The Negev, 1965
Bound between the reaches of two mountain ranges,
born within the heart of anger,
left beneath the stench of sulfur dust
precipitating slowly on the ruins of that birth,
the Negev's first uncertain days -- when strata buckled
between phases of a crazed and frantic ride
and deranged chasms' crumbling sands first bore the brunt
of the decimated yet unblunted boulders' fall --
Those first uncertain days were meant
not as creation but as death. Destruction
was the purpose of that force which thrust against the land,
and surely, in the tumble and the rise,
was too improbable to ever have been planned.
The Israelites were first to know the product of creation's wrath
and named it as the Negev: their Desert of the South.
And terrified they fled at its birth, or tried to;
tiny figures climbing slowly from the death below
along precipitous and jagged salt-stone cliffs.
Though it could be owned by no one it had worth,
and first was used by Jews for patient centuries.
And then the others came from unknown races,
wanderers and settlers in search of any place
that could be half a home; and they competed for it
with the sun, aridity and rocks which
were they soil still could not be farmed
and only barely grazed. These others left their signature, a scratch,
upon enduring surfaces. The Jews left nothing more.
Successive waves of conquerors were conquered,
driven off from what they strove to own
by newer nations or by something else,
and not the desert, this, for rock and stone
have many times before been domineered by man.
That thing which drove man back cannot be known,
is greater even than the land:
the pattern and the interplay
of force and need which feed the desert
are what make the lack of life
so plausible. The energy derived
is much too varied to be held
and far too great to be controlled.
On what kills man, the desert thrives.
Assyrian, Roman, Greek, and Turk,
the hundred other great, the thousands, lesser
lurk briefly behind weak shadow-lines
or tread cautious lives
beneath the weight of too much sky
until they're driven off by
rushing floods of heat.
leaving behind their signs:
The coins, all green and
lie in distances apart
from those that can be
distances of mind, not only
miles and time.
The potsherds, reconstructed
now by man,
lie broken with the shattered bones
within which minor tales of minor
shames and battles
lie muted beneath the Negev's
And stones which were once walls,
spaced and salted with evaporated sweat
of strife against a witless force
too great to know and therefore called by man
in plural as 'the elements',
lie in broken and half-broken mounds,
reclaimed and half-reclaimed by the
surrounding wasted span
of sandless half-spent half-certainty
of Negev's rocky grounds.
These signs, and more, lie dormant and unseen
along the shifting scheme of hill and plain
that calls itself by no name that we know
but which we call the Negev.
And of these signs that man has left behind
(and often, unplanned, stayed behind himself)
no one is mark of mandate nor of claim
to having held the will, volition -- state it as you will --
of elements or strengths or surfaces or depths,
not so much as the least stone part of that
untamed rim within his hand.
For if the Negev can have masters they are these:
the energies and elements which, so long before --
when Lot's vain wife first beheld the fires of destruction --
almost as an accident created from that strife
(by destruction of the Cities of the Plain);
the desert which depends yet on these for its --
let's not call it life, but surely it is something more
than mere existence; instead let's call it
the Great Sahara, South and to the West
a wasteland as you'd think a desert ought to be --
sweeps its sands across the Sinai shelf,
and keeps the Negev separate from itself
by northwest-running granite hills,
a vastness which can spill those unknown forces that maintain it
out across the breach into the Negev's lands
in a final flickering of blurred strained strength
beyond whose power the Sahara is spent
so that the essence of the desert is transferred
but character is lost and no imprint is lent,
no genetic pattern is impressed. The Negev stands
dependent but irrevocably alone.
The granite hills define its western reach.
The northern Negev has no border.
Here the combinations, tempers, of the air,
undefined, disordered, wavering as mist before a wind,
hold back expansion, but two things there are
that can draw a line through and then say:
'the desert ends right here'. Though really,
though the Negev's not the world its end
is as uncertain as a fading whimper.
We draw our line across a hundred miles
(we must lest we allow a nether land
which, as we cross it, might extend
its lack of certainty, exactness, onto us
so that we find ourselves as vague
and ill-defined, abstract).
We gaze then on the surface of the world's deepest rift,
where oily waters, salted far beyond
the limits any life can tolerate
keep chained in secret far below its shores
those still lost Cities of a near-forgotten,
buried, once sweet fruitful Plain.
The Dead Sea still seeps sulfur fumes
where Sodom once reigned royal and Gomorrah
grazed her herds of sheep and goats.
Now drifting muted waters sweep those shores
where some drear and gnarled trees before
the mountains loom like moonscape, leaping
from the bottom of that stained defeated stand of strife,
of raped and dread depleted land.
Midway between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean
appears the one tired mark where man's slight spark of fire
has endured within hostile terrain. Beer Sheva bears the signature
not merely of an Arab settlement, lost beside some wells,
which grew too quickly after far too many mired years
of service to the struggling camel trains
that single-file, slowly, cross the southern hills.
It grew too tame too fast when Israel's men
reclaimed the desert they'd deserted at its birth
and massed new matter to the flawed and crumbling edge
of Arab's baked adobe, Bedouin tent, and raw unshaded sun
until one has almost to sift beneath the new facade
of frontier toughness and technology,
the khaki-clad and weaponed pioneer,
whose strides are swift and forward,
to find the dark-eyed boy, the deep-eyed one,
suspicious and bewildered,
kaffiyeh headdress hiding cunning of a kind
we cannot know,
robes to ankle-length disguising
the curved glint of a silver-sheathed blade;
the deep-eyed youth of a culture aged too quickly
with no place left to go.
Beer Sheva bears the marks not just of man's,
but of the desert's sons.
Too far beneath the northern rich green fields
the Negev's dust stalks the streets and wields
the power ancient prophets sought to yield
from wilderness: the roll of distant drums
beaten by a drummer yet unknown.
And as escaping heat waves speed in from the distant Sinai hills
and spill their strife across the torn and sunken Negev floor,
they lap against the Jordan mountains which retain
and hold that quintessence on which the Negev feeds.
The Jordan mountains grant the desert life
and something more: a mold, a shape, by which to be
contained. Structured. Defined. Entrapped and real.
And to the South the desert narrows
like some insane inverted pyramid,
a shell that pours its vital marrows
splashing, spent, into the unplumbed slash
of depths that are the Red Sea's floor.
And where, at the tidal line, the Negev's plain is buried
and confined, the Red Sea carries on the chore
of being that which drums apart the Jordan height
from the Sinai hills, separating them
with timeless unrepentant unforgiving might.
If the Negev can have masters they are these
the elements that gave it birth, the energy
and interplay that give it continuity,
the deserts, mountains, that surround it,
and the seas.