How we set ourselves apart. How we projected, as halo,
blood and fire, the signatures of our humanity. Found a coal
in the mineral-laden earth to make a line
of dyes from hematite, from cinnabar, and color with lean
bright orange our capes and winding cloths. How the ache
in us persisted like a hunger for some choice
not yet presented, for a hue that we could hail
as shout, not merely tolerate as echo.
Here is a chain of story: how we came to cinch
our grandeur, display in triptych and tunic our élan.
How, fortunate, we found the color crimson that had lain
as pigment in tiny parasites that etched a kind of lace
on pads of nopal—that cactus wild and hale
in Mexico, Peru. These insect bodies found their niche
as lading in Spanish ships, traded across an ocean.
How cochineal red became the crepe de Chine
of many merchants’ ventures. As if the ail-
ment of our evanescence would surely heal
if only we had, of red, sufficient cache.
From scraggly trunks of the Boswellia, a resin
flows when those who seek it slash its skin.
It weeps, and tears solidify. Intrepid harvesters risk
danger from the venomous snake
living in those trees that eke
their life from sun and rock but little rain.
How is it that with tears, with snake and knife
we humans trace our shifts and turns? The making of a scar.
Charred Boswellia resin ground to powder, pressed to cakes
of kohl. Cleopatra wore the eyeliner—black ink
to inscribe a chapter in the story of Rome’s imperial arc.
Matthew the gospel writer paints a different scene:
gifts borne from the East by men of rank—
congealed tears as homage to a baby born in an inn.
Aromas balsamic-spicy, lemony, hinting of conifer sink
into the mesh of history. Along the Incense
Road from ancient Ubar, Franks
brought fragrant smoke to Europe’s censer,
salve to souls and bodies weary from the race.
What other matriarch bears a load
of such extensive progeny? Chance
named her after ancient Chalcedon.
Then, as favored stone for rulers’ seals she took the lead.
Cognomen for the fibrous quartz clan:
agate, carnelian, onyx, chrysoprase, heady
aventurine, green jasper, and heliotrope laced
with red or yellow. This lustrous family clad
Moses’ brother in a breastplate of splendor and ado.
A jeweler’s yen for beads and bezels honed
merchants’ dreams, put caravans on every lane
of trade, while European carvers made from haloed
agate milky cameos. And when the lode
of local rock ran thin, merchants could lade
the holds of ships with agate from Brazil. O halcyon
years of intaglio, of Florentine commesso! Not cloyed,
although a tad complacent, these quartzes dance
through history—a fantasia, un dolce.