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The Red Sea

Красное море

Greetings, Red Sea, shark soup,
Negro bath, sand cauldron!
Like stone cactus flowers
limestone, not moss, blooms on your cliffs.

Sea-monsters swept up by the tide lie dying
in anguish, out on your islands
in the burning sand: octopi, tritons, swordfish.

From Africa dugouts swarm,
hunting pearls,
and from Arabia fast ships
swoop chasing them.

The Negroes they catch
are whipped in chains to the slave market,
but unlucky Arabs find peace
in your hot, dirty-red waves.

Like a teacher down aisles of playful children
steamboats pass through,
white water bubbling behind them,
red roses and ice on deck.

You can’t disturb them: a hurricane can scream,
a wave rise like a crystal peak —
Lighting a cigar, the captain will sigh,
Mon Dieu, how cool! What frightful heat!"

Gold flying fish, like grasshoppers, like dragonflies,
hum over the water;
sand curved like sickles against
flowering red and green reefs.

Transparent fire flashes in the air,
the sun glares down like a fairy-tale bird:
“Sea, oh Red Sea, you shine like a queen,
but you glow, you dazzle, you are blinding when darkness comes!"

Mist floats from the water, like tiny clouds,
and the shadows of black mermaids criss-cross in the waves!
And stars we’ve never heard of — like crosses, like axes —
blow into flames, in that garden in the sky.

And all your magic whorls
shimmer with Bengalese fire,
with sparks, with bright beams,
as if forging new stars in Heaven’s face.

And then the moon drifts out,
and the wind rips by, covering the scent of forests,
and from Suez to Bab-el-Mandeb
you ring like an Aeolian harp.

Elephants come to your shore, bow
to roaring waves, worship
the failing moon, mirrored in your water
— but tremble at gleaming shark teeth.

And then you remember — a sea, only a sea —
how you obeyed God’s Word
and tore your mighty tides apart
so Moses could walk and Pharaoh die.

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