Home > Poetry > from A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy
Published: Mon Oct 15 2007
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
from A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy


The tender head of the he-goat (on the cover)
stares through the branches of a golden tree,

and I’m just moving on a system of fuses,
while the fruit stands of Spanish Harlem fly above,

and even now remembering when we were here
after Nixon waved goodbye and rose in the chopper.

Even now seeing it through the double glass
as Ur ‘of the Chaldees’ (revised and updated)

Sir Leonard Woolley’s Excavations at Ur
flares on the yellow cover in the momentary dark

that wrapped our bodies, up all night, like violent paint
on the sheets; like the broken fire escape of our building.

At 125th, the guy next to me reading Another Country;
the white guy passed out in a suit and a brown bag.

The steel screeches the tracks, and the vaults light up.


To Woolley, the Crash and Wall Street
were a Fata Morgana of palms shattered in ice.

He paid baksheesh to the locals and they kept digging—
elegy and brick, baked clay and gypsum;

how easy it is to say: this was obliterated.
Woolley loved cow dung, mud plaster huts: the world from bottom up.

“We found a clay figurine of a pig,
spindle-whorls of baked clay prove that thread was spun here.”


In the late days of Babylon
a mathematician gave zero a name,
not far from where Woolley dug.

No great thing comes without a curse, said Sophocles—
So Zero = hollow circle = cylinder seal—
“Skulls and seeds and all good things are round” (Nabokov).


You made his lines, which were opaque as ashes,
seem clear as our confusion

(“the diagonal black’s a broken body”).

It was after the show, we walked from Tung-Lai Shun
to the Bowery to the Bridge and back.

“I like bridges,” Franz Kline said, “if people want to see bridges
in my lines that’s good.”

And when we fell into the shadow of the morning,
why did we stop talking, after all, after all of it, after everything.

You disappeared on the train reading Merleau-Ponty
I got lost in Queens on the E.


I ran mail a whole summer down Greenwich and West.
Before it even started, before we roamed Radio Row
for 78′ s of Ellington and the Blanford Trio,

before the yin-yang of real estate
under the Kensett skies over the river,
the wrecking balls took Radio Row down:

florists, groceries, record shops, restaurants,
the whole mid-century slid into a pit

and the sun made gothic trees of the falling windows.

Out of res ipsa loquitur.
Out of Port Authority and Chase,
Rockefeller and Tobin,
the Twin Towers rose from the garbage.


But to Woolley it wasn’t Iraq, it wasn’t post-empire or Faisal’s kingdom,
it was precise and chaotic digging into the beginning,
as if the piece of the snake’s tail that joined at the mouth
made the full-circle of history.

“All the bodies lay on their backs, rigidly extended: hands crossed below the stomach,
the graves, dug into the silt were”

—after the flood: decayed brick, ashes,
potsherds, flints, clay f igurines—

I used to think of post-diluvian as theoretical.
But if you ask: what became of the Sumerians?

“It grieves me to watch the end of any good work
to which men have given so much thought and skill.”

He might have agreed with Duchamp,
who thought America’s greatest art was its plumbing
and NYC the summation of sewage pipes and sinks,

some of which join here in the 59th Street Station
where we’re stuck, and before the lights went out I could see
the pale blue and white tiles glisten like Lucca della Robbias.


I watched half-drugged by the sun off the West Street pier:
“First, there was the construction of the core or rectangular
elevator-service area where all the interior columns were clustered
together. From the core, the floor system reached in a clear and
unobstructed clean sweep to the exterior wall…. Although few
tenants subsequently took full advantage of the dramatic interior
layout potential, the fact remains that the architecture offered great
possibilities. It was at the core that the giant kangaroo cranes lifted
the steel from the outside.”


We met on a cold morning
when the women were gathering dew.
START AGAIN: We met at a party in a loft on Greene St.
in the no-gravity of Barsamian’s big canvasses;
post-Magritte you called it; a vagina and no head, breasts but no limbs.

