Each summer, working there, I’d set off for
The fabled cities – Esfahan, Kashan,
Or Ecbatana, where Hephaestion died,
The poets’ towns – Shiraz and Nayshapour,
Or sites now hardly more than villages
Lapped by the desert, Na’in or Ardestan . . .
Their names now mean a dusty backstreet somewhere
Empty and silent in the vivid sunlight,
A narrow way between the high mud walls –
The worn wood of the doors recessed in them
A talisman to conjure and withhold
The life and lives I never touched or knew.
Sometimes I’d hear a voice, a radio,
But mostly there was silence and my shadow
Until a turn would bring me back to people,
Thoroughfares and shops . . .
Why is it this that stays,
Those empty afternoons that never led
To anything but seemed their own reward
And are more vivid in my memory
Than mosques, bazaars, companionship, and all
The myriad details of an eight year sojourn;
As if that no epiphany, precisely,
Were the epiphany? As Hafez has it,
To know you must have gone along that way;
I know they changed my life forever but
I know too that I could not tell myself
– Much less another – what it was I saw,
Or learnt, or brought back from those aimless hours.