The New Babel

By Leonard Schwartz

August 2002



Babel of course is the fall of a Tower, followed by a vast, manipulated confusion of words.

Babble is language’s beginning,  before it’s a language, while it’s still song.

As Babel is both a ground and a zero,  Middle English grund and Arabic zefir, cipher, Gallacized zero - let’s call it Ground Zero.

Babel is defiance of the demiurge and hubris of the heart, ziggurat aimed at suns yet unborn, inside the mouth the mouth as desire: man creates gods.

Where before stood the North and South Phallus now yawns a smoldering Cleft, smoke subject to variable breezes.

The smoke contains bodies; we breathe one another. Thus, Babel is Kabul. We breathe one another.

As Ares broods over all the world’s capitals: fragments of furniture spun from seized cockpits, strangers blinking into craters of Mars.

Babel is Kabul: Babel’s a Bible in a motel room dresser in Birmingham, Alabama: Babel’s the Battery Park Esplanade and the people still waiting in the airport in Santo Domingo.

Babel: the most beautiful girl in all of Kashgar, black haired, black eyed, maybe 13 years old, in a gay red dress, gazing admiringly at the foreign lady chance brought to her alley, gently, tentatively, mouthing a single phrase in English, addressed to that lady: “How do you do”?

Babel is mettlesome, its scrotum melted some, our mad extravagant metropolis, not bashful, still seeking the heights.

Babel was Mesopotamia, its era’s only superpower: redound of Gilgamesh, modern day Iraq.

Babel is Baghdad, Babel is Belgrade, Babel’s our backyard, a World that incessantly Trades names with itself.

Babble in three languages, babble in three thousand:  put on a bib.

A baby babbled of lions eating books. And those lions ate books: Babel is books on the shelves of the Bibliotheque Queer.

No rabble in Babel: everyone’s speech an equally valid muse. Thus: bomb them with butter.

Here is the blade with which Babel’s abolished, here are the furrows where Babel begins, which no seed can boycott.

Babel rinses its parents in sorrow, Babel rewards its makers with slowworms, Babel is birth, rebuilding with cranes all sorts of crimes, the way life is a dagger, the way all wars begin with some bed’s disaster.

Who shaved her cunt with Babel’s boxcutter: born from the rubble, “ba” is for father, “ma” is for mother, sacred baboons patrolling her precincts.

Babel is Buddha dispensing with words, Babel is mating, thunder, whale blubber and rain, Babel is blame, Babel is ax, Babel is Bush-ben-Laden and fame.

As tall facades crumble like rockface,  so many unbound mountains, Captain  FBI simply offers “My bad”. 

Babble of waves, babble of wharves, of merchants and stores, city proud of its iron and brains: babble is braggart, babble is pulpit, babble’s a word on the tip of your tongue or the trouble stored in a bull’s flaring nostrils.

I’m down with the Tower of Babel.

I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy or record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.

Is stumble, is stutter, is stone smooth as skin, towers swaying the way they sway in the wind, as a person is always his tongue’s own half-witting puppet.

Is the baker whose cakes are too hot, whose pancakes are unscaleable, whose loaves are uncanny and sprinkled with pain.

Is flesh covered with brine, is bitumen cracked with fever, wolves in the blood howling to the gibbous heart.

Babel is the beaten ballplayer who goes ballistic; Babel is an icicle in your mouth as melodious as a flute, as percussive in its dripping as drums.

Tower whose twisted tendrils resemble trellis and grapes, destruction demanded by the Dionysus of east meeting west, an unwillingness to consent to any loss of the self.

Babel is nothing but the celebration of words, talk armed with torches, dreams capsized by bigger dreams, the truth of each crater,  the “bang bang” that wakes one from dream, the gap between “it’s an accident” and “my god it’s intentional”, the B1 Bomber they’re building and building, the backlash and the backlash to backlash and the backlash to backlash to backlash, O Barrio of Barriers, our republic of fear.

Enough elasticity to move with the wind, enough stiffness so that people can’t know the building is moving: Babel is bubblegum stuck to your face.

Babel is presence, Babel is absence: nothing but the celebration of presence. No mas to sacred explosions, no mas to the occupation of land: sacred explosions, the occupation of land.

Babel is how a man howls as he leaps from the heights, where no other man can hear him; Babel is that moment of imagining one can fly, a brevity that lasts forever in Babel’s unconscious.

Babel is a ray of sunlight crashing earthbound, a rivulet of rays crashing earthbound, a field mined with light.

The Tower of Babel: word up.

If architecture is frozen music, then these melted, smoking shards are its melodies, its incandescent burial grounds -  Babel become what begs you to sing it.



