Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of Jon C. Tribble: Winner, 2001


The Canals of Mars

The Spider's Surah


They are counting on doom like it is a letter
that has slipped beneath the stagnant piles
of sweepstake notifications and contest results
in a warehouse down in McHenry, Alabama,
where the foreman drinks on Saturday nights
so his voice will be scratchy and true when
he bellows out his solo on "The Old Rugged Cross"
between the reading of The Gospel According to Saint John
by the acolyte who hasn't got hair one between his legs
but still thinks he's had the calling so in his squeaky tone
he tells them, "The woman then left her waterpot, and
went her way into the city, and saith to the men,
Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did"
and the preacher's blustery and blistering words
on the fire waiting to cut its tongues into our flesh
and scourge each and every one of us sinners to the bone
and heart of our worthless unforgiven souls
which will only know torment everlasting
in the burning pit we consign ourselves to day after day
that our arrogance and pride blinds us to the grace
and redemption waiting for our petition
like it was a zoning ordinance to be changed
or a blue law we could put our name on a list for or against
and it never hurts to wait for the worst day in the world
like it was a present arriving on the day before the day
before Christmas with instructions to unwrap right now
so it spills out all your fears and hidden dreams
like they were wax candies filled with the sweetest
and sourest syrups shaped like clownish red lips
and too-green shamrocks and silver moons glimmering
like a heavy trout lazing in the clear cool eddies
washing back the water's insistence as the brook
crawls downstream lapping past the branches
and stones that reach or sink like we touch history's
passing since there is no pure river but the one
beyond our grasp and waiting like a golden bobbin
dancing on the spinning wheel that turns their hours
into weeks into years fitting snugly across
the breath and sorrow they lift from their quilt of existence
as if it were a thrown stitch straight-jacketing them
into time's apostleship and the worship of the end.

The Canals of Mars

Cradling their daughter like she balances on a swing between them,
my brother and his wife calm and cajole the four-year-old
as she screams out her frustration at the Gordian knot dehydration
and peanut butter have tied inside her bowels, locking off all
but the thin stream of disappointing urine that wind and sand dismiss
the way rain might be rudely met if ever it foolishly visited
the Western Libyan Desert.
                           Abandoned land mines could spot
the shards of quartz sandstone and red dust surrounding this slip of road,
misplaced or forgotten adult toys from one pointless border war or the next,
but Danny, the microbiologist s five-year-old, runs off the safe asphalt
and back, a silly game of dash and danger that keeps his mother busy
between the boy's attempts to peek at my niece's futile efforts.

No caravan of spices or slaves or gold, we've traveled from Cairo
past Alexandria to Marsa Matrouh and now on toward Siwa
in two four-wheel drives loaded with Baraka water, Coca-Cola,
cheese and crackers, apples, Juicy Fruit, cassettes of Billy Joel and
Rolling Stones and Mary-Chapin Carpenter, bed netting, and Deet
to visit the site of the Oracle of Amun where Alexander sought ascension
as Pharaoh before his Macedonian troops but turned back after hearing
the priest's whispered words.
                           Who needs Ozymandias where the unbroken plain
speaks for itself, the arrogance of empire no more impressive here
than the carefully-lined path we saw some twenty klicks back
leading to the road from a small stone house, the only refuge from sun
and searing heat in the imaginable distance. Someone thought the hundred-odd
heavy rocks marking this stretch of red earth from that were important enough
to plan and gather, pattern and place to mark this habitation as human,
to say, I'm here, despite it all, the desolation this stretch of territory denies
simply with an ordered line of stones. No wonder stargazers dreamed
canals for that other Red Planet, festooning Mars with gondolas of gossamer
and stardust to sparkle against the arctic song of space, the reality
of vacuum canceled by the possibility of fancy, a mind playing out
its options in a universe of long odds.
                           We've been stopping too often anyway
for my brother s liking, the microbiologist's Bronco losing air
in first his left rear tire and now the spare. While he makes his third change
of the afternoon, I roll the limp wheel to my brother's Trooper,
past my sister-in-law, who has spread a towel over the road s surface
for my niece to rest upon. She massages her daughter's swollen belly,
and for an instant I think I hear her whisper, Good girl, good girl.
The dust sifts down across this plain like a veneer of permanence,
unsettled at a glance, but shifting and upsetting like the boy's continued efforts
to find explosion under the mysterious and seductive earth,
flinging stones out toward whatever he imagines rests here.

The Spider's Surah

al-Hakim bi-amrillah ("he who rules at the command of God")
b. August 14, 985 (375 A.H.), d.? February 13, 1021 (411 A.H.

