“Time with its moon-shape here,
Time with its widening star circles,
Time small as a pebble.”
—H.D., Helen in Egypt, Leuké, Book 7, Part 4

Dramatis Personae

Cosmas the India Sailor (Cosmas Indicopleustes) was a sixth-century geographer who lived during the reign of Justinian. His Christian Topography was a widely known source of geography through the Middle Ages, usually lavishly illustrated and containing many maps.

He rejected the Ptolemaic system and believed the earth to be flat under a curved sky.

No one ever even tried to draw a picture of him.

He retired as a monk to Alexandria. It is entirely possible he never went to India.

The Woman seems to be Helen of Troy. In the Palinode of Stesikhoros, a tradition is recorded that Helen never went to Troy but was transposed to Egypt by a jealous goddess. The Greeks and Trojans fought for an illusion. Euripides, in his Helen, specifically places her on Pharos, where Alexandria was built.

For the purposes of this poem, their lives and youths were extended to the present day.

The poem is informed by Rainier Maria Rilke’s The Book of Hours (1905).


“The first word you ever spoke was light.” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

Fat Cosmas claims a square table. The round
room smiles like a camera greeting light.
He waves a stiff man for water, small bites
of smoke and a list of names. Then he writes
prayers with ice. He doesn’t make a sound

but his lips move. This city’s built of round

rooms. He forgot during long years down east.
She’ll arrive before morning, he knows.
Time to master the cards he needs to show.
His bets are safe in the dark. He’s quite pleased
with himself and his God. He misses snow—

weather. The circled dome dropped from his dream
onto this room. She enters now. Her smile
cracks the glass. Cosmas reaches for a file
of sins. She stands sure and straight as the seams
on her stockings. They’re both awaiting trial.


“All will grow great and powerful again.” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

She’s thin as light. Her skin reflects blond wine.
Squared files hold loose sins. She’s lets darkening time
slow down. The fat man hates waiting. The glass
dome hovers like a smoke ring. She must find
her loose pawns—fast—before long seconds pass

and his powers return. She knows the last
they met, she relaxed. Time ran too fast.
His cards got dealt quick as stolen passports.
She couldn’t follow the queens through his past.
She lets cigarette smoke climb. Fills her glass.
The whole, hot night can wait for that report.

His tarots click. She advances pawns, straight
as square roots. They enjoy this facile game.
The fat man draws maps now. It’s much too late
for prayers. They won’t help him guess her name.


“There will be no rest in the houses.” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

Her smile whispers of mislaid empires
vanishing off maps from ancient books.
Coastlines are smoothed, there are no coves left.
He likes to sleep on seas, to stretch boathooks
towards the company of saints. He looks
away from lethal eyes. They never rest.

Glasses and knives are set out like sunset.
No words—yet—spoken in this growing dark.
Her fingers drum. He squares cards and breathes
loose lamplight. All journeys, all pilgrims start
from places like this. Some arrive. All leave.

Cosmas, she says, a soft throbbing bass string,
I seek a sea path around the strict rings
outlining this flat world. They say you can lead
sinners in circles. I’ll pay what you need.
He flips cards to see what morning may bring.


“The big cities are not true, they betray…” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

A sail, dirt brown, luffs on a lateen spar.
The port’s mouth is wide as a lion’s. Time
calls, tides sing. The fat man, silent as tar,
weighs down the stern She, delicate as light,

keeps time with her fingers. It’s a song now—
without words. The skiff’s pretty, she could say
but won’t. His eyes ask where. Beyond the bow,
she points. Far from cities whose words I know.
Away from Greece, Palestine, Egypt. Now,
sail me to sunrise, to the first of day.


“May both voices accompany me…” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

He can’t recall when cards started talking—
long after he stopped. His weight lifts the prow.
They tack out to open water. She sings
in Greek, he thinks. Fierce sun paints bright green rings
on the red sea. They’ll both escape this now.


“You many unassaulted cities…” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

She lived before the lighthouse rose. She loved
before the library—loved tall heroes—
A goddess dropped her here while men bled, moved
by beauty. The boat bobs up. She leaves home.

Leaning back, she drops the bow in water
to carve a path through reeds, sleek and sharp.
The fat man pilots. She knows he finds her
a threat, this lost god’s sinister daughter.
He’s a silent fish—heavy, numb, but smart.

East whispers in her olive colored ear.
She hums its tune, glad to leave the small world
that slid past her tale, whose wars weren’t hers.
She drags long fingers, cool. Open seas near.
Sun bounces, blinding almond eyes. Breeze curls

around sails. Cosmas—pure ballast—wants fear
to eat, and to reach the end of the girl.


“We are all workmen, prentice, journeyman, master…” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

The craft that sailors know is small magic
to her. She watches the fat man. They slide
into the flat canal by starlight. Tricks
keep them hidden. The shadows of long ships
make deeper dark. She can’t see his small eyes.

His left hand fingers loose cards. His right holds
the tiller, loose but sure. He wants to speak
but she can’t see the arcana. His deck’s old—
not as old as her, as him. Stars are cold.
Silence is loud. They can’t hear the low creaks

off planks and taut lines. He wonders which way
east may lie. She nods. Hiding is her art.
She’s practiced for thousands of years. The stars
blink out behind ships. Their wake starts to stray.


