Volume 27, Number 2

from “Elegy for the Scholar of Palmyra”


Three pickups low with men and a black van
Pull up at the museum—his museum—
Near where clusters of roofless columns stand.
Beyond, jumbled stones blur beneath the sun.
Sullen families, bidden once more to come
By a hoarse male loudspeakered voice, wait to witness
Who draws from on high, today, the bolt of justice.

Even the children gasp as the van’s door
Suddenly gapes and the old man, unshaven
And grimy, stumbles blinking into the glare.
Decades of rapport with tyrants do not save him
From disbelieving what is about to happen.
He is made to kneel. A sword fulfills its purpose.
Doors slam and engines rev. The crowd disperses.

All afternoon, the corpse sprawls in a dust
Milled by the wind from ruins once the care
Of this, their world-famed archaeologist,
Whom no one now looks at or dares walk near.
Those heeding the next morning’s call to prayer
Glimpse first a slung-up, blood-bibbed, manlike form,
Then, at its feet, the head with its glasses on.

A placard strung there denounces his crimes—
Apostasy, heresy, and the rest—
But not his weeks in prison, nor his screams
While tortured for the gold he had not cached,
Nor how, for every “idol” they film defaced,
Dozens more will be trafficked out for weapons,
The better to prove their victories are heaven’s.

—James McKee