An Open Letter to Petros Solomon*

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Petros Solomon

Dear Petros,

I’ve tried for weeks to find what I can say
To one who, for the things that I believe,
Has lain in prison many a long day
While I walk free and scarcely think to grieve.

Some gossip friend to friend, though, may recall
(If I dare call so great a man on so
Brief an acquaintanceship a friend at all)
Memories from the good times long ago.

How sad it is the world divides us, and
That those who hold you, those too that they hold,
Share in a common love of motherland,
Come from the same unspoiled heroic mold.

And though perhaps your captors may deny
You news of what to them might hurt their cause,
A mere poet’s trivial words may fly
Over those walls, as wind blows flakes and straws.

Words that they might not mind that you should hear,
Pieces of new research and news of friends,
Things giving no offense to any ear
That intercepts these idle odds and ends.

First, let’s remember those amazing nights
Under the thousand stars of the Red Sea,
Where we would toast the future in the sigh
Of pressure-lamps and moonlit surf nearby,
And break out crates of cold Asmara beer
That sweated slightly in the desert air,
And talk about the battles that you fought
To break the siege of old Massawa--here,
Where pilgrims once took ferries for the Hajj
And where, a hundred thousand years ago
Our forebears said goodbye to Africa,
And launched canoes toward the shores of Asia.
And now my own childhood in Africa
Came back, with all its musky fragrance and
Its drums and the ndimba in the night;
And then we’d talk about our concrete plans,
About the old Italian salt-pans Carl reused,
The pump he fixed to make the water flow,
The microfinance bank, the carbon credit;
And then we dipped the hot injera (like
The crumpets I would toast years back in Oxford)
Into the salty fish and relishes.

Massawa, daytime.  Sun and sandstone walls
Pitted with gunfire now.  A freighter, wrecked,
Still blocked the blue bay by the breakwater.
We saw a turretless T-55,
Rusting in one of Carl’s deep green canals,
Bleed iron into the salicornia—
Swords into ploughshares, the old fantasy.
And how we dreamed—a peaceful Africa
Basking in new abundance: shrimp and oil
For Europe, hauls of sweet tilapia,
Forests of mangrove, fodder for the goats
And camels of the growing farms, and milk
To make expensive cheeses for the world.
We dreamed of how the halophytes would suck
The carbon from the brine, and turn the seas
Into a sink to soak up greenhouse gases,
And so finesse the world’s entropic flow.

All that seems faded, never to return.
I reach back in my memory, defiant,
Force my slow brain to reconstruct the scene,
Recklessly blur the true trace of the past
To make a keener, cruder substitute,
So that the truth within the palimpsest
Whispers almost unheard behind the fiction.
So present need erases ancient loves,
And the efficient self swims blindly on,
A cold shark in the past’s abounding seas.
Yet still, to do my frail self some justice,
I never ceased to seek the piety
That honors where that precious time is buried,
Even if the first flowers that I laid
Upon its monument must be replaced,
Wilted and dead, by new ones more in season.

But now a fresher evil rose upon
The world’s horizon, like twin shrieks of pain.
You will remember when the towers fell:
That was the time, I think, when you, and all
Who stood with you, were locked away.
To us who loved you, it seemed no one knew,
For who was watching while the whole world burned
And all our human dreams were put on hold?

You were a warrior; you know what fighting is,
How needful rage and vengeance are, lest those
Who thirst for your destruction see you falter,
How in the zero-sum they chose to play,
Your loss is gain to them, and theirs to yours.
And so America became a monster
Screaming with pain and fury, lashing out,
A many-headed dragon spewing fire,
Almost as dangerous to friend as foe.
My son enlisted, trained, and went to fight;
I prayed that harm for him would come to me.

You also know, perhaps, the cost of rage,
The poisons in the glands, the loss of sleep,
The circularity of thought, the sweet addiction
To thoughts of violence that dull the days,
That make us distant to our dearest, rob
Them of our attention, coat love with dust.
And if it isn’t rage we feel but grief
Upon the irremediable loss
Of all we worked for, of the innocent past,
The same cold probes of sick decay creep in
Wherever in our bodies some old weakness,
Inflicted or inherited, makes way.

