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Suez Canal

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Flights of days and nights
Have been conjured before my gaze
But I’ve known none as bright
As those above the Suez

Where ships sail not on seas
But in lines on land-locked ponds
Like a caravan of camels
Filing across the horizon.

How many many birds,
Perched on the rocky slopes,
Blue like the blue of fables,
Long legged with long throats.

Masses of lizards are seen
As if the water’s spray
Made their golden-green
Sparkle along the shore.

We toss out fruit as we pass
To clumps of Arab children
Who sit along the banks;
Pirates they pretend.

The Arab children’s calls
Are fervent like ringing bells
While the marabous hiss**
Curses down upon us.

And when night sinks in the sand
Like a kite folding its wings,***
Ahead of us and behind
The sparks of fires are flickering;

Some are redder than choral,
Some are a greenish blue...
A watery carnival
In the desert of Africa.

Off in the distant hills
The smoke of cooking blows down
Reaching us in gusts
From the camps of the Bedouin.

From crumbling ancient walls
Along the bends in the channel
We hear the laugh of hyenas
And the howling of the jackals.

But the steamship’s sole reply
To the slumbering African night
And the grieving stars in the sky
Are the strains a piano sends out.
* This poem is from the volume Tent (1921) consisting of 16 African poems. Gumilev was commissioned in 1918 to write it as an “experiment in geography in verse.” He later cut and reorganized the cycle to make it a personal journey or pilgrimage with a spiritual dimension, and should not be read as strictly autobiographical (McKane qtd. in Gumilev, Pillar, 231). The volume includes long poems entitled “Egypt,” Sudan,” “Abyssinia,” “Sudan” and the like reflecting the extent of Gumilev’s travels based on several trips over the years.
** The marabou is a large dark gray African stork that has a distensible pouch of pink skin at the front of the neck and feeds especially on carrion. Also known as the undertake bird, its wingspan can reach 12 feet.
*** Several species of large carrion eating kites are native to east Africa.

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