The red wine was Chilean, this was after Allende and Neruda.
I watched your mouth in the dark reflection of the window
beyond which the light of the towers glared the black red.

But still the need to ask—who wrapped the day in nectar?
who cracked the sun over the hedges?
who saw the light flare off the towers at dusk?

What’s loss if not an open grave
where the heart is eaten by worms.


Woolley thought the original Ur was built on a low mound
rising only just above the surrounding swampland—

“here all traces of human activity ceased and we were at the bottom of Mesopotamia.”


Among the many things the Sumerians handed down
is the story of a flood; cf. Gilgamesh,

and after that, kingship was sent down from on high
so civilization could start again.

A tweed jacket and vest in the Iraqi sun, mid-winter evenings:
two martinis up, a supply from Harrods.



“John Hendricks and the cameraman Al Diehl
were standing up in the back hatch of an Iraqi armored vehicle,
not a Humvee, something ‘softer,’ taping the patrol.”

I was driving back to Hamilton
in snow on Rt. 17, and the words came
like distortion of sound from the dashboard.

“A combined operation with the Iraqi army and
coalition forces,” it said, “soft targets.”
IED jammers, wireless—embedded with the 4th Infantry.

“If you are going to cover the Iraqi forces
you have to be with them.”
Your students always live

in their seats, their faces smooth,
teeth shining, John ’83, bristling
rugby energy in his chair.

“John was bleeding from the head;
‘Am I alive? Don’t tell Ann.’ ”


And when I think of I / then we / then back to I—
in that spot where before I knew you, I watched the ditch dug:

the mist and silt on my arms
running past the hulls of Cunard and Chilean.

“from within this ‘bathtub excavation’ came the detritus of early European
settlement, for this part of the Hudson was first used as a garbage dump
and then filled in to extend the island westward.”

“burned and capsized vessels and anchors,
clay pipes, hand blown bottles—drinking glasses, salt-glaze pots; shoes;
bones of countless animals, cannon balls, a litho of Grover Cleveland.”


We kept going around and around and at the zero spot
the hole became a black hole in which you,
you had to confess your past, and so there it was,
was again; the marsh reeds were high and we were in them
in the lemony light as the trucks on the Pike drilled past us.

And now the lights out; the car steaming with bodies,
the stink of the bourbon and cigarettes of the guy passed out next to me;
a silver flash on the facing track, then dark.



All day the campus floated in light,
the pond bronze with carp

not mud-brown late-March clotted debris—
but darting, transparent, cutting past

a large gold or walleye; trees
of riotous color left late summer in the curb.

The granite stone of Lawrence Hall
glittered through the elms,

and lawn rolled as we walked
down slope to the rugby field,

Ann was chasing the twins as
they tumbled down the hill.

You had returned with clips
of the Al Qaeda camp in Pakistan

where you lived for weeks
among the poor and angry.

“Death to America” on school walls.
Poppy head and gladiator. White Satan.

The war had just started
as you returned to the City

to your new job as the anchor.
But the images called you back.

Camouflage of the embedded—
the Humvee tracks, acronyms for Iraq.


Yamasaki made it to withstand the crash of a 747,
the vortex, the phantom, the lateral—winds,

exterior walls carrying the vertical loads & wind
and it came: exterior columns from Seattle,

beams from Alabama, trusses from Texas, columns from Pittsburgh,
           floor assemblies from Newark

PONYA WTC 213.00 236B4-9 558 35 TONS

under the cranes, hydraulic lifts, guy wires, derricks.
I sat with a couple Sabretts and a Coke,

the ozone blotting out Jersey.


The flood left silt and minerals
which Woolley’s men sifted like black flour,

and when it came, it came.
“Only the Gods can live forever.”

And Gilgamesh was left to wander the skin of the earth,
friendless, looking for God.

It swallowed everything,
but sky and water are still emblems of the possible.

The alluvium,
crushed fish bones, pummeled rocks.


