Poet remembers the man who fought — and died — to save Palmyra

On May 13, the Islamic State began an offensive to invade the city of Palmyra, demanding the location of the city’s most valuable ancient treasures.

Syrian archaeologist Khaled Al-Asaad refused to reveal the information. He had spent more than five decades leading excavations in the ancient city, uncovering previously-unseen residential areas, tombs and religious sites. In August, he was beheaded.

This story is “everybody’s grief,” poet Kaveh Akbar told me. Reading about al-Asaad in August, Akbar said he was gripped by the story for weeks.

In his poem “Palmyra,” Akar bears witness to al-Asaad’s legacy and examines the forces that killed him by providing brief, vivid flashes of the scene of his death.

“This poem is an instance where I’m kind of cracking open the window and looking at, for as long as I can bear it, what is physically unbearable,” he said.

The piece began, in part, with the idea of “wonder” — where it comes from, who creates it and who would want to fight it, Akbar said.

“Here is this man who has spent literally decades preserving artifacts — preserving physical manifestations of human wonder and human awe — and then there are these [people] who are seeking to destroy the history of that wonder that he preserved,” he said. “Any sincere interrogation of wonder, any celebration of wonder, has to account for those forces that would conspire against it.”

That same sense of wonder runs throughout Akbar’s writing process — and the way he describes it. “Writing itself is this kind of alchemy,” he said. “I put this weird rune down on a page, this letter-shaped rune, and hand it to you, and you laugh or cry or you emote … I create in you a physiological response with this series of shapes that I made. It’s really miraculous.”

In September 2014, Akbar founded the website Divedapper, where he publishes interviews that run the gamut from a discussion of race and privilege with Claudia Rankine to talking about the occult with Michael Klein.

Akbar said he is concerned with representing poets from a range of backgrounds on the site.

“If a project like Divedapper is to be successful as a representative cross-section of what is happening in contemporary poetry, I think that it has to be very vigilant about representing the myriad kinds of voices that are partaking in that conversation, especially those that have traditionally experienced barriers to access,” he said.

Hear Akbar read “Palmyra” or read the piece below.

llllafter Khaled al-Asaad

bonepole bonepole since you died
there’s been dying everywhere
do you see it slivered where you are
between a crown and a tonguelllllllthe question still
more god or lesslllllllI am all tangled
in the smoke you leftlllllllthe swampy herbs
the paper crowslllllllhorror leans in and brings
its own lightlllllllthis life so often inadequately
litlllllllyour skin peels awaylllllllyour bones soften
your rich unbecomingllllllla kind of apology

when you were alive your cheekbones
dropped shadows across your jawlllllllI saw a picture
I want to dive into that darknesslllllllsmell
the rosewaterlllllllthe sand irreplaceable
jewel how much of the map did you leave
unfinishedlllllllthere were so many spiders
your mouth a moonless system
of caves filling with dust
the dust thickened to tar
your mouth opened and tar spilled out

Kaveh Akbar is the founder and editor of Divedapper, a home for feature interviews with the most vital voices in contemporary poetry. His poems are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Narrative, The Adroit Journal, Puerto del Sol, Bennington Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Kaveh is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Florida State University, where he teaches and serves as Book Reviews Editor for the Southeast Review. This poem was originally published at The Offing.