“… it is precisely in the heat of the war that those deep social convulsions take place that destroy old institutions and remold man, that, in other words, the seeds of peace germinate in the devastations of war. Man’s intense longing for peace is never so strong as it is at a time of war. Hence, in no other social circumstance are there so many strong impulses intent on changing the conditions that produce war. Man learned to construct dams when he suffered from floods. Peace can be hammered out only at a time of war, then and only then.”  - Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism

How many waves has the moon generated in the Persian Gulf since 1991?

How many waves have the moon and the Atlantic collaborated on since 1491-and-a-half?

What was the total number of breakers to have risen from the earth’s seas before life ever began?

Can one figure the number of waves the Pacific has wept since Nagasaki and Hiroshima?

They hang flags the way horses wear blinders; they hang flags in great abundance. They want wars, without realizing it.

They signal war, some realizing it and some without realizing it; they wave flags the way matadors wave red.

Each suffering silently in the silence of his, her, or its own bed; two faucets dripping out of sync; three sinks, four sinks, five sinks, each with a dripping faucet; all the seas whipped and tossed by colossal winds.

The Tower of Babel: landlocked, an abandoned worksite farmers come to quarry.

The Tower of Babel: in the text it’s preceded by a Flood.

Inside a New Mexican waterfall comes more than water, more than gravity, less than anything this moment’s coarsening could ever put in words.

It’s natural for water to fall. It’s natural for water to fall from cliffs and it’s natural for towers to melt when exposed to overwhelming heat. This applies equally to shacks. October 7th, 2001.

Mud huts have their own way of falling, of being destructively transformed. October 8th, 2001.

The death of peace happened long ago but went unmarked by any stone or number.

The wars come in waves.

Collateral damage is a literary term but the text’s main force falls on the text’s opponent.

Poetry: death without peace.

August 6th, 1945:  unending death.

Dying each death. Refusing to kill. October 11th, 2001.

October 12th, 2001: No, those are my tax dollars.

As even grief gives way to its own self-indulgence. Bush’s address to the Nation, September 20th, 2001.

The Nation wallows in its own grief, the Nation’s mistakes are glorified, laureled, transformed into heroic moments, sacrificial acts: acts that would have been unnecessary if earlier mistakes had been avoided higher up, among the elites; and indeed it may be said those who died sacrificed themselves for the oil elites’ sins. Fall, 2001.

Neither innocent, nor deserving of the force of those flames: no one deserves the force of those flames,  no one is innocent.

Grief. Just grief. Unadorned by heroic gesture, deprived of that heroic consolation the bereaved are presumed to need. But do the bereaved really need to see their dead as heroic? Or do the bereaved need to see their dead loves as those cheated of their lives by a gratuitous dialectic of disproportionate extremes?

Some other kind of gesture: some other kind of mission: some other kind of interior life.

Not the fireman who brought his siren to the Times Square Peace Rally, drowning each speech, each speaker, in the blare of his profession: but the firemen and women digging in the mass grave they were the first to declare a sacred ground.

Inside a New Mexican waterfall comes more than water, more than gravity, more than fatal plunge, something subtlely less than a monotheist could ever put in words.

The number of waves the Pacific has wept since Nagasaki and Hiroshima continually multiplies.

It’s natural for water to fall. It’s natural to imagine the end of the world. In imagining the end of the world we protect our way of life.

In those days in which answers are offered as self-evident, hammer out a new tower of Babel: not confusion but words as the impulse to transmute the silence of dumb agreement, no longer numb before a single divine authority or empire.

Let a new tower of Babel touch the sky. Let a new tower of Babel bend responsively to the moon. Ishtar, Inshallah, Quetzlcoatl.    Babble    babble    babble.



Barry Bearak, The New York Times, December 15th, 2001, Madoo, Afghanistan:

“ Perhaps someday there will be a reckoning for this tiny village of 15 houses, all of them obliterated into splintered wood and dust by American bombs. United States military officials might explain why 55 people died here on December 1st... But more likely, Madoo will not learn whether the bombs fell by mistake or on purpose, and the matter will be forgotten amid the larger consequences of war. It is left an anonymous hamlet with anonymous people buried in anonymous graves… America’s own anti-Taliban allies were horrified, claiming the targeting had been mistaken and that hundreds of innocents had been killed. It was ‘like a crime against humanity’, said Hajji Muhammad Zaman, a military commander in the region.”

Madoo’s farmers are people in pieces. They’ve become their own fertilizer… assuming the rains come we did them a favor, suggests a cartoon version of Secretary of Defense R. (Big laugh). But there isn’t any need for such a cartoon. We’ve already firmly established the concept of collateral damage.