The parable of those who take guardians besides Allah is as the
parable of the spider that makes for itself a house; and most surely
the frailest of the houses is the spider's house— did they but know.
                           —Holy Qur'an, Chapter XXIX, verse 41


At eleven, descending from the fig tree's haven,
I received the head of a Berber general from my
commander's hand, duty worthy of a young caliph
ascending to his rightful place. Now, four years

have passed and still my power is not truly mine—
Burjuwan, my tutor and governor, hoards the jewel
of command and grants me only a glimpse of its
splendor— but I have learned my lessons; the student

waits patiently for the teacher's dismissal. I will
tell my ministers, "Burjuwan was my slave and I
employed him. He acted in good faith, and I treated
him favorably. Then he misbehaved, so I killed him."

That is all they need know. My mother s people,
the Christian patriarchs and their followers, believe
we step into a new millennia tonight, that their messiah
will rule this time with sword and flame and truth.

But here in al-Qahira which was Fustat, city of tents,
which was Babylon and Heliopolis and Memphis
before it all, here in my city of gates and great walls,
of minarets rising above the dust-choked streets,

I will banish this new day, this new age; I, successor
of Ali whom Mohammed opened all doors for, shall
decree activity from now on becomes the night's pursuits.
The tyranny of the sun rules no longer in my land;

the day is remade into a time of dreams and leisure,
while the night now shapes the body of our commerce
and politic. The lamp and torch and candle bend
and sell the available light for all who would bid

and pay to see their will enacted out of shadow.
The river glowing with honey and the banished
raisins that ferment too easily in the desert heat,
the Jew's tallow pots broken on the ashes of cold

cooking flames, the heavy-crossed believers weighted
with their iron icons to mettle their faith, chessboards
broken and burning in the squares until ivory pieces
soot indistinguishable from their ebony partners

all of these things I envision before me. My tutor
calls me "the lizard," with a hollow laugh, but I am
no scaled creature of the sun and heat. The stars alone
know my destiny and I will ride to them to find it.


"If you won't stop, I'll bring you Masoud."(1)
                           —joking threat from Egyptian folklore

In my stall of burnished copper,
the light of twenty candles flares
into fifty, one hundred, a thousand
if I polish every crevice, beat out
each face to mirror flame's heart.

The caliph stops by less often
if the light is strong and so I work
to keep the dust away, to harness
the shine my spit and hands create.
I watch the silk merchant across

the alley who draws too much
business for my liking, know he
may be only moments away from
a royal visit, a measuring of his
finest bolt of blue or maroon or

the white the caliph favors, and
if the cutting runs, or frays, is
too much or too little, then he
will meet Masoud. The caliph
will stand upon the merchant's

head reciting first the Surah(2) of
Repentance or of the Bee or
the lesson of the Cave, parable
of the Ant, pronouncing, "Travel
in the earth, then see how was

the end of the guilty," while
Masoud sodomizes the man
there in his shop for all to see.
In this suk hoopoes and pigeons,
parrots and ravens flutter in

their cages, goats and geese
and fowl and camels mill about
waiting for a buyer, olives from
Siwa and dates and pomegranates
and melons and beans and rice

and grain and gourds and nuts
pile up and tumble out littering
the alleyways, the glass and pottery
and carved wood and precious
cloth decorate the stalls with

the finest crafts in the world, and
here we work metal with love
and skill and secrets passed
with care and silence. But now
we must not forget Masoud.


Shaitan walks among us and he is named
al-Hakim, jailer and executioner of the women
of the city. For seven years we have been

his prisoners, our curfew twenty-four hours
a day, every day, our shackles the bare feet
he sentenced us to when he forbade all cobblers

the crafting or sale of women s boots. What
a thing a shoe is! The foot cradled against stone
and stub, armored from manure and the stinking

runoff of the living city. It is not that our toes
are delicate lotus blooms that must rest upon
their protective petals to float the vital current,

it is not that our hands cannot scrub away each
other' s grime and grit, smooth callouses with
effort and caress, it is not that our perfumes

cannot rinse the air of foul odors rising through
these mashrabiyyahs, our screens breathing
the city s nightstream of merchants calling out

their wares, the beggars remonstrations for their
just alms, the bustle we no longer may step into
no physical obstacles hold us in check; no, only

the cursed history of this demon slithering through
the alleys, lurking like a beetle in the corners
of gloom, this butcher who locked young wives

and daughters, sisters and cousins, in a public bath
when their merriment, their laughter and joy
in good company disturbed his baleful night. He

did not reprimand or fine them or even imprison
them for their stain upon the fabric of restraint
he sews us tighter and tighter into until we are no

more alive than the ancient dead whose brittle shells
crumble in their stripped funeraries; no, this judge's
turn was to transform himself from leader to chef,

and he steamed the unfortunates to death, their
screams more pleasing to his unnatural ears than
laughter. Each day we hope he has gone too far,

but there seems to be no horizon to the brutal sky
of his reign. Our newest hope rests with his
sister(3), whose virtue he impugns at every chance;

perhaps the pride of the powerful is the only sure
antidote for the poison of power. Quietly and
in secret, I will mend my soles remnants and wait.


