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The Elephants

From Ariadne Series

Mark McMorris


Before the plaza, in the vicinity of the wall
The noises linger of the building
Of the workmen, the noise of shovels
Dug into gravel pyramids, metal on stone.

And the laying of brick by bricklayers
The scrape of trowels leveling mortar
And the hammering of jackhammers
Cancelling the Sunday church bells.

The pocket around the wall widens
Enclosing tenements, dividing houses.
Noise pushes back citizens in the street.
The wall captures more of their space.

The silence of the labyrinth closes on the city
A wall where there was no wall, lateral
Palimpsest and barrier to speech.
The wall grows another claw at night.


Space of the wall
Space of the city inside the wall
The labyrinth of walls through the city

The wall bending to form corridors
Turning and meeting other walls

Spaces open along the wall
Thresholds to branching galleries

Silence pushes through the openings
Coaxing the tongue, soliciting
Writing and drawing, speech
Across lines echoing on the walls

The voice translated by voice, encircling
The space like syncopated birds


Below the wall the faces
Of women and faces of children
And faces of men and the lines of unrest
In motion towards the labyrinth

Above the heads, on battlements
Spanning the open gate, the letters
Carved in stony majesty repeat
Questions from a legend of origins

Who can enter by this gate
On what errand have they come
From which province or race, and what
Claim to the city can they show

The camp inside the walls burgeons
With temporary bivouacs, scattered
And haphazard dwellings
The walls turning this way and that

Narrow lanes connect the dwellings
Inside the labyrinth, which the camp
Resembles in plan and from above
Young or old, no one leaves the camp

The gate goes one way in; the exit
On the Western side requires passage
Through the center, the black thread
But the center is remote as a myth


In wandering through the labyrinth
Following the line drawn by Ariadne
Spinner of the black thread paid out
To join entrance to exit and guide
The hero’s travel, towards the daylight
Theseus imagines the end of walls.
Between the river and the clearing
Under ceilings fortified by tamarisk
The hero wanders in memory
Echoing glimpses of the outside sky
In a forest of voices and mirrors
Waterfall of writing and drawing.

Before marble altars with candelabra
The floor illuminated by the cupola
Where the black thread and leaves fall
And air blows through the colonnades

Theseus forgets the hills and profile
Of cottages surrounded by fruit trees.

The ordeal tempers his optimism.
The entrance to the labyrinth
Belongs to a time out of mind
Before writing split from drawing
In Bibles and sacred texts
Like the walls traced by his fingers
In passage over endless mosaics.

Mark McMorris is the author of The Book of Landings (2016). He teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

This originally appeared on April 8, 2017