Damascus Divides the Lovers by Zero


The City Is Never Finished
by Amal El-Mohtar and Catherynne M. Valente



I looked for you

in the Umayyad mosque

I saw your feet stamp the coriander dust

your fingers swinging old shoes

of leather and brass

back and forth, back and forth—

                                                hooded, grey, wondering and small,

two fingers hooked into the heels

of shoes I carried in one hand.

your hair was bound up, far off from me;

I bound mine, too,

a gesture of loyal symmetry.


I looked for you

I could not find you

in the sun-steeped mosaics,

in that city of silver and capsicum

the figures of fruit trees, bridges, vines.

of frankincense and raisins.

I saw whole cities blooming in the stone

I saw long veils stitched with hexameters

that would not speak to me, would not say

that lied when they breathed:

where they'd seen you last.

she is near.


I looked through panes of green glass for you,

I looked for you in arch-shadows

sought a whisper tucked into a painted purse,

your hands on holy books,

embroidered in gold on black on gold

your mouth a heat-lashed psalm.

by white candles with sooty tips.

You were not there.

You were not there.


But surely, I thought, I'd find you here

Hooded wraith!

where knives gave way to wine and wafers

your eyes caked in gold

where bells gave way to open throats,

holy runner, holding news of victory in your mouth

like a swallow of sesame oil

where I could walk in stocking'd feet

but could not show my hair.

your laurels black on gold on black

Somewhere between marble and ashlar,

between arched doorway and sculptured column,

you held up a red, red thing in the dark

between chiselled letters and calligraphy

and announced to the Umayyad shadows:

I have closed up

a foreign woman’s heart

in a box of cassia and lapis.

Are not all the faceless gods pleased with my work?


I thougt a smudge would show

that had been your name.


Aged bells jangled at your heels.

Still, I knew you to be so near

as to feel the heat of your smile at my neck,

Damascene Atalantea,

dropping your wine-soaked apples

all along the market road.

to know you watched me like the sun

and laughed

They roll through cedar needles

to my tired feet—

that I could not hold your shape in my hands,

no more than I could the Pleiades.



I am slow. I am no fleet thing

You threw a coin at my foot.

I heard it fall

to defeat the orbit of the world

but couldn't trace its trajectory,

couldn't find you perched on the outer walls,

nor crouched behind the stoppered fountain

for the sake of your brown wrist.


I wore my shoes properly. I bared my head.

I sought you in the hands of men

But my dress is full of apples

seeping brandy through to my skin,

who shaped sand to sea in clear glass bottles,

sealed vistas in like wayward djinn,

in my mouth they sing of you,

walking in the dust,

wearing the sun’s shoes,

and sold them for a wrinkled scrap

that would not buy a song.

your profile a hundred faces,

turned away east,

away from me.


I did not think–

I slept in a market stall that night,

under a bowing sheath of stars.

there was so much to see,

to search, to taste just then –

My nose irritated, red

with the scents of rosewater,

olives, long green leaves

to look into my own hands, ringed in copper,

stained green as leaves or summer waves,

dipped in gold leaf like the pages

of a manuscript

until they clasped the slender waist

of a pomegranate tree, slimmer still than half my wrist,

You might have illuminated,

exalted, intent

a thousand years before

bell-shaped blossoms red as rejoicing,

sweet as stories from a child's lips.

I thought to follow you here.


I thought I kissed you then,

I knew I’d lost you then,

or brushed

your cheek with mine,

apple-maid, meant

but the day was warm,

the wind was cool,

for the wide sea,

the dust-battered road

the Market near,

and Tripoli a long way off,

and never, oh,


no nearer than the sea.

for me.




About the Authors:

Amal El-Mohtar travels a great deal, but a carefully blended mixture of Outaouais riverdamp, cedar needles, and Damascene dust applied to her soles ensures that she's never too far from home. She is currently pursuing the elusive beast that is a PhD in Cornwall, England, sharpening her quills for the hunt.

Her poems have appeared in Mythic Delirium, Chiaroscuro, Abyss & Apex, Aberrant Dreams, Sybil's Garage, Astropoetica and Star*Line. She also co-edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to poetry of the fantastic, with the notorious Jessica P. Wick. The latter is known to have shaved two letters off her last name in a vain attempt to hide her true nature.


Born in the Pacific Northwest in 1979, Catherynne M. Valente is the author of the Orphan's Tales series, as well as The Labyrinth, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, The Grass-Cutting Sword, and five books of poetry. She is the winner of the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Rhysling Award, and the Million Writers Award and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, shortlisted for the Spectrum Award was a World Fantasy Award finalist in 2007. She currently lives on a small island off the coast of Maine with her partner and two dogs. Her newest novel, Palimpsest, will be released on February 24th, 2009.



Poem © 2008 Amal El-Mohtar and Catherynne M. Valente. Photo © 2008 Amal El-Mohtar.