That was perhaps what struck our Alan down.
What room was there in this new world of war
For all those enterprises that he loved
Of good and profit, profit turned to good,
And Earth’s abundance taken off the leash?
Cancer had taken roost among his bones;
He tried to find a truelove and a home,
He worked, like Carl, for your release, but failed;
Mustered his merry energies, and died,
Incarcerated in an inner jail.

And as for me, one year from 9/11,
On one of my long trips to spread the word,
I read the Eritrea poem in Germany,
Suffered a sleepless night in some hotel,
Fell ill while flying home and then collapsed,
Near death, my poor gut burst and putrefied.
Petros, my father was a pacifist;
His ghost would turn away now in my dreams;
I, like America, had wanted war
(And every lion needs to show some fight
If he’s to be still honored as a lion),
For war had entered me with all its taint.
My son came back alive; my belly healed;
The scars still ache and pull within my soul.

But Carl, against all odds, ploughed gamely on.
His vision of the living planet never died.
While everybody seemed to want to fight--
Some with the killers, some with those they fled--
Carl sought to let the fertile brine flow in
And feed the land and heal the bloodless soil.
He knew that talk and taxes, force and logic
Were helpless without life, and knew that life—
That selfish, yearning, hopeful, stupid thing
That only wants survival to the future—
Feeds in the world of nature upon water,
And in the world of culture, upon money.
Though some in government now shut him out,
Desiring more to salt the sand with bombs,
He sought now--as Columbus did before him,
And Galileo with the lords of Venice,
Newton with Montagu the chancellor--
Patronage from the world’s great potentates.

As anyone who knows Carl knows full well,
Those friends who share his chariot are in
For quite a ride. Summoned at various times
I found myself attempting to explain
How poetry might help Carl’s plans and visions
At an adobe ranch in the saguaros,
Lunching out at Disney Imagineering,
Flying to Malibu to meet a star
Who had to cancel out at the last minute,
Or meeting Norman Borlaug, he who saved
Perhaps a billion lives with Green genomics,
Now ninety-six years old, a bright blue eye
Blazing from all the body’s entropy.
Perhaps next time I’ll picnic with a sheik
Or meet the president of Mexico
Or ocean-fish with Texas millionaires.
I’m just a poet with some pedantic books
Who never thought he’d chat with Marlon Brando
Or watch three World Bank suits sweat in the desert,
Or interview a biospherian,
Or drink with General Petros Solomon.
The way Carl tells it, it’s a simple thing.
Carbon in the air is illth and filth;
Carbon in the earth is health and wealth.
Carbon on a hill flows down and feeds,
Take carbon from the sea, the cycle speeds,
The ocean sucks the carbon from the sky;
And if there were a way to take that carbon
And bury it upon a hill, we’d thrive.

The salmon shows the way.  Those mountain meadows
Blazing with flowers and shaded with green pines
Are watered by the streams where salmon spawn.
That water’s lifted effortlessly by
The power of the sun upon the sea,
Carried by winds driven by that same sun,
Thrown on the mountainside in rain or snow.
Flowers and trees are made of two main things,
Water and carbon.  Water is supplied.
Sunlight upon a leaf can carve the carbon
Out of the oxygen of CO2
To keep such dull metabolism going
As drives the moss and lichens of the peaks,
But more is needed if the meadow glory
Of lupine blue and pollen gold and all
The dark sweet berries it portends
And all the life that feeds upon the fruit
Can flourish there, its rich fertility
Renewed before it drains down to the sea.

I’ve seen them, as Carl knows; the sockeye salmon
Braving the rapids, ospreys, dams and bears,
Their silver flanks turned crimson and moss-green,
Humping their spine into a mount of threat,
Twisting their calm fish visage to a snarl,
A samurai’s stark grimace, with an eye
Of insane gold. They are in ecstasy,
Leaping against the falls time and again,
Great rotting gashes on their bodies that
They do not feel, in the transcendent rush
Of love and rage, the berserk riastrad
(Cuchullain’s fury) of the epic hero,
The white-hot honey of the bride and groom.
They reach the headwaters that they can scent
As a sweet hint from their days as fry or parr,
And there—as if their pains were not enough--
They fight each other, mate, and spawn, and die.
A noble, sexual, dreadful smell of rot
Steams from the shallow pools where they decay.
The young feed on the yolk-sac first, then graze
The fecund life their parents’ corpses feed,
Till, as the smolt, they let the current take them
Down to the sea. Now comes the harvesting.
Years in the Bering Sea, the North Atlantic,
Schooling where fat prey browse the ocean plankton,
They store the hydrocarbons of the sea
Until the call comes, to mystical immolation,
To don the armor and the mating garments
And set out on the ancient journey home.

