Tbilisi / Baku

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Our plan — a visit to the cities of our grandmothers,
Tbilisi for me, Baku for Hamid.

The voice of a Turkish pilot woke me from a dream
of a woman falling into a ditch as we walked along together.

June the fifth, the thermal springs
beneath Tbilisi fed the persimmon trees
in the hotel courtyard. In the street,
workers were felling the old plane trees
while a few protesters looked on.

At breakfast, Hamid would not relent
until I conceded there are no great French composers.

I walked to Grishashvili Street, looking
for my grandmother’s birthplace, the building
where the family’s clothes-making business thrived
until the Red Army shoved aside the hapless Georgian resistance.

Further along, workers were tearing down
Lermontov’s house to make room for a mall,
other houses had been demolished. Hacked off heads
of griffins and pieces of cherubs lay at my feet.

I sat alone in a Kazahk restaurant
jotting the Georgian alphabet on a flyer
offering knockoff Hollywood DVDs. The waiter said
add twenty percent to the menu prices,
then stepped outside for a smoke.

The plane trees – people are allergic to them,
claimed the health ministry, and the trees are infested,
but privately they said blocking the views
of the old façades is bad for tourism.

The electricity died as I ate, the smell of sulphur
drifted in from the bathhouse next door
with the scent of fenugreek from the open market.

We took the night train to Baku.
I listened to Debussy on my headset.

June the tenth, the natural gas beneath Baku
seeping through sandstone fed the hillside fires above the city,
flames as eternal as the Zoroastrian gods.
Hamid’s grandmother had prayed to them.

Everywhere, the cloying smell of crude oil, repellent
and sweet. The Old Town, filled with feral cats
and cleansed of Armenians. Posters for a Warhol show
in the ultra-modern museum.

In the hotel lobby, Hamid raised his voice
to a human rights watcher from Stockholm.
They just threw the opposition leaders in jail,
Hamid said to me, it’s all about money now,
you should know, you spent years
in corporations. He went up to his room.

In the morning, I found a note slipped under my door –
I love you but it is no longer a pleasure
to be with you.

I went on to Paris to visit my cousins.
As a keepsake, here is this griffin’s head
carried through customs as the gendarmes
raced off in pursuit of a suspicious object.