SS Jane Christianson in the Panama Canal, March 1935 (National Archives at College Park–Still Pictures/Wikimedia Commons)

Not a question like, Shall we gather at the river? but a statement 
     traveling in two directions

at once. A Man, a Plan, a Canal, Panama,
     for instance, which speaks of the human river forged
through the wasp-waisted isthmus
      of Central America as the U.S. grew weary

of the 19th century. By August 1914, a third of its workers
     (yellow fever, bone-break, malaria)

are dead, the last shift punching out, handing
     its trenching tools to the new shift punching in because
in faraway Sarajevo, Archduke Ferdinand’s limousine
     is stuck, has taken the wrong turn, cannot
back up, and Gavrilo Princip levels his pistol
     at the sitting Duke and Duchess and shoots them
dead. The canal, east to west and west to east is,
     either way you look at it,
a win-win: your rare gold for my rare spices, my rare nuts 
     for your big pruning shears. A palindrome,
is a running back, say the Greeks, resembling its cousin 
     nostalgia—a longing to run back—as if you’d awakened
as did, magnificently, so Milton tells us, our “grandparents,”
     in a loud and too-bright country far from home. 
Madam, I’m Adam, says the one, and she says back to him,  
     Eve, and you know right away

that they’re made for each other. Their interwoven eyebeams
     are the one bridge back and forth
to safety, the two of them so soon banished (a clock 
     has started ticking) beneath a flaming sword, 
forever (though still, says Milton, hand in hand).
     Their eyebeams are not the beams 
their great, great, great grandson (seventy-six times great, says Luke)
     insists that we remove from our own eyes 
lest we dwell
     too long upon the speck that mars another’s, and who,
from every passing moment, peers far
      into the future, and far

into the past, and who, at every passing moment, steps once
     and always down onto the disturbed waters

rising at his feet, and whose elders, some thirty begots back,
     will wake weeping by a river

in faraway Babylon. Every backward glance is a salt 
     rubbed into the wound: Sodomites, Iraqis, 
Palestinians, Poles, Cherokees, Syrians,   
     Sudanese, Guatemalans, Nigerians, Ukrainians.... No one,
not even the banishers, is immune. 
     Able was I ere I saw Elba, says Napoleon

plotting his return, and this to-and-fro, out-and-back
     motion say the Greeks, is boustrophedonic
a farmer’s turn of ox and plow 
     down one row and up the next, a winding serpent
of a field unearthed in the hectares behind them, a configuration
     the Greeks will etch into their stone and ink onto their scrolls
so that even now, we might move our heads
     from side to side, combing the texts, checking for loopholes, searching
and searching and searching, back and back
     and back, parsing and parsing, kicking 
the chariot wheels, back and back past Odysseus 
     stuffing his ears, back past his joy
at the puppy Argos jumping at his feet, back till 
     there you are again, unlatching someone’s hand again:
Look both ways before you cross, and you will, 
     a little light-headed now, stepping down

into the crowded boat that sets out soon in one direction

Steve Kronen’s poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Image, Columbia Journal, Plume, On The Seawall, upstreet, One Hand Clapping (UK), Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, and Poetry Daily. His collections are Homage to Mistress Oppenheimer (Eyewear), Splendor (BOA), and Empirical Evidence (University of Georgia).

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the January 2023 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.