Burning Mount Athos

The Chattahoochee at dusk, low in a drought
summer. Cicadas humbuzzing the living branches

our smoke rises through—fire of twigs and storm-
fallen timber, kindled now by cardboard

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take-out containers and a dog-eared magazine.
One by one, I rip the pages and let the heat

curl them, a glossless wrinkling into gray that once
told or sold—it no longer matters in the ash

and I like it that way. Until I catch an ancient name
captioned beneath the photograph of a peninsula:

Ayion Oros, Mount Athos, a holy fortress
protected by the Virgin herself, so the men say.

The first to burn is a shriveled monk, his long beard
a white wilting feather. I watch the bell tower melt

down to dust, the domes brittled into breeze.
I linger on the site of a cliff-built monastery,

Simonopetra, poised on the edge above roiling sea,
where the monks learn to lean over death

with lump throats swollen a little less each day.
As the fire cracks into conversation, dying light spits

toward the moon. I try to imagine separateness
from the world, what it is to wear the silent

spaces of dead men’s prayers, a dark cloak
woven from nine hundred years of singing.

I warm my hands over memories not mine—
singed frescoes; the fathers like struck matches

in choir stalls, their klobuks embers lifting
into woods, disappearing. These signals

speak to some distant ship passing between
doubt and belief in me, each page a song

chanted by combusting licks of tongue
about a God above all desire and happiness.

What do these words even mean? They vanish
like smoke from the mouth’s long O.

Correction, Sept. 7: The title of this poem has been corrected to “Burning Mount Athos.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Ellen Peck
8 months 1 week ago

Thank you for publishing - a very lovely and meditative poem.

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