The failed feltmaker, Hamza(4), declared himself
"Savior of Those Who Respond" and intimated

that our mad caliph stood higher than man ought
rightly stand, renaming al-Hakim "The Maker

of Time." But true faithful to Allah, the Beneficent,
the Merciful, corrected one of the clothman's

disciples with a blade of Truth and a lesson
of Death. His teacher will be counted among

the blessed at the fountains of eternal rewards.
Now the blasphemers dare ride their unclean

animals into Amr's mosque, delivering their
false pronouncements that the caliph is "Our Sole

Lord, Giver of Life and Giver of Death." "Allah
is Greatest and He has no partners," we respond

in unison, our chant strong and sure as khamsin(5)
buffeting the city with the desert s reminder

that we are only here by the grace of Allah.
But when they mocked the bismillah(6), read from

an accursed page which begins, "In the name
of al-Hakim billah, the merciful, the compassionate,"

we knew their deaths must be quick and obvious.
Let their lord bring down his wrath upon us like

the hateful whip it is, let his hired troops burn
our homes, loot our city, end our lives. Insha' Allah.


No longer line exists between my Self
and God, no longer breath can slip
between Earth and Sky, no longer seam
separates Life and glorious Death.

I became the Maker and Unmaker of
my city of dreams, crafting its nuance
of patterns like the finest inlaid jewelry
box which only opens to the secret

knowing touch upon the riddling panels.
I ride these nights upon my grey mount—
not a horse, though as Supreme Ruler
and Caliph I deserve the finest steed

my stables might provide— my transport
for this night journey is a simple ass,
a donkey I have named the moon for
he and I together are like the mysteries

of the craggy face above us, his soft
shadows the unknowing darkness and
my white brilliance the illumination
of the inscrutable heavens. The stars

map the future before me: my name
unutterable and then undeniable; my
mosque battered, abandoned, soiled
as a stable, a marketplace full of onions

and turnips, a playing field where
boys kick a sphere across the rocky
sahn, finally a jewel tended by those
who revisit the past and are dazzled

by web gossamering from my center,
my unaccountable ascension from
these Muqattam hills, these stone
sepulchers whose timeless dead rise

at my command, dance in this healthy
air unlike the rotted meat they have
become. I have built my memorial,
a city of the dead I leave as Misr,(7)

I leave in misery and uncertainty
of my return here is my offering:
a donkey to feed the indignant
scavengers, a bloody coat, slashed

with dagger cuts by ungrateful
brothers, but like Yusuf(8) I leave
no corpse to hang this death upon,
no irrefutable end to close the book.

At our request, Jon Tribble has provided a few notes on "The Spider's Surah"
(Click the asterisk at the end of a note to return to your place in the poem.)

1. Who is Masoud?

Masoud was a Nubian slave that al-Hakim used to terrorize merchants in Cairo. Merchants found guilty of cheating during al-Hakim's inspections were sodomized by Masoud, while al-Hakim stood upon their heads. *

2. "The surah of repentence"-- what are the others?

"also spelled Sura, Arabic Surah, a chapter in the sacred scripture of Islam, the Qur'an. Each of the 114 surahs, which vary in length from several pages to several
words, encompasses one or more revelations received by Mohammed from Allah (God)." from
The Surah of Repentance is number 9. (The Spider is number 29.) *

3. "Our newest hope rests with his sister"-- who is she?

Sitt al-Mulk was al-Hakim's sister. She did govern as regent after al-Hakim's disappearance. *

4. Who is Hamza?

Hamza was a follower of al-Hakim. He declared that al-Hakim was the living incarnation of Allah in one of the main mosques in Cairo and was killed for changing the bismillah, replacing Allah's name with al-Hakim's. *

5. What is a khamsin?

A khamsin is a desert wind common each year in North Africa. Its appearance begins a season of sandstorms. *

6. What is a bismillah?

The bismillah is the opening phrase in all of the surahs of the Holy Qur'an except number 9. The phrase translates, "In the name of Allah; the Merciful; the Compassionate..." *

7. What is Misr?

Misr name for for the city of Cairo. Another name for the city was Fustat. *

8. Who is Yusef?

Yusuf is the name given to the Old Testament figure Joseph in the Holy Qur'an. *