Alexandria

 
So you too think that the end of the world is approaching?

One hears this said now on every side.

 

But do you suppose that the crews of these warships.

Anchored in this sea without a tide,

Do you suppose that they think as you do?

Surely that would be very much mal vu

By their superiors, high on those towering decks,

Wearing dark glasses, their shoulders embroidered with gold

 

How this Egyptian sun selects

Those most iridescent hue

With which to light that freighter’s hold.

But these warships ... whose do you think they are?

Selucid or Roman? Byzantine?

Berber? Norseman? Or France d’Outre Mer?

Yet that admiral training his guns

On the Hotel Cecil

Does not seem to resemble Saint Louis

Preparing to go

To Damietta to die.

Perhaps they are British or American

Or some other ephemeral fleet.

 

Overhead the airplanes sound

Like roller-skaters in the sky.

 

Yes, the Pharos was just ... just there

By that ruined fort.

Tier upon marble tier

Ascending to the ultimate fire

Backed by a bronze reflector.

The light could be seen, they say,

Fifty miles away.

No, nothing is left.

 

Not far from where we stand

Cleopatra’s barge was moored,

As was in later times

The tall Khedieval yacht.

Broken pieces of the Ptolomaic palace

Appear and disappear

Depending on the light.

 

You know, they spoke Macedonian at Court

Down to the end,

The last queen being the first of the family to speak

The language of the land,

Being also fluent in Latin and Greek.

They were, of course, deified after death,

Sometimes before,

As happens to certain rulers in our own day.

 

The Museum was there

Where the rusted oil drums are.

In those cool reading-rooms

Calimachus restored the text of Homer

When not composing his own very delicate poems.

You recall his Elegy on Heraclitus –

 

Line after perfect grief-struck line,

Petals of asphodel

That strew

The Carian poet’s grave

And Eratosthenes too,

Who measured the circumference of the world

With an accuracy more or less the same

As what they get at Harvard now,

Like other savants, kept there to dispel

The mockery of Athens in decay.

Were not those semi-Greeks across the sea

Barbarians who aped the classic style?

 

The Library was further down the quay.

No, not the one the Caliph burned:

‘If the books agree

With the Koran,

They are superfluous:

If they disagree,

They all the more deserve to be destroyed.’

That was a later, lesser collection,

Pillaged by Anthony from Pergamon.

This was the First Library

Containing the Anthenian State Edition

Of all the poets’ plays.

And of the philosophers of all the schools.

Your friend Julius Caesar set fire to it.

 

The mob was approaching.

He was cornered.

And there was no time to worry

About some overvalued papyrus rolls.

 

If we turn now to the Inner Harbour,

We may admire the Montaza Palace,

An interesting Franco-Turkish blend,

Where the last Kings of Egypt lived.

 

Looking to the shore,

Beyond the tall white buildings there

Which have replaced their classic counterparts,

There may be still the lecture hall

Where, in my youth, I spoke

On Eliot and Yeats,

Two fin-de-siècle poets

Who prospered in utilitarian days.

 

What did I say in my lecture? I forget.

No doubt it was mostly praise.

And what do I think of those poets now?

Ah, you will have to wait

For the end of the world

To find out.

 

This city is very old,

Very old,

Though it looks somewhat young.

But the maquillage cracks

In the trés sec Egyptian sun.

 

Far off is Pompey’s Pillar

Absurdly mis-named.

Nearby are the Catacombs

Of Kom-esh-Shukafa.

Not Christian. No. Pagan.

The wall-paintings

Are occasionally reproduced.

 

And somewhere among those thin aspiring buildings,

Amid the spate

Of cotton brokerage, import-export business,

Somewhere

There must be

The tomb of Alexander the Great.

Mummified in Memphis,

His body was preserved within a crystal case.

Augustus gazed and gazed

In silence,

Omitting, with the wisdom of a real ruler,

Any memorable remark,

In case it should not sound memorable enough.

Some day,

The tomb should be found,

Perhaps when they are laying

The foundations of an underground

Garage for some hotel.

Once more the Conquerer on display.

Then connoisseurs of glory from afar

Will be able to walk round

His mummy on their way

From the Pharaonic coffee-shops

To the Ptolomaic Bar.

 

Now that we have completed

Our tour d’horizon

We are left with certain questions

Which it might be imprudent to set down

In a language

That these cheerful tourists

Would understand.

But the questions remain.

They are there,

Like the poor

Who, forgetful of all wars,

Wait in hope of baksheesh

While the Persians park

Italian cars

Acquired in Greece,

Then, recompensed or not,

Drift through the streets

Of this ancient port

Much as they did in the time

Of Saint Mark.

 

The captains’ gigs, the admirals’ barges,

Mahogany and teak,

Ply

Back and forth across the bay

That lacks a tide.

Their iridescent spray

Falls

In arabesques,

Or, as some would say

In lost acanthus leaves

Above the sunken audience halls.

 

Alexandrian roses

Have a more than Solomonic beauty.

Each discloses

Gradations of colour

Unseen before,

Like the sans pareil crimsons of Tyre,

Suffusing the desert light.

 

So you too think that the end of the world is approaching?

One hears this said now on every side.

 

May-June, 1974