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
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.”