1989: Death on the Nile

Shot from a helicopter over Cairo
our hotel pool would be a turquoise drop.

I’ve learned to see like that, imagining
each place we travel through from somewhere else.

Right now, my mother and her journalist
boyfriend glisten beneath their sunscreen.

Their life together is a giddiness
they surface from (like coming through the door

between hotel rooms) to attend to me
and my brother. Here with us they need to click

the edges of the puzzle back in place.
Yes it’s a privilege to travel. Yes

we’re guests of the Egyptian government.
Portraits of Hosni Mubarak follow us.

But earlier, as the cool Mercedes inched
into the souq (the smell of cigarettes

then sewage and saffron) why did I register
the river of faces only as phantoms?

Even my body seemed to freeze away
the present, as my shallow breathing trickled

its supplies to its distant client states.
Right now, the pool sends sunlight crumpling

across the pages of my mystery.
But in the sentences, Hercule Poirot

in his labyrinth of death and art deco
seems more real. Even slapping the book down

and loafing back through the Little Europe
of our hotel (past marble columns, djellabas

and sharp Chanel) I can almost replace
the present. Fantasia of passageways.

A gun barrel peeking from palm fronds.
Blood leaking down the palatial staircase.

And then the make believe dissolves.
The elevator’s polished gold distorts

my face to glops of biomorphic syrup.
So many years before the words arrive.

Before I pull it back as memory.
I want to scream. To claw the surfaces.

Quavering through the doorway, I collapse
on the bed to wish my rage away as nausea

washes in waves through the open blue.
Invisible to me, the Nile

gathers all surfaces in its reflections.
The ancient neon Coca Cola sign.

Goats bleating from the mud-brick roofs. A whiff
of spearmint tea and kef. My mother dipping

toes then calves in the turquoise. The agent
sent here from Langley haunting his beach umbrella.

Info he zapped from beneath the electrodes.
Right now, right now, right now . . . as the dry heaves

leave me wet and cool on the bathroom tiles:
how inescapable the present feels.

Right now, right now, right now. . . . Not like a novel
hiding me in its chambered structure. No:

the day is here. It is the single thing
I need to make my life inside: its forward

spiral, constant and rapid as the river
charging from Aswan to Alexandria.  end

Reprinted with the permission of the University of Chicago Press