Thousands of tons of carbon, every year
Are borne thus in their bodies deep inland
And up a mile, two miles above the sea.
The willow and the alder and the aspen,
The swales of larkspur, waves of columbine,
The iris and the dazzling mountain daisy
Are built of carbon carried to the sky.

Is there a human way of transmigration
That can so turn the flow of entropy
And make a paradise of its decay?
Carl thinks there is.  As in all kinds of chaos,
To close the loop, and set into the flow
A little governor that tweaks the current,
Can put in play a zero-sum regime,
So forms self-organize like beaver dams
Or termite-hills that fertilize the soil
And open up a future where was none.

All of our old arts did the same.  The rider
And the gardener, beekeeper and sailor,
The Polynesian surfer on the wave,
All those old games the rich pay well to play,
Are ways to the shape the plunge of mere destruction
Into the very womb of living joy.

Say the sea-level’s rising; just return
A quarter of an Amazon, ten Niles,
Or twenty Rhines or fifty lesser streams
As rivers of seawater to the land—
Brine rich with carbon, minerals and salts
To irrigate the sixty million hectares
Of the world’s derelict and desert coasts—
The sea stays put, and Bangladesh survives.
The freshwater we would have used to grow
The biomass of food and fuel now goes
Back to recharge the sunken aquifers;
The seawater sinks down to float the fresh
That now can raise the falling water table.
Milton’s lost paradise was watered by
A fountain pressured by a hidden sea.

Earth’s barren desert seacoasts add up to
Two hundred million hectares of wasteland.
Take sixty million hectares, water them
With Faustian canals and dykes, and green
The deserts with the breath of chlorophyll,
Sequestering the carbon as good soil,
And the Earth’s carbon balance is restored,
Three billion people fed, a flow of money
Swelling the veins of its economy.

But you already know all this.
Forgive me, Petros, don’t you feel, as I
That sometimes we must hum the tune again
To bring the words of glory back to mind
Or say the words again to bring the glory?
Let me say this: we’ve not stopped waiting for you;
Old, yes, but ready to begin again.
The table’s spread, the wine has just been opened.

Now here is Alan’s favorite recipe,
For a warm pasta salad that we once prepared,
Alan and Carl and Beth and I, at home
In Carl’s amazing hobbit-house in Tucson
Cooled by a water-chimney in the desert heat
With a big sink to wash the ingredients.
You need fusilli, whole-wheat if you can,
Boiled through al dente—salt and olive oil.
Scald three huge beef tomatoes, peel their skins,
Seed and cube them, slice some gold romanos,
Tear a fresh bunch of basil into shreds,
Chop up sweet shallots, add a bulb or two
Of elephant garlic crushed and diced up fine;
Mix these together, and now sprinkle on
A healthy palm of rocksalt, kosher, raw,
Maybe a spoon of sugar too, to taste.

A glass of sémillon drinks nicely here.

Now watch it sweat—the salt brings out the juice—
Then drizzle on a scoop of olive oil
To coat and mollify the alliums.
Ground pepper too, of course, and now you’re ready 
To pour the chilly sauce into the steaming pasta
And stir until they’re properly infused.
Serve with romano, flaked, and parmesan,
To go with flank steak, maybe, medium rare,
Broiled with some orange zest and sweet black soy.
And this is when you pour the good Shiraz.

So let us eat together in the mind
This feast of memory, this old communion,
In dedication to the ancient dream
Of Earth’s abundance, heaven’s happy eye.

Shall I at least, then, set my lands in order?
And you, our Fisher King, will you be free?

Your affectionate and admiring friend,


*Petros Solomon (born 1951; also known as Wed'Solomon, Son of Solomon) is an Eritrean politician. He was an Eritrean People's Liberation Front commander during the Eritrean War of Independence, and following independence he served in several positions in the Cabinet, including Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He has been in prison, held incommunicado in an undisclosed location, since September 18, 2001 for opposing the rule of Eritrean president Isaias Afewerki.