He who sees with his heart, as Paz would have it, sees Madoo as himself; and who can’t see Madoo with his heart? (“Men with fossil minds, with oily tongues” suggests the cartoonist.)

Every face, a mask; every house a ruin of mudbrick and wood.

Whose sisters were killed? Collateral Damage can’t ever say beforehand. (Terrorists don’t target specific sisters.) (The American attack came in four separate waves.)

After Madoo, to write poetry is barbaric.  (Theodor Adorno).

“’We’ve yet to find their bodies’” 

“’many layers to this rubble’”

“’and now we live with this’”  

 “’mystery’” :

Sayeth the elder Mr. Gul, Madoo resident,
though he might be speaking of Manhattan.

“Sorrowful old man”  “white beard” “furrowed forehead”: 

“then Paia Gul”  “young man” “bitter eyed”: “’ I blame’”

 “’the Arabs’”  “’then amended his own’”  “’statement’” 

“’ I blame the Arabs’”      “’and the Americans’”

 “’They are all terrible people’”

 “’they are all the worst in the world’”

 “’most of the dead were children’”.


Fragrance   bird song  wheatfields
Mr. Bearak reporting two weeks after Madoo’s apocalypse.

Harvesting scrap metal from bombs,
hopes of surviving winter.

Beyond anecdote sounds a hymn we can only hum, humble in our making,
the birds scribbling like authors in a startling ephemera of air. 

“Walking in the vegetable patch

late at night, I was startled to find

the severed head of my

daughter lying on the ground.

Her eyes were upturned, gazing at me, ecstatic-like…

(From a distance it appeared

to be a stone, hallooed with light,

as if cast there by the Big Bang.)

What on earth are you doing, I said,

you look ridiculous.

Some boys buried me here,
she said sullenly.”

-  Araki Yasusada, Doubled Flowering,  the foothills
surrounding Hiroshima, December 25th, 1945

Craters. Tractor carcass. Dead sheep.

    Urn crushed to disc;

unendurable, “unintended”, un-American

     Ax Americana;

far from Mecca, in Madoo, Tora Bora,

 one undamaged room.


 Anger cannot be buried.

 Prayer is perfect when he who prays remembers not that he is praying.

 Everything dead trembles.(Kandinsky).

 Note: E-Mail the reporter, ask if there were ever rows of poplars.

 Moonstone sucked into the atmosphere of dwarfed arts; no Hero but also no Nero; the half that faces us is full tonight.

 As the Kaushitaki Upanishad has it, “the breath of life is one.”

 The word “Madoo” is a transcription of a Pashtun name the reporter must have sounded out.

In English, then, “Madoo”.

In English the name “Madoo” derives from an old Scottish word meaning “my dove.”



He imagined himself the famous wise man who’d succeeded in speaking with desert sand.

Not so wise of him to make the very sand in which he wandered quite so famed.

How wise was it for this well dressed man surrounded by silence to continue to babble  when no one was there?

There was plenty of air. All of it was very hot.

Twenty-one steps into the desert and the road disappears from view. Any sense of direction departs one’s brain like a hummingbird. No one would know where you’d gone, nor would you.

The dunes are moving. The road disappears even if you remain motionless, planted in its middle. One might hire people to sweep the sand. But that takes money.

The silence of the Taklimakan is much renowned.

The Chinese built the road for oil trucks. To barrel through. And they do. Though it hardly matters. Trucks are little dots.

He imagined himself the obscure wise man who’d learned to speak with desert poplars.

“How do you live in a desert”? he asked an especially sturdy tree, and waited. For “truth” comes from “tree”.

In a startling ephemera of air pinkness swirls from the goodbye sun, energy lifts from under its skirt, or perhaps it’s the man, its the man turning lavender with love.

And the desert poplar answered: “ put on a bib.” Then added: “Please allow the word ‘calm’”.

And the man went away, not sure he’d understood, not sure he’d ever spoken the tongue of desert poplars.

But he put on a bib. He wore the bib always. In the bedroom. In the boardroom.

When the other executives asked him what was happening he answered calmly: “I remain a kid.”

The mind’s future is never given.

Of course the wise man was eventually sacked.

The road had disappeared from beneath his legs.

Sand irritates the first sentinels.

My vocabulary did this to me, he thought.

I’ll have to increase my vocabulary.



To begin to build the New Babel where the Old Babel had previously stood.

Babel is water freezing, despite the blinding sun, above a storefront grating on Broadway and 168th; Babel’s an icicle that wants you to come over and stroke it through your warm leather glove.

