Mosaics: a long poem

Am I Dying or Living: Miosaics

This poem is dedicated to Syria, for Syria will rise again

I wrote most of this poem some years back. It was then that I started to write long poems in the narrative style, but poems being a different genre from that of a story or narrative refuse to be shackled by time sequence, a plot, or progression and unraveling. They have another logic or, let us say,  form of communication which dispenses with all that makes a story  a story. Poems are moments of illumination that shoot through our awareness like meteors and speak to us with the tongue of vision.

I grew up in a world always on the edge, always threatened to be dragged into the abyss. The Palestinian tragedy haunted me like it haunted every one in the Arab world. It was as if I always knew that one day I had to face the terrible tragedy of war , the horror of the death of so many and resolve it. When I was twenty two years old I wrote a play predicting my future, as the dreamy girl-heroine of the play faces the issue of war and destruction, pitting the dream of beauty and peace against harrowing suffering. She could not resolve the issue of violence and paid for it with her life. When I was thirty one, while I was writing my theses in  Swansea Wales, I returned to the subject in a long poem I named:  Am I Living or Dying? Only by then, I had acquired a historical perspective. The world I originally came from is an old world which gave birth to and witnessed the first civilizations of mankind. That world of my origin died several times and was reborn several times. Past and present in that world are sometimes interchangeable, so that if you are a person of vision you become aware of the endless recurrence  of a pattern rising and falling like the waves of the sea: one civilization rising and another falling; with life renewing itself and death surrendering to life. You acquire a prophetic soul and write like a Cassandra or a Sybil.

When I rewrote parts of my poem again in the wake of the Syrian Revolution, I understood why I did no try to publish the poem until now because now is the right time for it. The way I see it, is that while we are dying, we are also living in memory, in time past and present and preparing to live in time future  The death of the Syrians in multitudes remains the central spiritual question that I have to unravel or at least live with. We have to live their deaths and die their lives even as they die, but we have also to carry them and ourselves into the future.This can only done by giving life the last word, but life without love to seal it and hold it together is empty and hollow. 

I have given my poem the  subtitle: Mosaics, because it is composed of little windows opening on different disparate experiences juxtaposed and assembled together in order to  carry the poem to its final destination: rebirth and life renewed. The poem lingers at every illuminated window to assign to it its special space in the illuminated whole. 

Am I Living or Dying , etching


The light was dim

But their eyes unflinchingly burnt,

I ran in terror,

But unmoistened and hard

Their cold cold eyes

Cruelly set like ice

Watched my falling hair

Watched my falling steps.

I fear your children God:

They tread heavily

And the incessant feet

Lay bare my soul.


High the vultures perched and eyed,

Fierce eyes that never blink are evil

No air or light

Can carry that might

Heaped in voluptuous heaviness

Under a wing

That droops in stillness

Yet would suddenly fling

And whip and smite.


Music of smoke

Of songs breaking

Of words cracking,

They made rhymes out of the dust;

We moved our lips to sing

But as they parted

Our songs dropped and fell

Like dry trampled leaves.

Our child is crying

The music is dying.


The vast deluge of profane time

Surged and charged

Inscribing the tablets of the cities of the dying

The horizons collapsed

But the cities of death yawned and gaped

Roamed by the angel of death

Caring nothing for the dying and the dead.


Stay your wrath death

I recall and I remember

That rhythm of the fountain

In the walled hidden garden

That whispering measure of the lute

Rising and falling

What have they done to the jasmine?

What have you done to the children?

I recall and remember.


Over the Syrian sea hovered

The dreams of bygone kingdoms,

Only, the pines the cypresses the oaks



My mother held an olive branch,

My mother said,

Look where the horizons bend gently

To lie among the anemones.


Mother, the City of the dead is yelling

The men and women are in the streets dying

They have nailed them laughing

Until the crosses crouched in exhaustion

And they died kneeling.

I fear thy children God.


I gazed at a rock

I gazed at a rose

I knew not

Which was the rose

And which was the rock

Then it seemed to me

That I was the rose

That I was the rock


Am I living or Dying, detail

In the weeping crowds

I moved like a ghost

My hair torn

My eyes raw,

Come to me my child,

O mother

This pain is terrible to bear

I cannot see

Do not forsake me

I can never come to thee


In the looking glass

I saw my staring image

And shivered to think

That I shall have to kneel

And clean the streets

With my trembling hair

For unto us a child shall be born

Today tomorrow or in a while


Cities crackling baking raging

Into the nights of nothingness

Into the torched dawns of annihilation

Proclaiming the time of the beast

Announcing the apocalypse

The undoing of ten thousand years of civilization


I shall stand between you and your fear

Look into my eyes

For you I shall nurse the night

And cry not when the might  

Of the manmade evil nails me

To fallen walls and fallen homes

Choking with the thick smoke

That heaves and gasps

 With the cries of the dying


Let us walk in unison

Step falling into step

Shadow merging into shadow.


There was a time when we looked without fear

We didn’t have a memory then

We had no past

Ours was the first kiss

The first embrace

The first cry of tenderness

Hold me tightly

They were not there to destroy

And annihilate.


Why should I know

Take this knowledge away

And throw it to the swine-

But I recall and remember

I remember what you said mother

Once you are born you are born for ever

Once you are born to die

You inherit all the knowledge of the dead.

Why should I suffer?

When they kill a child I die


Because you are the child

Only God can be without beings.


Am I living or dying

Am I living or dying


My mother had many children

Who is not a child of my mother?

She raised us in the gardens

And sang to us at nightfall

That was God the mother


God the mother rocked thousand cradles

In the desert

We were fed on the light

That the stars shed at night

The sands kissed the feet

That shone so bright

Who can wean a child

That drank that delight?


