“Reading Osip Mandelstam in Zion National Park” by Christian Teresi

For Josh Baugher

The river that carved a valley from the sandstone barely changed
Since the first curious landsman walked astonished into the canyon

Eight thousand years later we live with the decisions of bureaucrats
And missionaries who ignored and redacted the indigenous words

And renamed it after the Jerusalem fortress David conquered
And renamed after the place nearest the divine palace of his lord

Not at the palace but as close as possible to its celestial dazzle
Not at the palace but as close to the revelations as permitted  

Climb from the level morning stairs worn or blasted into riven cliffs
Pilgrims in sparse miniature below will reach this height and forget

The quaint vulgarity of human architecture has no blueprint for this
Condors with ten-foot wingspans wheel through stringent daylight

To them no one looks much bigger than the scurrying chipmunks
That arrived at their misappropriated name from the Ojibwe word

Some Englishman thought sounded similar to chit and mink
In this mud-stone colossus the most meager inheritance is empire

Lookouts lumber over rust-beige ombre of slickrock and the words
Of the murdered Russian whose plateaus loom and fingers cling

To any lofty crag large enough for parched and twisted toeholds
Mulling the rituals of rigid men who renamed Petersburg to Leningrad

In this loge apart from interrogators whose windowless rooms only open
By forced confession the blessed biting-sweet scent of pinyon admits

That someone thought tourists would never want to visit this place
If they could not pronounce the indigenous words for the river canyon

When exiled Mandelstam knew Saint John at Patmos wrote the Book
Of Revelations in a cave not frighted by its seduction or his banishment

His residence capitulated to the words lowered under lamplight
Here is a dogeared and torn 1975 used copy of out-of-print poems

Bought first by a high school librarian in Texarkana Texas who knew
No meek student at this overlook could be exiled from anywhere

Christian Teresi is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in many literary journals, including AGNIThe American Poetry ReviewThe Kenyon ReviewThe Literary ReviewLiterary HubNarrative, and Subtropics. He lives in Washington, DC and works for an international education and cultural nonprofit.  

Image: “Greener” by Danni Louise

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