O house of heaven rising
O foundation of earth
O elemental zig zag

City of the moon god Nanna,
home of Abraham; wind-bitten, badlands of the soul;
water-marked buttes; blades of hawk wings: of the body.

Today it’s Tel al-Muqayyar where
Agatha Christie, who went to see Woolley, set Murder In Mesopotamia in ’36.

You forget that Nebuchadnezzar inherited the region a millennium later.

You forget because it’s just an excavation now,
like my mind when it blanks into itself,

like the horizon when it goes black and the flame
of one oil refinery flickers out at the Syrian border

where once I picked Armenian bones out of the dirt.


We held out for Valentine and Virgin Mary.
In cold hard light. Worm Moon and no sap in trees,
there was blood on our sheets.

The pipes were frozen.
Chinese kites stuck on wires.

We painted each other in the I-love-you dyes of
expectation and faith,

each red letter stamped jagada-krese:
in Armenian, written on your forehead—

fate. Armenian nuance:
it’s on you, others see it—you don’t.

In the end I couldn’t come through for you,

and the end was the beginning of late February—
entitled, luscious, leap-year.

Here’s to life. Genatsut.
Here’s to March, Mars,
God who protects the land.



The email came like a blink on the screen after midnight.
I was up emailing friends in Beirut who were describing
the twisted steel that was rusting in the markets.

“This is like being in a circle of Dante’s Inferno,”
Ann wrote, “We are here at the VA hospital.
John has the best doctors possible.

He’s speaking now, though he speaks several languages,
Chinese, French, words and sounds that come
from some place in his mind.

The children are doing okay; they are talking
with their father; everyone is holding together.
The support of so many people gives us great strength.”


tower of hands and dead bodies.

Babel /Babuli: gate to God

chthonic / zig zag of hubris
(not far from Ur).

Prometheus revisited;
does God have a right to heaven alone?


Pieter Brueghel had it all wrong:
there was solid masonry in the middle,
a winding path circling the eight towers,
baked brick glued with asphalt

only to have the builders
wake up in balal (Heb.): confuse or confound,
a writer full of puns
a scatterer of language—

put down your tools, walk;
diasporan, meaning

polyglot mountains; lakes of continents

(in Armenian we call it garod: longing, sickness after exile, need for the beloved).


I follow the cochineal thread of the skyline,
a single weft pulled by a crow’s beak
over the high-rises of Edgewater.


Days I sank in the rubble and the noise
drove out of my head the most basic words

like now when we’re mute and
the wheels of the train drown out the noise in my head.

Below the B-2 level
the multi-million-line Nynex switching station

generator/air-conditioner/giant computer—
was filling up the hole left by the garbage of history.

I couldn’t imagine a silicon brain
or hear the humming of the inaudible frequencies

of magnetic core memory
integrated circuits: a capacitor—

some days I found places along the pier
where I sat and went blank,

this was before Ginsberg
introduced me to meditation.

I stared at the tugs pushing the freight barges
toward Staten Island till red merged with black

and the black became a point of no return
like you fading out of sight on the pier,


black hole of loneliness rose up in me.

And now the shaking train starts to pull out of Columbus Station.

“Omens,” said Ovid, “are wont to wait upon beginnings.”

You said:

Poets are paranoid, apocalyptic.

Poets are vain, style-drunk.

Poets are liars, sex-obsessed, hypochondriacs.


The creosote vaults at 42nd
covered in day-glo neon Pollack
over the girders of “peace but fuck you anyway”

the guy reading Baldwin getting out;
the drunk could be dead against
the window scratched Fallujah.


On the street I heard that the Indians
were like cold-blooded dancers at high altitudes.

Mohawks who had come down from Canada.

I watched them glide with hot rivets
and cold steel into the azure of near oblivion.

Some days they disappeared in light
as if the narrow beams of air came undone

and some invisible carpet kept their legs
floating between steel and blue

like lost angels of the Carracci.

