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Mark Doty - The Ancient World

Today the Masons are auctioning 
their discarded pomp: a trunk of turbans, 
gemmed and ostrich-plumed, and operetta costumes 
labeled inside the collar "Potentate" 
and "Vizier." Here their chairs, blazoned 
with the Masons' sign, huddled 
like convalescents, lean against one another 

on the grass. In a casket are rhinestoned poles 
the hierophants carried in parades; 
here's a splendid golden staff some ranking officer waved, 
topped with a golden pyramid and a tiny, 
inquisitive sphinx. No one's worn this stuff 
for years, and it doesn't seem worth buying; 
where would we put it? Still, 

I want that staff. I used to love 
to go to the library -- the smalltown brick refuge 
of those with nothing to do, really, 
'Carnegie' chiseled on the pediment 
above columns that dwarfed an inconsequential street. 
Embarrassed to carry the same book past 
the water fountain's plaster centaurs 

up to the desk again, I'd take 
The Wonders of the World to the Reading Room 
where Art and Industry met in the mural 
on the dome. The room smelled like two decades 
before I was born, when the name 
carved over the door meant something. 
I never read the second section, 

"Wonders of the Modern World"; 
I loved the promise of my father's blueprints, 
the unfulfilled turquoise schemes, 
but in the real structures 
you could hardly imagine a future. 
I wanted the density of history, 
which I confused with the smell of the book: 

Babylon's ziggurat tropical with ferns, 
engraved watercourses rippling; 
the Colossus of Rhodes balanced 
over the harbormouth on his immense ankles. 
Athena filled one end of the Parthenon, 
in an "artist's reconstruction", 
like an adult in a dollhouse. 

At Halicarnassus, Mausolus remembered himself 
immensely, though in the book 
there wasn't even a sketch, 
only a picture of huge fragments. 
In the pyramid's deep clockworks, 
did the narrow tunnels mount toward 
the eye of God? That was the year 

photos were beamed back from space; 
falling asleep I used to repeat a new word 
to myself, telemetry, liking the way 
it seemed to allude to something storied. 
The earth was whorled marble, 
at that distance. Even the stuck-on porticoes 
and collonades downtown were narrative, 

somehow, but the buildings my father engineered 
were without stories. All I wanted 
was something larger than our ordinary sadness -- 
greater not in scale but in context, 
memorable, true to a proportioned, 
subtle form. Last year I knew a student, 
a half mad boy who finally opened his arms 

with a razor, not because he wanted to die 
but because he wanted to design something grand 
on his own body. Once he said, When a child 
realizes his parents aren't enough,
he turns to architecture. 
I think I know what he meant. 
Imagine the Masons parading, 

one of them, in his splendid get-up, 
striding forward with the golden staff, 
above his head Cheops' beautiful shape -- 
a form we cannot separate 
from the stories about the form, 
even if we hardly know them, 
even if it no longer signifies, if it only shines. 

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Poet: Mark Doty
Poem: The Ancient World
Poem of the Day: Oct 8 2015
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