“Cairo Qasidah” by Sam Hamill

Sam Hamill


A slow gray-yellow dawn
beyond the slow brown Nile,
a heavy haze over Cairo

as I stood in my window
remembering how we paused
on a bridge, Amal and I,
in fading evening light
last night
to watch a lean fisherman
and his beautiful wife
cast their net along
the stony shallows just
as they have done
for five thousand years,
their small son happy
astern, fingers trailing
in the water while Momma
pulled the long slow oars
and Pappa drew up
emptiness again.

“Just wait!” they called to us.
And began again.

I rose in the hour before first light
having dreamt of them all
in troubled sleep all night—
a world caught
between antiquity
and modern life.
What kindness shone
in Amal’s brown eyes
when she spoke of
her son, of her husband.
A little archaeology
of the heart may be
sublime—or raise
a veil of tears.

Her smart young son is teased
when she declines
to wear the hijab. The rules
set against the erotic
create the erotic—the rules
of war are found
in a woman’s hair.

The five o’clock call to prayer.
An infidel in every tongue,
I closed my window, turning
back to solitude again,
to sit alone and breathe.

Soon enough the streets
will snarl to life and the world
go about its brutal business.
What business have I
whose commerce is the gift
of words, mere poetry?
War and peace, love
and exile—a mother’s love
or a poet’s dreaming—

what words do we dare stand by?
For what good word
does the good soldier die?
What can any weary
traveler do but live
in wonderment and gratitude
amidst such poverty and splendor—

And I walked out into the dust
that veils the city,
enlivens the sunrise,
and will, soon enough, veil us.

from Rattle #27, Summer 2007


Sam Hamill: “I grew up on a ranch in Utah, a farm in Utah, and my old man, my adopted father, loved poetry. And he would sometimes recite poetry while he worked. And he would explain to me, the rhythm of the work would help you decide what poem to sort of say. The way you sometimes hum or sing when you work—well, he recited poetry that way, and I think that was what first turned me on to poetry.” (website)

Rattle Logo