Babel

Babel.

Over 260 people were killed attempting to scale the Berlin Wall from 1961 to 1989.
Over 1000 people have died, in the last decade, crossing the US-Mexico border.

– The Economist

Into Babel they came,
Ellis Island with vagaries
of wide spaces, reinvention,
nursing a myth
in their heads
through sea-sickness
and the bilge and the swell,
C – Conjunctivitis
CT – Trachoma
no pogroms, no ghettos,
no Black Hundreds,
no Peep o’ Day Boys,
no kings and no spies,
a place of skyships and clockwork,
a place where claustrophobia
has been outlawed,
a shore that roars in steam and whistles
the cacophony of the new,
a mechanised carnival barker
for the unreachable future.

They came with what they could
force shut into a trunk
straining to detonate with clothes and keepsakes
a music box, a cigarette case, sepia photographs.
E – Eye Affliction
G – Goiter
A nazar warm in the palm,
a chotki wrapped around the fist,
a miraculous medal cold against the breast,
protections against St Elmo’s Fire, Leviathan, the Evil Eye.
From ship to the dock to the baggage room,
climbing the stairs to the registry hall
eyed at every shuffling step
for limps, coughs, twitches, the body’s own betrayals.
H – Heart problem
K – Hernia
In the queue, fathers sold the name
their fathers had borne for centuries.

The surgeons curled
eyelids inside out with buttonhooks
to probe for signs of disease,
for signs to turn the least of them back.
And the starch-collared clerks aired down the line
haughty cavalier tailors in a past life
drafting cryptic imprints with blue chalk
on this shoulder and that.
L – Lame
S – Senile
Without knowing what the hieroglyphs meant,
the others shied away from those
who were marked,
they bowed their eyes from them
as if failure, as if ruin was infectious
and one look was enough
to turn to a pillar of salt.

A paper translation locked in the desk-clerk’s drawer
But they all knew it off by heart,
like semaphore, morse, prayer,
like the byways of the circulatory system,
like the words of the Marines Hymn,
like the city beyond’s Cartesian grid,
like the questions they’d ask
are you in possession of lice / typhus / cholera / money
a name / a criminal record / relatives / an explanation
(delete as applicable),
like the tests they would set
count backwards from twenty,
match these shapes,
draw a diamond.

In the queue, a man looks around
and slowly dusts himself down,
X – Suspected Signs of Mental Illness
another offers his coat
to a mother, clinging to her dazed brood,
who thanks him in a language he has never heard before
and never will again.
A Circled X – Definitive Signs of Mental Illness.

It’s six seventeen a.m. synchronised
and they’re loading up for the border,
minutemen beneath the elms
outside the Church,
giddy as scouts but strutting,
follow me and I will make you fishers of men,
sat-nav, binoculars, hunting rifles,
cooler bags, folding chairs,
fuel, ammunition,
all checked and double-checked and ready to go,
they come prepared for eventualities.
People are hard to find out in the desert,
people disappear out there.

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