Poem — From the March 2016 issue

The Drums of Marrakesh

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A Jamaican-born poet chain-smokes as he listens to a circle of drummers in the old market of Marrakesh, circa 2015. The drums sound in the present, but they also sound in the sense of measuring — they sound historical depths: an eleventh-century Berber dynasty “broke musical / devices and put a stop to dancing”; the dynasty also founded an empire, with Marrakesh as its capital, that spread over the Maghreb and al-Andalus, an empire that was in turn broken by the Catholic kings, whose descendants would lead the bloody conquest of the Americas, initiating the trade of goods and bodies-as-goods that would ship Africans to, among other places, Jamaica. Thus the second section of “The Drums of Marrakesh” finds the poet in his native Kingston, asking a drunk drayman “where did he think the sounds / arose from that he heard / in his mouth and the streets / in the bars and rum bottles / and Toots rattling the jukebox.” Because this poet, Mark McMorris, hears with exceptional clarity the way a sound sounds the past, how a drum circle encompasses more than one epoch or nation. His poems trace the complex circuitry of song and slavery. They capture the undertones, make us feel the undertow, of imperial histories: “The empire was temporary / dynasties rose and fell // in mimicry of the sea.”

“Rising rhythm” and “falling rhythm” are technical terms of poetic measure, and McMorris’s poetry rises and falls in mimicry of that mimicry: his own carefully tuned, timed, and broken lines link up the present tense of our reading with a variety of pasts. Many of McMorris’s keywords describe historical and poetic ruptures simultaneously: “broke musical / devices” breaks the musical phrase across the margin; when he says that “dynasties rose and fell,” “fell” falls at the end of the line; and so on. In poetry, form is always a form of content: the structure of McMorris’s lines enacts the motions they describe.

The word “fall” appears throughout McMorris’s work, particularly in his most recent book, Entrepôt, which was published in 2010: “Everything falls, to pieces, to the victor, to someone’s lot / falls like a girl falls or a blossom, falls head over heels / like a city or water and like darkness falls, a dynast / a government can fall, or an apple, a cadence, the side of a hill.” Entrepôt was the first book of a trilogy. This month, Wesleyan University Press will publish the second and third books in a single volume called The Book of Landings. “The Drums of Marrakesh” is an important poem from City of Palimpsests, the final part of the trilogy, and it calls back across the sequence to the first: “The drums were an echo in air / of savors from an entrepôt.” An entrepôt is a port or city or clearinghouse established for trade, where people and goods collide, recombine, and are dispersed. It is a transnational no-place, a node in a network. McMorris’s poems resemble an entrepôt: polyglot, startling in their juxtapositions, alive to crossings of sound and sense. Perhaps McMorris wants us to understand poetry as a meeting place that is both inseparable from and other to these actual sites of violent exchange. Between writer and reader, a different kind of transaction is possible, even if what’s communicated is often a cry: “Whatever else disappears / the feeling of a sound / secretly or openly like a vowel / survives the ocean.” A poem — an instrument made out of breaks — bears witness to the futility of breaking instruments. As the poem below both says and shows: “The music is unstoppable.”

 — Ben Lerner

“The Walls of Marrakech,” by Gabriel Veyre © Adoc-photos/Art Resource, New York City

“The Walls of Marrakech,” by Gabriel Veyre © Adoc-photos/Art Resource, New York City

1. (History)

From Senegal to Barcelona
the distance is that of a polity
an empire founded by Sanhaja
Almoravids of hostile love
nomads who broke musical
devices and put a stop to dancing
who before the New World
faltered under the papal cross
divested things of this world
of the sounds and imaginings
pledged to make the mountains
a home for men soon to perish.
The empire stopped at the River
Ebro and the horses turned back
to seek Madrid and Valencia
on routes laid down to weld
the continents and conquests.

In time Los Reyes Católicos broke
the fellowship of scholars
in Andalucía, the lyric
and Hebrew and Arabic poets
passed to exile in the south
to places like Tamnougalt
annus mirabilis
1492
Año de Reconquista
the conquest of America begins.
These matters I knew about
entering the circle of drumming
hearing the prayerful chants
like Rastafari in exile
in Marrakesh the old medina
built in the eleventh century
demolished in the twelfth
from which the Sanhaja rode.