“Put out my eyes and I can see you still…” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

He looks, he sees, he knows—this one can swim
through time. It cools her and comforts her
but beads up and dries on still perfect skin.
He knows, though he’s been paddling fewer
years. Time slips by him. and it stole his voice.
That’s how he found her on once holy ground,
why he steers the pathetic, little boat.
As sure as he knows the world is not round,
he knows they’ll travel to where no thing floats.


“I have many brothers in the south…” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

The boat breaks south. Gray gulf’s thin as old glass.
She looks. She does not like her face. It caused
so much—all the songs about it, all passed
from mouth to mouth to hand. They freeze her past
like a mirror. She wishes that face lost—

Let it be sunken, but it’s always fresh
as new flowers. Those songs fix it, force
her endless life—that long, eternal note
she can’t not hear. He will set no real course,
she knows, dragging fingers, looking west,
wishing east. She sleeps in the shallow boat.


“Nights are not made for the masses…” —Rainier Maria Rilke, The Book of Pictures

Night. She hopes she looks east. One husband liked
early sun on her impossible face. Night
makes her sing of touch. He asked a picture
be made. She’d lean on a terrace, east wall
ahead of her—for the light. She knew his fall—
that death—waited there. He meant to see her

at his end. Small man came with a smooth
board, pumiced. He arranged paint wells, burnt sticks.
Then he looked at her for days. He didn’t move.
She stood, silent as a laurel. She knew
what was and what was coming. Her eyes fixed
the distance. On the third day he tried
a stroke of charcoal, sounding like a wound
on an unshaved face. She looked out and sighed
the sigh of one who knew. He sketched. At noon,
he left. The board was bare. She’s seen his hand
moving. Heard it draw. She breathed, but kept still.
Next dawn, he tried again. Again. Again.
No pictures exist and no picture will.


‘What will you do, God, when I die?” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

He counted cards by starlight. His free hand
read them like flat maps. His misplaced plans
want her eyes to look. He gathers the fan
off a thwart, wraps cards in cloth, prays for land
to vanish. With moonrise, she will rule time.

By the moment he opens his blurred eyes,
she’s laid out pawns and power. The sail luffs
in breezeless light. This gulf ends soon enough
he knows—he flips a card meaning sunrise.

Silent, still speechless, he outlines his face.
She sees no picture of him lives. A pawn
advances one square, then a long, sultry yawn.
She unrolls her stockings. She’s passed beyond
that modern city and the eons gone
before. All her tragic tales are erased—
like his cards, his maps, that lead straight to dawn.


“The sovereigns of the world are old…” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

These kings pass like music, the heroes
left her soft as a lost song. This fat man
snores, not hearing. It ends as it began—
men doing what they do. She just stands
on walls, watching as, one by one, they go
to feed death. The man who built that city
dies out east, but told her she was pretty—
as if words weren’t knives. The terrible mask
she wore was a power. Careless, she’d ask
this one to die, that to sing the death. Last
songs circle her now. The tall blond mast
shadows her. She’s stopped talking. Broad, flat sea
stretched out—no buildings, the flat land
vanishing behind them. She knows now, east
will watch them like prey. Sails kept a key
to lock her games. No more sprinkled sand,
towers, tables. No more cities, at least.
Just a sleeping mapmaker, then her piece.


“Because one man wanted so much to have you…” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

He dreamed gold leaf. Map edge unrolling—
Names with no meaning on empty lands.
He leans up, looks abaft. Presses hot hands
against cool eyes. Low waves behind, rolling
towards a sandy spit. He hears her words.
Her name brushes memory, something he heard
on some stone bench, watching a play, an odd
dance. He trims the sail.

The old skiff leaps to speed, the low gunwale

splashed lightly by the sweat of God.


“The cities only care for what is theirs…” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

Behind the boat, an orange sun drops close
to water. She speaks, too quiet to hear,
of cities—fallen—the many men—those
too many men who thought they ruled but feared

her strength. She recites their names, dull and flat
as this endless sea. Cosmas opens files—
the catalog of her flaws. They’ll burn like that
library she saw flames eat, that begat
ancient arguments she wore like new hats.
There’s no land, no city—wet, empty miles,

endless as time. They both look at the sun.
He feeds her flowers. It flattens, kissing
water with a green flash, then day’s undone
by night. Stars snap bright like all her missing
sins. A vacant sky, empty sea. Small fish
trail their craft. Ahead, a blue moon becomes
her friend one final time. They’re almost done.


“In this town the last house stands…” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

She sleeps. Moonlight silvers her olive face.
Cosmas lashes the boom, then folds his cards.

It’s warm as breath. The cool, blue stars
wink to darkness. Waves conspire. Their wake’s erased.

He hopes she’s dreaming the map of her time—
That loves, landmarks and battles start to rhyme
before she wakes. Soft, gentle, fat Cosmas

rises. Creeps to the bow. He makes the sign
of God. Unrobes her, tender as Paris.


“And where is he, the Clear One, whose tone rings to us.” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

Rosy moment. She wakes. He shows the Wheel
and Sun. She knows—knows she’s naked, feels
a breeze, hears—something. He points. The pink-white

light frames her. Here’s where water’s revealed.
She stands, poised—She dives, sleek as time’s own knife.


“I thank you, deep power…” — Rilke, The Book of Hours

The little boat leaps, almost laughs
in still waters. Heads north. Abaft
cards and pawns. He sings to wind.
Lost words—Greek, Latin, Copt—are back.
No course, just a return to fact.
India? Well, he’s never been.