Desert Landscape

by Agha Shahid Ali

Who hath measured the waters
in the hollow of his hand.

- Isaiah 40:12

Stringing red Serrano peppers, crushing
cilantro seeds – just a few yards from where,
in 1693, a Jesuit priest
began to build a boat, bringing rumors
of water to an earth still forgetting

the sea it had lost over two hundred
million years ago – three white-haired women,
their faces you, are guarding the desert
as it gives up its memories of water
(the fossils of vanished species) while miles

from them the sky opens it hands above
a city being brought to memory by rain:
as silver veins erupt over the peaks
and the mountains catch fire, the three women
can see across the veiled miles the streets turn

to stream, then rivers, the poor running form
one another into each other’s arms;
can see the moon drown, its dimmed hear gone out
like a hungry child’s; can see its corpse rising –
for two have turned toward the dawn, their eyes

holding children washed from their mothers’ arms,
and the third, her face against the dark sky
but her fingers slowly white, has let drop
her string of dried peppers and is bringing
the sea – a hollow fossil – to her ear.

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