped from its load while an artificial rooster calls and the sun sets on nothing it hasn’t heard before.

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Jabool Pink and red plastic flowers bob in the hob hob, its bright blue and tan bely crooked routes to villages neglected by tourists unmoved by salt, light skirts and ankles deep in white coral. Fog rises from the saline pool, hides the hills, where sheep graze winter wheat. We punctuate this landscape, stand out like flares in damp air, draw bored children from clay hives. Our footfalls call them like magic. “Shoo, go away,” we say in French, English, Arabic, exotic spells ignored like regular reminders to pray broadcast as we begin to walk away. Two boys on donkeys beat them into bucking where we want to go, the road back.

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Farming Outside the circles of city dwellings, roads point to the late September sun hot as prairie August, to women in white and black head scarves, hems drag dirt furrows, bend as light on something green or red, peppers perhaps or parsley, tomatoes or cucumbers just beyond western cars passing tractors and painted trucks full of sweet watermelons or raw cotton piled high enough to fall and split red seedy flesh or unspun threads in the ubiquitous dust remarked by those resisting the uncontainable, unlike the gentleman farmer who dug his family plot beside a grove of apricots and plowed field of winter wheat, barely beyond the view of his villa’s high windows overlooking stone walls within which the fruit and grain grow right angled to the cement block sarcophagus awaiting the dead that will decompose beneath dry clods kicked by his horses trotting round the property foreshortened by great columns of limestone leading to a bedroom with Damascene cabinets brushed with colors like the uncurried coats of Arabian stallions and dark mares in heat.

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Al-Bara winds into groves, where winter branches hang heavy with rain, and olive trees are mud sunk red like my boots after I squish through a frame of branches opening to a stone tower. Other tombs open skyward, their triangle tops gone as if pushed right off the peaked lid where spirits float up, and the living muck into another day.

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Call Light leaves earlier each day, not quite noticed slipping behind densely packed limestone, carved acanthus and grape vines disappearing with the sun as a call chanted, calculated rhythmic poetry that might be Cage or Queneau, sustained as the minute or two determined for prayer, a voice in the air joined late by another, lapping sounds, as if one could hear two oceans meet like the distant Baltic and North seas in Skagen, misread even by those standing at the cold point where the winds blow East to this other sound so many know, expect, and regard no more than horns honked at every roundabout and woman walking, compulsive chatter untranslatable, not that poetry of the air timed to the earth’s rotation and changing light until day enters night making black thread again distinguishable from white.

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The Blue Beach

These early April rains mock memory— the photograph of two women in bathing suits standing on a beach pocked with footprints leading to the sea where two heads, all face and dark hair, bob north of a man in black striding behind another in jeans. The timer is set. We laugh into the unmanned camera eye that misses five figures in long brown coats and white scarves stepping into the Mediterranean. No one shivers in this late winter sun. Palm fronds sticking straight up check the direction of a wind weaker than the day’s current suspended like the cold season.

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Burro Foreground, Golan Heights

Someone else would write about people, shooting them as the Lebanese photographer whose black and white peasants look familiar as cinema verité with a small gray burro I could imagine riding easily as thought until I climbed on and discovered rope that doesn’t rein, a seat that’s no saddle for legs hugging furry ribs. A boy holds my thighs down as he leads me in slow circles, bumping along before the citadel viewed by buses bringing tourists to gawk, not far from a photo show where the Golan Heights appear wasted and poverty stares back at voyeurs now watching an American riding a boy’s burro outside the frame of expectation.

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Chance Meetings

Naked bulb reflected in glass a lopsided moon in the gray southern sky, the inside world outside, caught in one window in Syria where a teenager peers then asks, what is your name, where do you live? Show me he says as he tries to keep the curtains open, extending his hand as the white gauze shuts him out and he turns to other shuttered windows.

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Calling the River in Raqqa

Hughes might have recognized it when told there would be fish in Raqqa from the Forah, name foreign as the landscape, flat sand giving way to riparian richness, stray weeds sprung into trees along the river whose local name means nothing to ears accustomed to English, where hard consonants dominate and syllables mark diphthongs elongating appellation as if its waters could be made to reach further back than to a Negro Speaking of Rivers bathing in its young dawn, the Arabic like a nickname, shortened by familiarity and knowing its flow, where it changed course and civilizations the Turkish excavators half appropriate in the present and the past when Harun al-Rashid built against Baghdad’s heat through one city gate remaining and leading to the Palace of Maidens, once heated by pipes pumping water warmed for winter, cylindrical clay in mortared brick ruins fenced near the river where fishermen, like poets, cast lines time after time.

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Homs They say Huhms, not Homs—oh pronounced u, surprise expressed only in English, would-be partisans don’t hear “you.” Barrons’ At a Glance, shows o as in “dog,” man’s best friend, unless you know the mutt is you. ABC’s begin “Ah,” right to left, and no is “la” where there’s no o and dogs are unclean, bloodied whiners. I remember a bridge, the university, the bus stop— I am a witness without a record, just names I learned to say, for my students, dead and alive, long graduated and left behind. Swimming to Syria 29

Marquab looks over rows and rows of tents filled with tomatoes and strawberries winter troops battle ready beside oil refineries and concrete, a thousand years of boom and bust ruins above coastal industry; wrecked black and white towers allegorize good and evil tourists who stop, smoke in the chapel, offer ashes to God, in the Last Supper fresco, less apparent than butts, indiscreet shit, the modern mangonel left as irreverent and final as loss.