2. (Kingston)

Perchance I had the occasion
to interview an old drayman
one day in downtown Kingston
to press him about his notions
where did he think he was
where did he think the sounds
arose from that he heard
in his mouth and the streets
in the bars and rum bottles
and Toots rattling the jukebox
and he said out of the earth
and he gave me a huge grin
and kissed his teeth and took
off for the department stores
and so I went back to reading
stories about Atlantic migrations
of bottom-of-the-barrel men
from England and the fables
they planted as extra crops
in the sweet-potato gardens
of the old plantocracy
and no one lives there today

3. (Metaphor)

Whatever else disappears
the feeling of a sound
secretly or openly like a vowel
survives the ocean
the floating dungeons
imitate the caravans
the auction blocks
the negative image
of altar and pulpit
limned in cathedral light
copying the rhythms
of seaborne movement
a hand extends to hand
over blue-shifted space
through the language
we construct audible
surroundings like a market
where things come and go

4. (Marrakesh)
Every night, night after night
in pockets across the esplanade
of the Marrakesh medina
they set up a ring of benches
fetch out the darbuka and daf
and string the gunbri’s lament
the music is unstoppable
in the circles of light the old
women and their daughters dance
a stately movement of the feet
hearing in those sounds something
of what I imagined the night
under stars resembled to people
wandering between two cities
you become like the featureless air
you lose track of your beginnings

5. (M’hamid)

The drums across the esplanade
were still loud in my memory, when

I stepped out of the bivouac’s arch
to smoke yet another cigarette

the twilight had not yet appeared
soundless empty land

torchlight spread out in three
dimensions to inflate the skin

of the visible in which I stood
sounds waited over the dunes

all the while from the beginning
over hard-packed Sahel

along the limb of a triangle
the caravans were in passage

the camels kneeling and walking
like dunes or breathing or the sea

their riders hardly urging
forms darker than the darkness

through which the sky pours
fragments of visible desire

whatever of actors and their voices
the desert consumes and erases

the air keeps a catalogue I thought
signs that stir in the mind

of travelers partial to mimesis
the night air around me was still

the voice of the mobile drums
entered the Valley of the Drâa

people stood around to listen
the drums pushed their signals ahead

of the caravans bound for Zagora
on the vertical plane the empty

space was perforated by history
some of the stars were visible

perfectly aligned like nuggets
of white gold in a lake of tar

the drums were an echo in air
of savors from an entrepôt

carried upon the wind’s pages
the future had left no marks

6. (Essaouira)

In the cold sea on the west
coast of northern Africa
I looked for the profile
of the continent to which
the slave ships went long ago.

Where we can live
Live a good good life
And be free.

Nothing except the sea
was ahead when I looked

as if there never had been
a land to get to to land on
only the edge of vision
to fall down and not even
an underground railroad
to light out for the free.
In the negative Paradise
men had to improvise
wearing crocus-bag pants
marooned in the hills.

The sea had no knowledge
of these matters occurring
but still I drew a hand-
ful of it on my forehead
out of respect for drums
I heard in the Marrakesh medina
the rhythms I imagined
went abroad in the ships
moving there and doubling
over the sea’s unruly pages
across the hard-packed Sahel

Agadez to Zagora —
the caravan’s archipelago
lamped by constellations
native to the south
(the desert’s Croix du Sud)
on a three-month angle
there and looping around.

The sea moves and doesn’t move.
Saltwater evaporates.
Eventually the sun dries
the forehead and the skin
holds no print of transit
like the sand you disturb
the road is forever missing.

7. (Tamnougalt)

In the ksour of Tamnougalt
a road branches to the Jewish
quarter, the other road bends
to Muslim houses and the mosque.
Much of the town is hidden.
The streets bore through tunnels
built to regulate the weather.
The air smells of dried mud.
The ksour is a habitable labyrinth
fortified by tamarisk wood
lit by the occasional air shaft.
Partitions are plentiful.
Any road leads to a carrefour
tongues meeting at a permeable
triangle inside the labyrinth.

Wandering like a translator
you see people kept hidden
from orchard-light in the palmeraie
where the air is not as cool
learning underground paths
learning exits and entrances
inside the regional market
reading by lamp the book
from Jerusalem and writing
pages into it of their passage
along the scrawling river
going back to a time of legend.

No matter the curse of setting forth
in transit through alien spaces
you carry the origin with you
to the destination and abode
you once saw rising from the bleary
surface like a mirage, a city
in form perverted by the forces
of countless unconnected things.

8. (History)

The multitudes mingled
in the train of armies

from Senegal to Marrakesh
from Sevilla to Córdoba

Andalucían kingdoms
drums were forbidden

the empire was temporary
dynasties rose and fell

in mimicry of the sea
which forgives no hubris

darbuka and daf
dominate the medina

in time for my arrival
and today I heard the drums

performances of the voyage
like a thing past remembering

9. (Method)

To read an alien sky begin
by learning the imitative
clouds above the battlements
cradling the cannon
they compose an alphabet
for exiles and a history
and their tongues are folded
over into scrolls that open
at night and beckon new stars
from their invisible houses
to festoon another departure.

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