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Holding the Desert.

A sequence of poems

Libya, 4000 BC



For John Matthias


nous célébrons
les rites
la lumière

—Mohammed Bennis



Mother Africa

Mother Africa –
her hands are on her belly
and her stone belly is full.
She is ready to deliver –
pregnant stone.

Here, the stuff of stars,
their issue, their tissue.
Out of Mother Africa
came the first humans,
emerged these hands.



In dust swirling on wind
we bound our faces, allowing
narrow openings for eyes.
Across our retinas, filmy
outlines of rings and worms

floated like amoebae. Trudging,
stooped, half-blinded, along
dune-ridges, we blinked.
Sands bound us, thralled us.
Shadeless. Shieldless.


First Song of the Desert

– Stone, my body,
stone, my belly,
and these hands that rest
on my belly, stone
and mine alone.

– Let wind howl
and sun crack what nights
have withered, weathered,
congealed, concealed,
gleaned to bone, blown.


What the sun said at dawn

– White fire, yellow fire,
blue fire, all these I am,
without fail, tail or end.
So said the sun, horizoned
by mountains. And I believed.

Cross-legged, on a canvas stool,
I sat. My palms pooled
together, fingers not quite
touching. To beseech.
Praise. Bless. Be blessed.


On a white dune

On a white dune I sat
under still noon. Stillness
entered me. I shaded eyes
with hands, breathed slow,
elbows defending ribs,

spine prickling. One by one,
seven fevers assaulted me
then dissolved, lifting
their gauzes. The sun
drowned. I sat. Still.


First fever

Demon hands clutch me,
tug clothes, stroke skin,
tweak my nose between
hooked thumb and forefinger.
Nails lacerate back and arms.

I daren’t sleep. They shove
cloth-covered fists against
nostrils and mouth, let go
instants before I suffocate.
No touch leaves scars or weals.


Second Fever

Soft matter in this domed skull,
Damned? Imps wag tails,
snarl, grip with dragon fangs.
Where are claws strong enough
to mask your digging eyes?

How to shift you? Wait
until you melt? Smoke slithers
across rents you thrust
between sky and earth, wide
through my head, this tent.


Third fever

Desert night opens
zones where shadows breed
shadows inside shadows.
– Your best armour,
your nakedness.

– Let no thirst
distract you. Hold.
– Don’t fight or bite.
– Recognise the shadows
yourself, in yourself.


Fourth Fever

Under stars, I sleep,
despite full moon. I dream
a river-fish waylays me
and stems of flowering rose
dangle from its loon-mouth,

thorns hooking pink flesh.
With finger-joints locked,
I hammer fists on sand
and wake unsure
if I or the wind screamed.


Fifth fever

– Can you go down caves,
breathless, frozen, heart-
pulse suspended, then climb
back, report what you’ve heard
and seen? Can you lull Death

to believe you’re qualified
for his dull, icy shoulder-tap
that claims you as his own – yet
trick a way, back here, to daylight,
inconspicuous, anonymous?


Sixth Fever

– Traveller, what hidden name,
amulet, posture, hand-sign
may let you pass unnoticed
as dead, to fool our one-way
gate’s guards and protectors?

– And what, if any drug, may
be prescribed and administered,
to lull those all-awake ones
to drop their keys, this side,
into your living hands?


Seventh fever

– What you heard was neither
demons cracking knuckles, nor
drums rolling, hooves pounding,
wings beating, but under frosted
starlight, rocks contracting,

shattering, sand-grains splitting
like living cells, hissing gravel
slithering, guided by wind’s fingers.
– Do you believe that? – Oh yes.
But it’s not the whole story.


Passing the guardians

This odourless expanse of blue
terrifies. Lying in your hair, sleep
uncoils the snake, in whom night
leashes its energies. I overstretch
my skin beneath the mask I wear.

Now stars pierce black, seething
alive with movement. How
to learn to move through this
desert terror like a gate, find
ways past its guardian serpents?


Let pass

– Let night voices pass,
assures my guide, soothing
my quaking arms, unclenching
my fists. Grit grains trickle
between my hollowed palms.

– I’m here by your side
even though all you sense
is wind hallooing and howling.
I rinse face and hands
with a little saved water.



– When the desert takes over,
its shadows appear no more
or less than as shadows
of nothing. The terror that
attacks isn’t madness but

mark of its prelude. Those
spiders, scarabs, scorpions,
that seem aides and allies
of madness contend with struggles
no more modest than yours.


Three women

Day collapses. On a slope
against wind, we pitch camp
under stars. A black stone
my pillow on this hill of sand.
In the dream, three women

unwind black headscarves. I see
six dark eyes. As they stoop,
hands on my head, their long
hair tumbles around me
mingling, re-veiling their faces.



Out of my struggle with myself
comes nothing. Out of my struggle
with the desert, poetry. But
I can’t grasp or hold it.
It eludes me, keeps moving.

If nature is living things, desert
is before and after. Lizard, scorpion
and I all struggle to survive. Desert,
angel of emptiness, my poem
longs for you, aspires to you.


Last song of the desert

– No resting here. You’ll ford
the stream on the other side.
that calls you. But first you have
to endure this ocean of land.
– You must follow, be this,

in this. And do so, trusting.
I hear a rushing, and swoon.
When I come to, I remember.
my guide has carved a wand
out of, all things, a bone.



– Two hands, imprinted
in wet clay, how many
thousand years ago?
– Forty? now, dried
out, call – I once

stood here, alive
as you are. Now
these hands speak
to you. Honour
and remember.


The rock’s hands

– My fingers strum wind
not the other way round.
– This wind, my instrument,
this sky, its audience.
– This, my belly, and this,

my word. My hands rest
on my belly. Though winds
howl and nights crack me open,
these hands remain my word –
repeats the desert.


From Manual (2), Cambridge, 2021.

Richard Berengarten’s books include The Blue ButterflyFor the LivingThe ManagerBook With No Back CoverImagems (2013), Manual (2014), and Notness (2015). ‘Ringing the Changes‘, ‘Poems from Changing‘ and his memoir on Octavio Paz have appeared in the Fortnightly Review. His work has been translated into more than 90 languages; cf. his introduction to the Volta Project. He is a Bye-Fellow at Downing College, a former Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, and poetry editor of the Jewish Quarterly.

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