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In Serjilla

The year’s last day blurry as the film where fog filled my camera, leaving memory a month later to rearrange as old limestone, moved when needed. The donkey tethered to the column awaits his load of Roman stone, and I carry mine back with me. The hillside is slick with long rains, making me drop small rocks here and there, irretrievable. Someone lives in the old walls— steam rises. Everything gray, except the laundry I try to recall, something red, a black rubber floormat hung on the perimeter between the dead and the donkey. I wore nothing I can remember, naked in recollection, but I dress myself in something warm, like the burning that can’t be seen producing smoke. And I track mud, thick in the grooves of my boots, the cuffs of my jeans. I try to shake it off before leaving, but it sticks more stubbornly than these Byzantine foundations unmoved for the time being.

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Eminent Domain

One painter claims her art eats her but fame called her out when she removed Emmett Till from his grave, his scars remade, his coffin open season for her palette. She draws from news I remember framed by headlines before found art when abstraction made a kind of sense in oily drips and color splats. Rothko’s reds, two-tone blacks his own property. I wrestle with the two, a lunch of me in Aleppo, where I ate fool among donkeys, cows, dead lambs. I could tell you of a boy I knew there, but how can I make him mine, own his bullet wounds, his parents’ pain? Swimming to Syria 32

Danger lurks they say in beat up yellow cabs whose drivers will teach western women to keep indoors during Ramadan or air raids in Iraq; insinuated into conversations like immature bombs, mostly sound, not much fireworks, set off by any light, unexpected despite constant warnings translating fear considered different from crossing the street as cars aim indiscriminately, or taking the darkest streets turned like batter, sand and rocks brought to the surface, piles of rubble where there aren’t pools of week-old rain lying in wait as splashed sentences, rumors of concern offering disguises: pawns as queens, or kings negotiating familiar routes in another language, political games and street games, in any case, men in control, threatening or protecting. Regardless of intention, the leavings of words remain, a conspiratorial gang taking on naïfs and suspect grand illusions.

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Aleppo Bus

Half aware, my walk is abruptly interrupted by mechanical groans, an old orange bus with its great white eyes on my clothes that speak another language, the Moroccan scarf fooling no one. An arm reaches through cool night air, waves its words that say ‘board me’ and I do, with a piece of paper to explain what English won’t, a route beyond where buses go. The sheet, tattered as vulnerability, begs protection that this working man offers: insistent as honor he drives past familiar gates, brakes down hills through bunched taxis and vans frenetically honking for fares. High on the worn leather I sit as a medieval woman travelling by camel, swaying in her litter unseen, hidden by height and night dark as expectation, until brought safely home, watched even into the noise and crowds escaped.

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Casualties Twenty-four body bags in Baghdad (not counting the suicide bomber)— faces blinded, exploded, lost. Land mines are everywhere. Fuad’s brother died last year —of bullets, shrapnel, gas? Their home blasted into rubble, shattered, like Halab. The news recounts who’s responsible, tallies losses, carefully numbers them. I can’t return to confirm. For now I watch Tom shake until he falls in place— never a warrior this Quaker broken here. Words are spilled again, reassembled, cleaned up, sent on their way unable to face memory.

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At the Dam

It must be the sun, slowing even the heartiest species, the house sparrows finding the limestone slab strewn with sunflower seeds mid-morning while American and British relatives gobble goldfinch feed by sunrise. The power drill stops breathless after a few minutes, its pounding muted as its energy seeps back to its source, like the Russian generators churning Lake Assad, the old river dammed to a trickle farther north and lost to Turkey’s dimmer light. Cyrillic pronouncements in alien granite dwarf Arabic limestone arabesques more accustomed to the enervating desert, and still nothing happens. The white stone eagle, a legacy of the fifties brought later by Russian Soura whose engineers wrought their cold accounting of Syria’s historic heat.

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Last Tour of the Season

Opposite the fortress, the winding streets lead to shuttered steel souks where stones wet with morning once muddied 4000 camels’ feet bringing rabbis reading Torah, Venetian merchants to their khan, Turks who built marble footbaths for daily ablutions today wiped clean by a villager in a red scarf overseen by a fat man holding a white towel to his naked body and staring back at the women as if they’d entered the nearby mosque uncovered, bad as birds building nests in a minaret, basket of twigs above the black dome’s decorated sky, blue mosaics, and colored glass beside God’s gold script facing Mecca from Aleppo, south as the crow flies.

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Collected Thoughts

The rare gray through which light strains, restrained for a change, is nothing like cotton. It absorbs nothing. Sound travels below its winter weight, a stray melody from a car window or construction site, Friday prayer loud against the cold chirping of early sparrows. From the window, limestone yellow against the sky, the rows of black squares, unfinished windows, like a giant martin’s house ready for spring guests. There is no movement, except the undulating chant punctuated by intermittent peeps into closed doors. A fire burned beside a mannequin, wax trompe d’oeil in an open doorway, casting a tall thin shadow melting in slow motion. Four children climb over a dirt mound and horizontal bars, lintels in the making, a stuffed bird eased over obstacles. I drag these images along with me on walks as taxis honk for my attention, distracting me like static on a phone line or a bad recording forces concentration on each word that too soon passes, evaporating into meaning obscured.

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Moving Back

This window is ground level, off-center, its blinds down under sheer curtains fancy dress over an old-fashioned corset that doesn’t change anything, the blue and white sky above the passing cars, the whoosh of tires like matchbox miniatures my brother raced down upholstered pillows a time before the one outside, closer to his old bedroom than where I slept last year, waking to routine, boiling tea and sitting, as now, trying to see beyond the window looking out on dusty limestone roofs, distant deserts where something grew for me, seeds from discarded husks and aridity.

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