To rebuild lower Manhattan, as Hiroshima was rebuilt, however comparatively small the scale of this new destruction, cormorants drying their wings in a warm stream of air.

Kom, beside near, by with. Germanic ga, Old English ge, together. Latin cum, come with. Suffixed form kom-tra, in Latin contra, against, suffixed form kom-yo, in Greek koinos, common shared.”

Thus: it’s come time to come, it’s past time to come against (patriotism as bobbled libido).

Babel is the only acceptable weapon, a tongue in your mouth, then someone else’s tongue in your mouth; a tongue in the mouth is the only acceptable weapon and here comes someone else’s tongue.

Babel is never, ever commodity; Babel is never ever ever commodity, since commodity fells it.

Liberate desire from commodity, though lingerie is desirable; Babel is contradiction without being hypocritical, commodity enticing care.

Babel is hands on shoulders, caresses for the breasts, uninterrupted burning apple wood, uninterrupted shining cherry wood, mists sprung from inner sinews and moistening lips.

How rhyme the whole of a redwood? That’s the flower Babel has growing in its brain.

Babel’s a belly as flat as a book, a curve as gentle as a dune, a dream as supple as a gymnast.

A cock edging into your mouth, a pussy encircling your middle finger: babble’s home.

Babel is the desire to affirm when you know it’s not possible, a bulge in your pants as soft as the rock a petroglyph maker carves into; Babel’s a nose unconventionally long that nonetheless turns you on, a twist in the argument that leaves you suddenly speechless, the Biblical prophets when they fall back in awe, tunnels of the cranium no spark has ever flown down before, learning not only to wield the great wheel but also to yield to it.

Babel’s a snow leopard whose presence commands silence, a tiger you transform into the moment your lids are lowered, a dog with his nose up another dog’s ass; Babel’s a clean hyena and a dirty hyena, a clean hyena and a drooling hyena, a clean hyena and a meercat with an awfully pointy head.

Babel’s the bubble always bursting, the banks going bankrupt, the form of pleasure that costs you nothing but your own energy as you generate it.

Babel’s a series of caresses that pass one into another.

Babel involves taking it upon yourself to stand, head bared, beneath the tempests of the Lord, in order to seize the Father’s lightning with your hands, and offer the people this gift of Heaven, veiled in your song. (Holderlin).

As I am ready to honor you and to blaspheme against you at one and the same time, my mind the mosque in which man and woman mingle - Mr. Last Monotheistic God Still Standing.

Babel is consciousness and comsciousness, cocksciousness and cuntsciousness, and comsciousness and consciousness taste here, and here, and here…

Working hypothesis #1: a precise for love and not precision bombing.



Nerves shrouded beneath the burka, as prescribed in certain countries; one’s eye encountering only the burka, as experienced in certain cultures: whole realms in which men require one another to live behind the burka.

Not the techno-veil of consumer culture but the techno-burka, without any hole for the head.

It is a savage sensibility, savage and delicate, scored by superabundance and need,  scandalized and desensitized by its own hunger for violence. Its adolescents shoot up their own schools, their own peers, then commit suicide. Their culture is a death-mask, the burka its insignia, hooded hordes saturated in a thuglike, thinglike cult of senseless hurt, spawned by the most sophisticated marketeers.

The interior burka which impedes apperception, the heavy burka that goes with me, the opaque burka whose presence mocks reflection, the mandatory burka worn in the body politic, the bottled burka concealing the body from the erotic self, the bad opposition of burka and bikini, and other strange customs practiced there: to pretend power is not rooted in sexual urgency, to shift the burden of such urgency onto children unprepared to bare it.

Self-inflicted concealment always falls to self-reflection’s raid, or so the Enlightenment taught and founding fathers bathed; “the eye that avoids seeing, sickens”.

No Orientalism, no exoticism, no dehumanization of the other: our citizens refuse to any longer wear the black or turquoise burka.

No refuge in victimhood, in uniform amnesia, in hooded subjectivity: Americans will no  longer throw a burlap sack over events that happen elsewhere in the world, will no longer squint at the world from behind their security burka.

No nationalism that blinds one to the terrible crimes of the Nation: the Attorney General will no longer throw the burka over the crimes he himself perpetrates, nor will the Secretary of Defense.

No false modesty, no passing on the buck: the Presidency and other machines of capital are no longer concealed by their various and sundry burkas.

Papers fluttering from the Tower of Babel’s burning windows indicate that words are all that’s left; paper survives where flesh and beams are shattered. Thus Babel is never burka and humans must honor bones with words.

Babel survives the revelation of its own mystery, as do women; the burka is nothing but its own formless bulk.