Down on the street the fumes from machines and coffee

yellow bulls, red cranes, green trucks, pale blue drilling rigs
bull’s liver; gooseneck; clam shell; orange peels;
192,000 tons of steel—


I was beginning to see Woolley: after the inexorable, rotting earth began
to sink into itself, after the metal and the bones disappeared.

After the Treaty divvied up the Arab world
and the latitudes were lubricious,

spilling over Basra where JE Taylor found
his mound of pitch and inscriptions of the nameless ruin.

Ubaid, Uruk, J amdat Nasr —
the weeds were scribes and skeletons.


Just before the lights went black
the silver-Pullman-flash of another train

with the flag on every car now,
glowing before it goes dark again
somewhere past 23rd.


I loved your love of myth and ritual.
I loved reading Eliade with you on the train.

The uroboric windows hugged the car,
the spring rain washed away the serpent’s tail.

Still I love you as I write this
though our moment passed like Ash Wednesday

when you returned with the sign on your head.
Everything went black and silent

like that Saturday when Jesus lay in the tomb
before the apotheosis we waited for all spring long.

I loved how you took me down Pentecostal
without restraint or faith

into the dark vaults lower than the 4th St. station.
No mythological bullshit here,

you were the realest of the real
with your mad black hair and your crushing childhood.

Your lips of plum and turpentine
were signifier and signified,

the crêpe de Chine, the lace, the chinoiserie,
the strange clock your father brought from Thrace

kept ticking at us as if we were in Attica.



Some days I heard John’s voice in my head in
the presumptuous way a poem wants to enter the other

for a glimpse of the unutterable
and from the fragments in Ann’s email:

like headlights in fog
floating down the well

the Blackhawk chopping sand-wind

the tank-grate-metal-hit

the snake crawls along the jaw
then out the hole of the back.


It was true: the Armenians got to Jesus first
at least officially, ahead of Rome,

and this devastated you because you had
believed all those truths of catechism

all that dogma which spelled backwards
is humiliation and extravagance

the kind of thing Fellini made you see
in Roma and we left the Angelica laughing

at your confirmation dress and your mother’s
anxious rosary you carried in your purse.


How many were waving their hands at Ur.
How many hands went down as it went down.

Who is the other who comes to stay
there or here; think of the other

turning dumb; the rest is silent

screen fuzz smoke,
hours away on TV. Came as dumb smoke

came into my house. The plants were blind,
the tongue of the cat, the pan on the stove,

the smell of cardamom and clove
stopped in their currents.

I look. You look.
(The way the Ceefax telex service

once looked in London, Dec. 7, ’88.)
We look.

Outside the sky was searing blue
honeysuckle wafting through

the screen door.

I was watching the towers go down.

There was no where to go.
Sat down. Got up. Stared at the iBook.

Walked around. No phone service.
The cell’s dead too.
Nowhere to go.


“Dalí once told me my work was related to John of the Cross.
I’ve never read him,” Kline said, “I wouldn’t know.”

You thought melting clocks were a cheap gimmick
like most of surrealism

and Dalí: hyper, overwrought, esthete;
but Kline caught Dr. J and Nijinsky in a stroke;

he saw the truth about us in diagonal slashes
form inside form inside form.


Days I was almost fired; checks late to the bank; mail in piles by the meter machine;
the grillages transfixed us:

28 grillages supporting the columns of the elevator core of the North Tower,
core box-shaped columns and box beam framing.
Who had ever heard of anything like this?

A gang of workers guided the grillage onto the concrete slab or footing
seventy feet below street level, foundation to erection, each one:
thirty-four tons, fifteen feet long, eleven feet wide, and seven feet high.

“Domenico Delicarpini, a thirty-year-old, $140-a-week laborer,
married and the father of four children” when he plunged thirty
feet on May 15, 1969, when some planking gave way. Fractured his
neck and spinal cord, will never work again; awarded $500,000 by
the State Supreme Court in the Bronx in a case against the Port
Authority and Tishman.


The drum roll of wheels over tracks
becomes the cradle in my head

swinging in sync with the streak
of Euclid Ave. Blue C

8th Ave. Local World Trade Center
(still up) against the black and white ticking of the tiles

dissolving into neon dust and I asked


where were we going as the rhododendrons fell into themselves
and the park seemed to levitate on the fume.

Peachwood strips will drive out evil spirits.
We drove the brown Corolla to Rhinebeck for the weekend.

The ash and spruce were resinous in our throats;
you set out pots of sedum, dumb-cakes, dreaming bannocks,

at high noon you broke an egg in a bowl
and read the fantastic shapes of the flowing whites.

We lit our fire of bones; baun = beacon,
bane fire for banishing evil.

Screw all things civic and patriotic,
you wrote in big letters on a note pad

after seeing Agnew’s plastic face
rise like a balloon on the screen.

Stonehenge and Tiahuanaco.
Bloom watching Gerty McDowell

as the roman candles poured their fire.
Read it to me again.


The first incoming message arrived over a direct
teleprinter circuit, a confirmation of a sale of spice

from Ceylon to Colombia, 9:54 a.m.
EST, Tuesday, December 15, 1970
tenth and eleventh floors of the North Tower.

Mornings I lived on gravity, wind, and fear.
The observation elevators, sky lobbies,
glass sides ran faster than a subway.

When the glass wrapped me
I looked back at myself
as in a fun-house room where

each plane shattered
any idea of the whole
though the parts were more than the sum

—the way the style
of the sundial projects the shadow,
the way sunyata knows all entities

are empty. Was this why
the Mayan symbol for zero
was a tattooed man in a necklace

with his head thrown back?


I watched the pioneer firms
unload into the unfinished space;
the Hudson sun poured down the core.

On the street it was Christmas
the scotch was pouring at the White Horse
the homeless guys in boxes

stretched out on visible corners
in empty lots and church porticos.

It was hardly Thoreau’s open air house
but it was a strange brew of wind and light
clanging metal and teleprinter circuits.

At the topping out ceremony on the 23rd
the iron workers soldered a flag
to a 36-foot-long, four-ton column

hoisted by a kangaroo crane
and then it came:
a thirty-foot Christmas tree

on a three-story high exterior wall section
on the southeast corner of the building.
The regulation was 3 cans of beer per guest.

            •                                    •                                    •


I would sing now on that lyre
decomposed but for the brilliant golden
head of the he-goat and the braided

lapis beard carved so finely
you can feel the roots
and the spiral braids come alive

in your hand just as now the sound
of those strings in the half-life of the carbon
purrs in the isotopic air

of those hecatombs where Woolley’s black light
scanned a silver tumbler, fluted and chased in some color that’s gone.


And the rings
unspooled out of the whiteness
that hovers on the canopy

of the higher buildings
of lower Broadway over the
underpass to the Holland tunnel

as the trace of my passing
leaves next to nothing

but the phosphor of some thought
that curls inside itself
as the body thins

and day comes
with its faint industrial orange
glow and sun on river.

See what's inside AGNI 66

Peter Balakian is the author of eight books of poems—including No Sign (University of Chicago Press, 2022); Ozone Journal (Chicago, 2015), which won the Pulitzer Prize; and Ziggurat (Chicago, 2010), a collection that deals with the aftermath of 9/11—and four books of prose, including Vise and Shadow: Selected Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art and Culture (Chicago, 2015) and the memoir Black Dog of Fate (Basic Books, 1997), which won the PEN/Albrand Prize. Among his other books are June-tree: New and Selected Poems 1974–2000, and The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, which won the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize. He teaches creative writing at Colgate University. (updated 10/2023)

The Pulitzer-winning collection Ozone Journal contains two poems first published in AGNI, “Near the Border” and “Slum Drummers.” The long title poem is a sequel to “A-Train / Ziggurat / Elegy,” which was first excerpted in AGNI before appearing in his earlier collection Ziggurat.

Read Ani Kazarian’s review of Balakian’s collection Vise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture.

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