[The long poem "Halekon" was written in the early 2000s as a response to the United States war in/with Afghanistan.  Many of the details are factual (Taliban children did learn to count with weaponry flashcards), but the speaker and his story are entirely imaginary. (Adult Content)]




afghan pushtun name for

“beautiful boys”






The commander has new French boots

New American fatigues.  He strides

Through the town’s old streets

With a new heart.


The road to the commander’s house is the color

Of drought.  His porch,

Of the river.  Made of river

Stones—solid brown turbulence.

Family rugs float,

Rafts at prayer-call.


The room where we meet,

Commander and halekon, is night

Color, color of nothing, and no color

Names what we do there.  Shame

Is our pleasure, but where’s the shame

In pleasing if I must?







Come with me

To the desert, where dust seethes

In every blanket fold.

Come with me

To the crags of the mountain,

A hollow known but hidden,

Where the wind will not stir

Our bed.


Come with me, orphan,

And be my pleasure.



          —and you?

Come with me

For new boots, a radio—

Forbidden trinket

—Sacks of grain.


Before I heard him,

I was a child.

Before I went with him,

I was halekon in his eyes.

Before I returned from him,

I was halekon in mine.








God gifts

The halekon:





The stake.

The cliff.

The wall.








The commander has a wife.

Not in this house.

Soldiers billet in the other rooms,

No place for women.

Weeks descend from heaven

And pass their time on earth

Without a softer face.

Until my mother’s, her eyes only

And only reluctantly

—No wonder then

Women are blue ghosts.







They pushed the wall on the sinner who loved,

A tank for God’s hand,

A crowd for His eye.

They said he was Abomination.

They said they were God’s Will.

They said prayers and

Guided the heavy treads,

And the sound was not Divine

Thunder but dishes

Breaking.  A village

Of shattered crockery.


They stood and watched,

Arms looped, hand-in-hand,

Embracing.  Some also lovers,

Some of them halekon.  I

Didn’t go, didn’t see.


They pushed, but they could

Also fall.  Now, under new law,

Someone has put up a shop

Over the grave wall.  Songbirds

In rows of cages sing.  Throats fill

With strings of silver bells.









I wait for him in the Night Room.

In the Night Room where songbirds

Sleep in cages of blue metal,

I wait.  In the Night Room

Without windows, I wait

For him.  I wait and I bar

My eyes with black stick.

Black around black eyes

Above white cheeks, I watch

In the piece of glass beside

The bed.  I wait in the Night

Room and dip my fingers

In the henna pot and rub

Spice between my palms. Night

In the room and in the air

Outside, he never waits.

The man he sends ahead to open

The door waits.  The room waits

As I sit inside.  The boy inside

The Night Room, the night around

The soldier at the door,

We know we are to wait,

This waiting now with a sharper

Keenness from the waiting

We endured before.







Your fate is bitter

On my tongue, my mother

Says, lifting

A ten-pound sack of

Flour from my arms.


I will beg for coins

In the market, she says:

All she could do as

A woman—blue

Husbandless ghost.


When you are old enough

To marry, she says,

I will go ask at your uncle’s

House, your aunt’s sister’s

Daughter, a suitable bride.







Almonds scent

The commander’s house.

Brown almonds,

A pool of shut eyes,

In a bowl by the tea things.

Another bowl, of dates.




The commander’s soap

For shaving (he keeps

A clean chin now).

Oiled rags

From greasing

And polishing

The guns.


Little root.  He lifts

His wet, heavy lips off

My penis.  Such sweet,

Sharp sap.  And this moss.

He swipes fingers across

My sparse curls.  Who knows

What fine timber may

Rise.  He laughs, chasing tongue,

And I come.  Slippery gusher.


Who can say what is wrong

—More wrong—when he loves

Me there?  When this whole bowl

Of sweets is forbidden,

Who can say which treat

Poison favors most?


Still, he has his qualms, his

Voice tired at my ear, Don’t

Tell, don’t tell.  As if

This were all I shouldn’t say.

His voice, reptile scales

On rock.  Don’t tell.  Scent of

Shaving soap, bitter breath

Of tea and almonds.  Of me.







1—         The commander topples me under a wall of petals mortared with crushed spice.


2—         He turns me on my stomach, bears down with his full weight.  But where there was a bed,

              now there is open sky.  I fall free.


3—         Because I must not love him, I burn.  My fuel: my own flesh.







The commander’s voice

Is the bullet clip,

A volley of fired rounds

Through empty passes

With nothing to do

But echo.


His echo

In my head is honey,

Murmur of bees busy

At the flowers. Oranges

Crushed to pulp and

Sweet juice.


In dreamtongue

He says to them—

I will marry him,

This boy of fourteen years.

My love for him is sweeter

Than my wife’s caress,

Sweeter than a warrior’s victory.


On his lips, I will place my kiss,

At his loins, my seed,

On his shoulders, my legacy.

Precious halekon, sweet balm

To an old man’s heart.







When I was taught to count

We were shown pictures of guns:

6 rifles

7 rifles

13 rifles in an arsenal.


They have replaced the guns

With pomegranates:

5 fruit

4 fruit

And inside their shrivelling husks,

Crimson multitudes.


In the untended kitchen they sit,

Last year’s crop, like children’s heads

On beds of straw.

If I took one,

1 pomegranate,

Would he know the count,

Make the subtraction?







The soldiers stir about,

Birds on a ledge,

Wagering on anything.

How many cars through

The checkpoint,

How many hours until

New orders come.


Someone has eggs

Dyed hardboiled red.


Fire coal.


They bet.


They butt egg tips,

And whose will crack?

Hey, boy!

One grabs my sleeve

As I am returning

From my mother.

How much that his will break?


Another soldier frowns.

Commander’s halekon,

Says his darting eye.

No blue All-Veil,

But I, unlike red eggs,

Must not be gambled.







They lifted the stones from the sinner who loved.

He lived, God’s Will, and they carried him

Into prison where the walls

Stood still.


They raked the ashes of the sinners.

Their bones had mingled.  The hardest

Shards of each man

Married by flame.


The commander hoisted me above my sin

On promises.  My white limbs

Cold in starlight,

Stretched into wings.







The wisest and holiest have beards

Like valleys: arid, grey

With rivulets of brown.

Like sky: black cloud

And white lightning’s tracings.


The soldiers now shave

Close.  Moustache cancelling

Upper lip.  Or else as clean

As the commander.  European

Style, his barber claims.


And my beard veils

The future’s face.  Death

To the halekon.  One hair

Kinked at my cheek.  Dark as

Night curling from my skin.








Mother folds flour sacks, sighs,

Work is plenty

In the city.



River with traffic, truck tires,

Cracking boots of former




Poured out by governors, by

Banks, by commanders,

Shimmer and dry.



Like any promise tendered

With old currency, loses value

In the new.



And stars, when we have

Nothing.  Day and night,

Always clouds and stars

To count.