God willed me a pool

I lay transparent in his thoughts

Dreaming of him concealed in the lotus


 God willed me a tree

I rose and knew the sun

I embraced the storms

And whispered to the eagles

An oak is ancient and wise

Tree of life, etching

God willed me a sea

I held the dolphins in my arms

As the sun then the moon then the stars

Sought to gaze at their beauty

In the mirror of my infinity


Before that was only the primordial mud

And hot formless void.

What was that condensed horror

That completed the circuit round the sun?

Am I living or dying?


Take this knowledge away

Of civilizations warring against civilizations

Of one terror impatient to devour another terror

Of living and dying

Nurturing and burying

Take that knowledge

Of time crouching on the floors of the oceans

Crystallized into lasting eloquence in the fossils.

I was there when the sea heaved

And littered the mountains with graves.


O mother, a Sybil is no woman

A Sybil is fire and air.

Creatures of time

Are denied the solace of time.

The slave of eternity

Can but stare at eternity.

I want this earth and the sound of water.


I wish to relive the moment that was lost

The lives that were never mine

I want the last garden

The one and only garden.


When the key unlocks the hidden gate

My heart will tremble

As I walk into that glory.

Behold the white dome

Rising through the mist

Into the loveliness of the arching sky.

The shadows will linger for a while

Then the light will unite

Shadow and pillar

In fountains of marble

Climbing from the ground

To expire in the dome..


In the temples of the desert

I saw you queens of bygone times

Kings of ancient kingdoms.

They stare hushed in the annals of light

While their rose-coloured hands

Rest on the wind as the wind passes by.

Gaze at us, eyes of stone

Hewed out of the night of the cock

Gaze at us and preach to our cities.

Masks of our ancient selves

Are you living or dying?


The tall window burnt

In the receding light

Like red rubies

Set in a crown of flames.

Darkness hushed under the ceilings

Stared at the distant hills

And the violet streams of lilac.

Under the olive trees

While the sun was sinking

I stretched my hand to the window

And yearned to plunge into that glory.


We moved our hands

Over the formless mud

Seething with a voiceless desire

For a faceless terror

Hunting for death in deformity

In the mighty chaos

Of a cold bloodless world.


We lingered to brood


We trembled as we lingered

To count and remember

Our losses

And our grace we saw

Trampled in the dust.


Do I know that

Darkness is unmoored

 And is hoist

And is pitched


Raw and sealed

In the upper air

Do I know that

Night has perched

Laughing softly that

Night has arched

Chuckling softly that

Night has plunged

Ravishing the great dome?


But the night

Was not always the night

The father is history,

The mother the repository of civilization.

Keep me among the proud

Stain not my soul with meekness

Am I living or dying?


 Cassandra, do not cry for fallen Troy

Perhaps all is a dream

 The burning towers

The trampled dead

In the blazing streets.

Who can prevent one troy from falling

And another Troy from heroically rising?

Let us still our hearts.

Is Troy rising or falling

Am I living or dying?


When the rope tightens it snaps-

Am I Living or dying?

The wheels have turned a full circle

The pangs of death are but echoes

The pangs of birth are but a dream

I am wrapped in my stillness waiting

In the calm in the hush waiting


I am sleeping

Who touches me

These fingers are bright

Spelling violets

In the air.

Linger in my hair.

The sails are wings

Feathers in the winds.

In the fields under the trees

My child is walking

in loveliness

Wrapped in brightness.

My heart is beating beating

Am I living or dying.


Am I Living or dying 3, etching
Am I living or Dying 3, etching

I am all bent upon myself


Like a knotted wave


Like a sea-swept cave.

Crouching listening

I hear the molten lava

The subterranean streams.

Bending brooding

I yield to the burning energy

The fierce pangs of pending birth.

I am close to the earth

I am close to you.

The rock-roses are breathing

Into my lungs.

My veins are drawing blood from

The red soil of drowsy elements

From murmuring roots,

The hair-tapestry of the living

Sporting with green death.

I am close to the earth

I am close to you.




With the fine veins

Of singing minerals,

The soft fibres of scented wood,

My body is shooting into the whining lava

Is sharing with the impatient talk

Of the burning mud

Down down down

Where all life awaits beneath

The brown crusts of crazy times.

I am close to the earth

I am close to you.


I am the formless mud

Shape me

I am the breathless air

Breathe me

I am the sunless Seas

Light me

I am the word unsaid

Say me

I am the glory to be

Praise me


Make me your footfall

Dance me

Make me your music

Sing me

Make me your rock

Lean on me


Mix me with the earth

Saw me

Blend me with the seed

Root me

Make me your corn

Harvest me

Make me your wheat

Thrash me

Make me your flour

Knead me

Make me your bread

Make me your loaf

Break me


Make me your flesh

Make me your blood

Make me your breath

Live me

Die me


Make me your cradles

Make me your births

Rise me


Will the rose

Unfold for me

So that I might gaze

At the pool

At the still water

Spreading from eternity to time

From time to eternity?


Riders on the rocky road

Loosen the reigns

Spur the impatient steeds

Destiny awaits you in another time

Carry your fate as lightly as a feather

Carry this bitter inheritance

And flood the world with courage

The road stretches through death and sorrow

Then turns

Then who will not dream

Who will not be liberated?

“Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!” *


The Sea the Sea

Sway and sing

Sing sing sing

Spread the sails

The sea is our cradle

The storm’s the calmness.

The rainbow wrings my heart

I rush to my mighty fall

All in all in all

In the wind in the well in the womb

I sway I swing

Am I living or dying?

©Alisar Iram

Revised and rewritten in parts,June 2013

*  From the poem  Under Ben Bulben by W.B.Yeats

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