Burka is the triumph of the masculine over the feminine, banishing the feminine from public life, as words are banished from public life in a culture in which the reality of words are hidden.

Babel is the masculine that strives to reach the feminine and always fails, in falling back begins to live itself in all its seed potential.

Babel is the feminine ambition and potentiality of all things, inclusive of  those specialized cells that strive for verticality.

If one could seize the dead stars and gather all those stones in one place in order to construct a tower…

And yet the body floats in a placenta of words and no word is ever comprehensible except as it emerges quivering from between the legs, naked as the space between the legs, and, in the next twinkle, comes howling, soon to fall back again, no more but no less than the words it has quickly scattered…

It’s the little pin that pricks the giant balloon (Oppen).  It’s the sperm racing for the egg. A firing that has nothing to do with missiles.

Working hypothesis #2: a precise for love and not a precision bombing.



bobble                libido           brain                  Pentagon        seclusion  

village                Allah            songbirds          sisters              lavender

mystery             metal           Emir                   American        icicle 

children             daisy            plumes              mudbrick        phallus    

sheep                 quetzlcoatl  airport               Orphic             President

bib                      life-fire         farmer                feminine         vegetable patch

moonstone        Mecca         Manhattan         Pashtun          apperception

moonstone        Mother        poplar                 dam                 prayer

Ax                      E-Mail         halloooed            daughter         downtown

kiss                    Oriental      precision              grief                Scottish.



What’s worshipped isn’t upstairs. You’ve kissed it often beside the sweet flanks of living oak, which is why you know it to be peripherally, pictured and unpictured thought, a wet rush between the legs, a bond between contingent realities and Babylon’s tower, for which will yet come a fitting word.

The flowerpots break around you, the tortoise shells lose their markings, at that moment when the city seems to come unbound. Like the Cultural Revolution all over again, the Fathers sent to the countryside, the break with the Mother final, Central Park stretching outwards like a vast, slow-motion expanse, scattered with bystanders frozen in their disbelief. You knew your skin would forever hunger, that tears and their accompaniment would always sound out the absence of words; Big Character Posters would be the business of the day, that, and rousting dens of tigers. By December green water collects in the crater pit.

Yet “the deeper unsatisfied war beneath and behind the declared war”(Duncan), the conflicting egotisms,  the hooligans of hubris, combat groups, policies of chaos, and petroleum spread, all yield to a larger dialectic. Abundances explode around you, the bounty hurtles past, and is even more wrenching for its beauty:  boulders and blinding sun.

And the tongues were so baffled that each became scatterbrain to his friend, until not even the husband and the wife any longer knew how to speak with each other …  murderers hard at work above ground, and all you have are these perceptions organized in little packets of dynamic resolve, memory and anticipation making reciprocal stands, having by now long since accepted the most difficult brain assignment our tribe can ever be charged with.  Dazzling.

Sand irritates the first sentinels.

“Save those who weep”(Eluard).

What’s worshipped isn’t upstairs. Because this is already the uppermost floor. As Bina, in Bengali, refers to the instrument that Saraswati, goddess of learning, was destined to strum. Feel the tautness of those strings. Remember the books with torn covers and cover pages and thus no titles and authors: words read in their purest form, books acquired on the sly, a fire finally acknowledged as impossible to put out.

What’s worshipped isn’t upstairs. Because this is the ground floor. Among mysterious plants you bask in someone who’s your sun yet rests beneath you, like a foundation. Run your fingers between her toes. Cracks of a source that holds marvel on marvel.

Things do assemble in their own rotunda; a wood stork hunches in the cypress, part of a greater ecosystem, without any particular capital or center.

The hour really is getting younger.


Leonard Schwartz was born in 1963 in New York City. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Words Before The Articulate: New and Selected Poems, (Talisman House), Gnostic Blessing (Goats and Compasses), Meditation (Cloud House), Objects of Thought, Attempts At Speech (Gnosis Press) and Exiles: Ends (Red Dust Press). He is also the author of a collection of essays, A Flicker At The Edge Of Things: Essays on Poetics 1987-1997 (Spuyten Duyvil) and co-editor of two anthologies of contemporary American poetry: Primary Trouble: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry and An Anthology of New (American) Poets (both from Talisman House). In recent years he has read from his work at international festivals, conferences, and universities in China, Turkey, France, Belgium, Portugal, Russia, and Peru, as well as at numerous venues in the U.S., ranging from the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle, to the University of Hawaii, The College of Santa Fe, and the St. Marks Poetry Project in New York. In 1997 he received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. He lives in NYC with his wife, the poet Zhang Er, and their daughter, Cleo. He can be reached at: