Tuesday Poem: “Noorya” or “A Peg of Hazelnut Liqueur” by Zireaux

Prometheus Bound, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1618.

Prometheus Bound, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1618.

‘And sometimes…or rather, once. Her name
was Noorya. Not mild or docile, like dozens
of girls we saved. Dull-witted she wasn’t.
But rather shifty in her shame,
farouche, perplexing, graceful, grave,
with nocturne eyes that cast their gaze
toward some akin-imagined star;
her features sharp and delicate, fair
as violet-tinted nenuphar
in dusky pond or swampy lair.

A blue-eyed deputy of mine,
a Salyr bloke named Nur, designed
to steal her from me, thinking she
adored him, so mad in love was he.

Now understand, he was courageous
and strong, this man, yet thoughtful, shy.
affectionate. Like a brother I
considered him. The nineteen pages
of his importunate letter, which quivered
one morning atop my slippers (delivered
by a blushing Noorya), deftly
netted each criminal thought, each erring
event that had stolen his heart – “a theft re-
gretted, my lord.” He wrote of “caring
for Noorya more than himself.” His love
for her was like “the sprouting of
my beard, my hair” – a thing he could
“shave off, great Prince, but not for good.”

“A thing that uninvited came.
When Noorya said she loved me, too,
I knew that I must write to you,
my lord, requesting her hand. Our names,
you must admit, good Master — so near
are they in sound, that when you hear
them spoke, you’d swear that fate betrothed
us at our birth! I know the sort
of man you are, your greatness. You loathe
deceit but honor honest reports.
And hence, my Lordship, I’ve here confessed
the truth. No more, no less.”

                                                                Impressed
at Nur’s good sense, I let decorum
prevail; to make things easy for him.

He chose the “Orchestra Pit” (a ditch
nearby, some forty meters deep,
in which the flies around a heap
of corpses strummed their strident pitch)
when given three options: “Tied upon
a rock for vultures to ravage;” “Drawn
and quartered by horses;” “Premature burial
in burning sand.”

                                                 My Noorya, possessed
by troubling trances, dreams, vicarial
visions of things to come, confessed,
alas, to fearing for my survival.

“Nur’s only crime is being your rival
in love,” she spat, her blood-rimmed eyes
serene, unmoving. “The men will rise

against you, surely.”

                                                     I said I knew
my men: “Their minds are tame. Their will
for mutiny mild.”

                                                 “If Nur is killed,”
she vowed, “I’ll hurl myself into
that putrid pit and there will lie
with him forever.”

Martyrdom of Saint Hippolytus by unknown artist, 15th century. "Drawn / and quartered by horses..."

Martyrdom of Saint Hippolytus by unknown artist, 15th century. “Drawn / and quartered by horses…”

                                                 “But darling, why
allow such drifting thoughts to pilot
reason’s course? I won’t be harmed,
I promise you” – yet when my smile met
poor Noorya’s eyes, opaquely charmed
with somber premonitions, I knew
I couldn’t dispel her fears.

                                                        “You’ll do
as I instruct you,” mother consoled me
when I recounted what Noorya had told me.

My mother’s cure?

                                                 The eve of Nur’s
appointed death, some fifty men
and I had finished supper when
– a peg of hazelnut liqueur
upraised – I stood and…

                                                         “Nur, old friend,
in poetry we oft emend
a faulty line, which once, in other
times felt right to us; and thereby show
mistake and wisdom both. My brother,
to your soft honesty I know
my reflex was too rough, too rash;
so let’s cross out my error, let’s dash
that stupid sentence.”

                                                 I’d done precisely
as mother had counseled: “Approach them nicely.

Put enemies at ease. Becharm
your men with fey contrition.”

                                                                    I smiled
at them, a grownup to a child,
and pledged that Nur would meet no harm.
And when I granted this reprieve,
what toasts they sang, what songs!

                                                                             Relieved,
my thankful Noorya, having many
nights refused, agreeably slept
beside me that night; with few, if any,
suspicions. And when my mother crept
into our curtained chamber and wrapped
– and bound – a rug around my trapped
night-angel, so pacific were her
dreams, our woolen sack didn’t stir her.

And when her muffled screams, at last,
gave voice to the convulsing worm
that was our bundled rug, held firm
with knotted twine, my men were fast
asleep – especially Nur, unfaithful
friend, who’d reached, no doubt, the wraith-ful
end of sleep, to put it tastefully
(mother’s poison having persuaded
his sleep to snuff his life).

                                                        Hastily,
we left unseen, unheard, evaded
the dogs, and to my moonlit horse
strung kicking Noorya. We set our course
to Pollux’s star, due south. By dawn
we’d crossed the hills into Iran.’

…tbc
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Tuesday Poem: “The Severed Head of Some Old Statesman” by Zireaux

Salome with the head of St. John the Baptist, Andrea Solario, 1506-1507.

Salome with the head of St. John the Baptist, Andrea Solario, 1506-1507.

‘You make no utterance, good Robinson.
Nor need you. Of all the men to whom
I’ve told this tale, not one has fumed
less foully here than me – not one!
Perhaps your thoughts, my friend, are tuned
to private channels – or worse, cocooned
in mad and muddled silence! – and you
hear nothing of my tale. Why even
then I know, great man, that you’d be true
to justice, and “eyes-for-eyes” believe in.

How beautiful my mother stood
in jeweled dress and armored hood;
and O how gratefully I kneeled
before her, and for her sword appealed.

This time I did not fail to slice
the sallow sagging throat of he
whose ulcers my poor bride-to-be
had died from. My sword was swift, precise,
and loosed the fluid of his labored
life; and as I drew my saber
back, now crimson-rimmed, exultant
cheers of fifty men (plus one
loud ululating mother) vaulted
round the ocher, orange and dun
dimensions of the cave and crashed
in one immense, galvanic flash
of glory in my drunken mind.
Such glory never again I’d find.’

Sayeed grew quiet, then slowly returned
to where he every night sojourned
upon a plank of wood, his bed,
with glory swimming in his head.

Next dawn, he carried on…

‘For eighteen months we camped within
those brittle Kopeh Daghs, the scree
and scrub and wild cherry trees
and hawks with circling discipline
forever polishing the glazed
and glossed azure. And on the days
we couldn’t endure another pot
of prune and weasel soup, we’d raid
the northern streets of Ashgabat
for jams and sweets and cold orangeade
from kitchen refrigerators, and I
– now loyal “Bandit Prince” to my
“Queen Mum” – would bring the severed head
of some old statesman who had wed

a bonny, tearful, illiterate wench
still soft with adolescence. Crusaders,
we were, with weapons our persuaders!
(How well disposed are men when drenched
in their own blood).

                                                 These poor young brides
who’d stand dumbfounded, zestful-eyed,
distressful-browed, a long dark braid
held tight within their hand, these child-slaves
to marriage vows and dowries paid
who my brave rebels fought to save
from lecherous masters – they rarely showed
us gratitude. They usually owed
their families money; and this would haunt them:
the terrible thought their parents wouldn’t want them.

These girls would beg us – “please! Please shoot
us dead! You’ve freed us from a noose
which held us loft, but cut us loose
above a pit of disrepute!”

And sometimes, some cases, especially when
these poor performing tragediennes
would tune their whimpers just right and wilt
their mournful bodies like a flower-
burdened stem, my men – by guilt
or greed or pity overpowered –
would plead with me to take one in.

And sometimes, to my men’s chagrin,
I might refuse; and when I complied,
the girl with me alone would ride.

And sometimes…or rather, once. Her name
was Noorya…’

…tbc
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Tuesday Poem: “In Never-Ending Sleep they Slouched” by Zireaux

'Not since that warrior, Nisus / slaughtered Turnus’s drunken louts /  have so few soldiers been able to route / so many!'

‘Not since that warrior, Nisus, / slaughtered Turnus’s drunken louts /
have so few soldiers been able to route /
so many!’

“For you, my son, did I recruit
these men and steal these guns. Yet I
knew well such well-armed men will try
to blow up melons for some fruit!
That’s how they are. They do not think!
They’d rather drink and whore (and drink
still more) and shoot their guns, than use
their wilted wits. I knew we’d need
a plan. I knew, without some clever ruse,
our prison raid would never succeed.
So I decided: Food! Yes, food
could fell your prison guards; and you’d
be saved, dear child, before the sunlight
appeared – saved, without a gun-fight.

But I was worried. The guards, I guessed
would feed you, too; and hence devised
my menu so it tranquilized,
not killed.”

                                She continued: “The moon was dressed
in bridal silver. It rose above
the dunes, as if your ladylove
(her cheek still spotted) had come to cast
her beams on all the blood we’d spill.

And how it shined, that blood! How fast,
unclotted it flowed, in glossy rills
down eyes unopened, bodies slumped,
as we in every forehead pumped
another deafening bullet. And those
we’d yet to shoot so happ’ly dozed!

A dozen men dispatched without
a fight, their brains like sudden creepers
growing on the walls, as deeper
in never-ending sleep they slouched
and briefly twitched and shuddered, their spinal
spasms a meek reply, a final,
weak retort to our atrocity.

This band of rebels, these men renowned
for crim’nal kindness, saluted me.
And ’mongst the prisoners we found
– and freed – some twenty of their companions
(some more await us in those canyons
up yonder). These men, as you’ll have noted,
are now to me – and you — devoted.

Dear son! Not since that warrior, Nisus,
slaughtered Turnus’s drunken louts
have so few soldiers been able to route
so many! And all because of my spices.”

We’d entered now the foothills’ heath.
The dust, the crumbling marl beneath
our horses’ hooves. The scattered thickets.
The slathering moss on gathering rocks.
A fret of sound and substance, crickets
and flies less keen on hearing the talk
of our approaching, victorious riders
than making us attend the stridor
of theirs – like children who can’t resist
recounting things adults have missed.

And in that swelling vibrant hum
of chirping ash and limestone-shattered
sun our horses climbed and clattered;
and heaved and huffed.

                                                        I said, “O mum!
How strange it was, the way the din
of your avenging guns resounded in
my dreams – ”

                                      “O son! So potent my potion,
on seeing you sleeping like that, I judged
you might be dead!” – and here emotion
contorted her sun-parched lips.

                                                                        We trudged
down thorny, hawthorn-clotted slopes
and reached a cave.

                                                   Inside, with ropes
tied tight around his arms and legs,
a man for my forgiveness begged.

…tbc
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Tuesday Poem: “The Bandit Queen Mum” by Zireaux

A Persian sharpshooter on horseback; not meant to represent Sayeed's mother -- who is obviously more fully bedecked in battle gear -- but an approximation nonetheless.

A Persian sharpshooter on horseback; not meant to represent Sayeed’s mother — who is obviously more fully bedecked in battle gear — but an approximation nonetheless.

‘Arcady, dear man! It was a kiss,
a kiss upon my brow — which I’d
assumed my birth-marked spirit-bride
delivered – that from the deep abyss
of death awakened me. At first
I thought, believing I’d traversed
life’s threshold, surely I must be
in paradise. Two jasmine eyes,
two sprites of wild chalcedony,
were there to seize and mesmerize
my searching gaze amidst what seemed
a crown, or bright aurora, that gleamed
in silver filigree. I heard
the clink of beads and chains that stirred

as those soft lips and eyes withdrew,
receding in the sun-washed sky
and yet remaining there so I
could see her warrior’s regalia, view
with tender eyes, through bright parhelion
bursts, the gemstones (pale carnelian
drops and turquoise orbs) that studded
her headgear, chest-plate, gilded bracelets.
The succulence which once had budded
‘midst all that metal – I still could taste it!
And now I saw her bright gold teeth
and apple cheeks – but strange! Beneath
her nose some blood had sprung
and round her neck a rifle hung!

What hair I saw was tangled stiff
as dried-out scrub or lichen browned
and ruddy in the sun. And round
her bursting, beaming head, as if
the afterlife had played the oddest
of jests and she a Hindu goddess
had become, a group of heads
were gathered – retreating once they caught
my eye. They stood and cheered and fed
the sky a spate of bullets shot
up from their guns. Not angels, no.
But goondas, drunks, Borachios,
rapscallions, muggers, thieves and thugs.
And each, from mother, received a hug.

The desert dust was crackling in
my ears; the distant mountains gleamed
in rosy heat, and on what seemed
my strangely carbonated skin
and clothes the sand-flies leapt in steady
effervescence. The horses were ready,
resplendent Akhal-Tekes, all sheen
and twitch, with gold and silver bridles,
and tasseled rugs incarnadine
beneath their saddles. My mum (her title
now “Bandit Queen” in all the martial
handbills) slung me like a parcel
on her chestnut mare and raced
away, her followers apace.

In throbbing hot and dessert-muted
trot we jangled toward the hills.
My dear mum’s voice rang loud and shrill:

“My son! If I had not d’luted
the valerian root and hemlock weed
with raisins, carrots, poppy seeds
and year-old sorghum malt, why you’d
be but a corpse beside me, dear boy!
Had I not well-disguised my brew’s
repulsive mouse-fur scent with soy
and honey, garlic salt and onion,
your twice-killed corpse would now be hung in
that dank, putrescent prison yard!
They’d sworn they’d hang you regardless, those guards.

For they at first believed they’d spotted
my plot; that my bereaved appeal
to cook one last and mem’rable meal
before the hangman’s noose had knotted
your throat was my maternal attempt
to poison your dinner and thus preempt
their morning murder. But O how truthful
appears a desperate mother’s deceit!
They tested the food with silly, sleuth-ful
sniffings. They even made me eat
a bit of mutton (but I’d divined
this trick and taken an anodyne
of nightshade). I knew they’d never oppose
a meal so thrilling to the nose.”‘

…tbc
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Tuesday Poem: “A Sideways Raining of Metal” by Zireaux

Makhtumkuli, or Magtimguli, Magtymguly, was a Turkmen spiritual leader and philosophical poet, born 1733 in Iran, died 1797.

Makhtumkuli, or Magtimguli, or Magtymguly, was a Turkmen spiritual leader and philosophical poet, born 1733 in Iran, died 1797.

‘My mother, Arcady, a widowed furrier
and skilled equestrian, hearing the news
her only son was sentenced to lose
his life, was swept by such a fury, her
screams were even more fierce and tireless
than when that mother of Euryalus,
in Virgil’s song was told her son
was fed to dogs. Or when Jocasta’s
abandoned son became the one
she’d wed! Arcady! They say love lost is
madness found! This proverb fits
most aptly for mothers, isn’t it?
Forgive me, friend, your quiet demeanor
suggests you view my grass as greener.

But do not worry! Rescue will come!

I remember the night of my execution.
As if to loosen, or rather, un-noosen
the growing strain (for O, how glum
my guards became, in some ways dearer
to me than lovers, as death drew nearer),
it was decided I’d share a dinner
with my polite and cousinly captors.
Last meals are granted to death-facing sinners
in Turkmen custom, but only after
the crook is hanged (those gastro-requests
are for the hangman to ingest);
so what an honor it was to be
that night’s regaled celebrity.

And what a marvelous meal was sprawled
across the sofreh’s silk – the nans
like fighters’ shields, the lightly bronzed
and basted dumplings (mantί it’s called)
as tender as angels’ lips, and heaps
of sticky palav from which the sheep’s
fat trickled down our arms! The chal
(cool camel’s milk) was rich with cream,
the sweets with grenadine, and all
of it, each taste called forth a dream
more vivid than epic visions stirred
by Makhtumkuli when he, with curd,
would mix his bread; or Proust when he
would taste his madeleines with tea.

For I was due to die at dawn!
And here the food on which I fed
reminded me of what was spread
before me in my youth, the nan
and mutton, rice and soup all nicely
garnished, stuffed and spiced precisely
as mother would do. We hugged and toasted
with ardent, woeful farewells, the guards
and I; and never with better hosts did
I let nagging sleep retard
a happier evening – for never such ease
and satisfaction I’d felt, or pleased
with life I’d been as during that splendid
banquet, convinced my life had ended.

A moment later it seemed (so deep
my sleep!) those same lamenting men
who’d sworn with mugs aloft that when
I died a thousand days they’d weep,
seized hold my flaccid arms and legs
and like a boat on water dragged
my calm, blindfolded figure toward
the misty courtyard’s scaffold. I heard
a kind of off-key harpsichord,
a flight of swallows crying. The blurred
perception of a wall. I sensed
my bearers press my back against
its cool damp stones to sit unaided.
They left me there; and there I waited.

The cock and lock of old dragoons
(I thought I would be hanged, by God!
But did it matter? A firing squad,
I mused, was just as good) and soon
a bullet – a swift, unloosed and feral
mastiff – out from a gunner’s barrel
was shot and bit straight through my skin!
It tickled, I swear! It tickled and made
me laugh! Another was fired and in
my chest it sunk. A fusillade
I heard, at last, as the remaining
guns unleashed a sideways raining
of metal upon me, with deafening pops,
yet landing soft as water drops.’

…tbc
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Tuesday Poem: “Memories of Mother” by Zireaux

A shop selling halva: '...their darling princes treated / each day with pieces of halva secreted / beneath a blouse...'

A shop selling halva: ‘…their darling princes treated / each day with pieces of halva secreted / beneath a blouse…’

‘Arcady! I’m not afraid to die!
I only fear the news arriving
to mother. For soon I was surviving
in jail on bread of wormy rye
and barley soup and pegs of whiskey;
and when my mother heard of this, she
sent the warden an urgent letter.
Her son, she wrote, is not like others.
“Barley gives him gas. It’s better
to feed him cabbage soup,” my mother
insisted. “And whole meal bread to keep
his bowels loose,” she wrote, “and when he sleeps
at night he likes to sniff a little
pillow moistened with his spittle.”’

Here, our misty-eyed Sayeed
recited epigrams in praise
of mothers who, with sons to raise,
succumb to their instinctive need
to pamper – their darling princes treated
each day with pieces of halva secreted
beneath a blouse, or honey-dipped fingers,
or medicines and powders and oil
massages; and how their breast-milk lingers
until the boy is five; their toil
of primping and petting and wiping clean
until he’s forty.

                                    ‘And your dear Queen,
Arcady? If your mum were here, I’m sure
she’d fix your grief. A mother’s cure.’

His voice was choked, his face pop-eyed.

My ‘mother’s cure’ was not too hard
to picture. Where ‘cure’ and ‘mother’ jarred
was when my mental camera tried
to focus on the woman’s hands
and features – either because I’d planned
to never invoke her image upon
my isle; or that some glint or glare
of brightly blazing truth had drawn
across her form my lens’s flare.
Or maybe, who knows, a strange visage
recalled from infancy dislodged
(without replacing the other more clearly)
that face I’d known and loved so dearly.

Sayeed didn’t know, of course, I’d fled
both mother-land and mother-love.
Nor that the ‘uncle’ I’d spoken of
before I sailed, the one I said
had died and left me fifty grand
(which bought the boat on which I planned
my ‘lengthy, well-stocked, fishing excursion,’
as I’d described it to my mates)
had never lived. Nor that the version
of shipwreck Sayeed believed in – ‘ill-fate,
a misplaced rock,’ or ‘simple error
which anyone could make’ – didn’t square
with truth.

                            Nor that I’d never be pleasant
to be with, as long as he was present.

‘O mother! My Empress Rose!’ Sayeed
exclaimed. ‘Our dreams each night are synched
together, or more like video-linked
– or more than that: A video-feed,
as palpable as when, years younger,
your founts of love assuaged my hunger.
What phone, what screen, what Microsoft
device as yet to be invented
could ever produce the soothing waft
of mustard seed and tangy, fermented
cheese that once my mother’s clothes
infused – and now, each night, my nose?’

For a moment, our orator stopped.
Then finding the story’s thread he’d dropped
he carried on…

tbc
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Tuesday Poem: “A Meeting with the King” by Zireaux

A statue of Niyazov, or “Turkmenbashi, father of all Turkmen.”

A statue of Niyazov, or “Turkmenbashi, father of all Turkmen.”

[On how Mr. Sayeed got himself arrested]

‘Then somehow, barely able to stand,
Arcady, I saw at last a shoal
of lights peek through the rippled sand.
They heralded the capitol!
By sunrise – there, the palace! Unkempt
and dusty, but grander than I’d dreamt.
Across its dry and pale parterre
I crept – and lo! The king was there!

The king! Outside and unattended!
And pensive in the dawn’s sweet juice
which flowed around his legs, diffused
the golden luster of his splendid
royal robes. I crawled, I sprang
straight toward him; and on my knees I sang
these words:

                              “O hear me, Highness! Great Master
of Stars! The Sun and Moon! Conductor
of the Ingrate Clouds! Constructor
of Bedeviled Dreams! Forecaster
of our Fortune’s fury! Behold your servant.
A servant to you – and to a fervent
heart which, wounded, dragged me here
to sing and make its grievance clear…

Eyes as deep and dark as moon-
reflecting lakes she had. And hair
the substance of the starlight’s glare
in argent dreams of desert dunes.
I had no wealth, I do admit it.
Her husband was rich, but syphilitic
and vain, an old roué – what’s worse he
encankered her with his foul sours!
Le monde est un bourreau endurci.
Premièrement il tue, et alors
il s’éloigne!

                                Were she my wife
she might have lived a pauper’s life,
that’s true, but oh each morn her eyes
would feel my sunlight on them rise;

her sleek black hair the ripple of
my grateful, night-arrested fingers;
her ears would tingle with songs I’d sing her,
songs of sweetest, sweetest love!
(Not this sad dirge which her poor spirit
endures in heaven (if she can hear it)).
What was my fault, I ask? Or hers,
to be denied my doting? Was my
affection false? My love impure?
Did we not meet in dreams? Did I
not wrestle for her a Russian bear
while she sold chorba at the fair
near Garabek? Didn’t I perfume
my stockings, keep a peafowl’s plume

A bowl of chorba.

A bowl of chorba.

behind my ear for her – an ear
which just for her I paid two chickens
(our last) to Mohan the barber, to stick an
oily quill in and pick out years
of thickened wax before I danced
for her the nautch d’amour in pants
cut extra high, with extra buttons
round the waist (bullfighter style)
to hold them up and keep my gut in?
Didn’t she display a brighter smile
that day I danced? And happier eyes?
Such eyes I neither recognized
when lowered in wedding-vowed abduction;
nor hooded and bowed in death’s seduction.

O King! O Listeners! The fool
I was, I am no longer! Heed
my words, I tell you, hear Sayeed
and you’ll enjoy a life less cruel:

Be ugly, yes, repulsive, mean;
be foul-mouthed, hunch-backed, old and sterile
with breath that smells of a latrine;
be monster-like, inhuman, feral,
a murderous psycho, a regicide.
Be all of that – and still a bride
of birth-marked beauty you can score.

But never let yourself be poor.”

‘The king, his mighty form now dressed
in dazzling gold from head to toe
– why even his papakha, you know
(a traditional hat, like that which crests
your noble head, Arcady, sir)
was made of gold instead of fur! –

the king raised up his gilded arm,
then lowered it. The hand was hoisted
again, again, and to my alarm,
as if no element of choice did
animate that golden limb,
it rose and fell at clock-like whim
and seemed robotic, powered, abuzz,
as if electric! Could it? It was.

Travel-wearied, starved, distraught,
dejection-drunk, despair-agued,
I’d entered the palace grounds and viewed
the massive golden figure and thought
it was the king. In truth, I’d bowed
before a splendid, regal, proud,
tyrannical, larger-than-life (and yes,
mechanical) statue.

                                              Some clerks in tunics
had gathered. A gardener’s chin took rest
atop a shovel’s handle. A eunuch
was weeping. Some panting crows assembled
and rows of drooping chestnuts trembled.
A waiting nag – in truth, more ass
than horse – tore loudly at the grass.

Then guards arrived in shirts white-starched
and khaki jodhpurs, leather-booted.
They told me I’d be executed
for treason no doubt, and I was marched
away while hearing harsh cries of protest
(they weren’t for me, alas; I noticed
– a backward glance – the gardener abusing
the feeding horse). They said I’d stirred
rebellion (in whom? The gardener?) by using,
on palace grounds, illegal words
– like maybe “regicide,” I thought,
or “syphilitic,” but these were not
to blame.

                         My crime, I learned, was for
promoting pity toward the poor.’

_____
More Tuesday Poems at Tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com.

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Tuesday Poem: “To Slice Her Husband’s Throat” by Zireaux

A forgery by New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

A forgery signed by New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

‘I saw her fair and fragile form
spread lifeless on her bed. Twice
I tried – and failed, alas – to slice
her husband’s throat amid my storm
of vengeance.’

                                    Sayeed declared he spent
a year unleashing his lament
through elegies (a Turkmen tradition),
then traveled with a piebald nag
toward Ashgabat – a two-week mission
across a howling desert plagued
with cobras, deadly spiders, lizards
the size of crocodiles, blizzards
of bees, simoons of scalding hot
projectile sand, haphazardly shot.

Beneath the starry sky-vault stained
in jeweled milk (which piqued his thirst
and poverty) Sayeed rehearsed
his songs; and coaxed his horse; and strained
to see ahead – before the night
could melt – some distant shimmer of light.
He knew he could not stop to rest,
or die, until he’d had a chance
to sing in Ashkabat…‘til he’d expressed
his feelings to the king, and lanced,
his blistered heart of grief. He’d sung
to many ears, of course. And wrung,
no doubt, as many eyes of tears.

‘But numbers aren’t what history hears.’

This last line Sayeed pronounced with cheery
aplomb; then promptly searched my gaze
for some appraisal, or better, just praise
of such a wise and well-phrased theory.

My face gave nothing then. But I’m
inclined now to agree. At times,
yes, volume may count, if only because
it makes us listen; but soloist’s
are most remembered, not orchestras.
The Jacobins and Bolshevists
are background noise compared to where
Marie Antoinette once pinned her hair
and all the other reasons why
the tourists today still storm Versailles.

Marie Antoinette at age 13 by Martin van Meytens, 1767.

Marie Antoinette at age 13 by Martin van Meytens, 1767. ‘The Jacobins and Bolshevists / are background noise compared to where /
Marie Antoinette once pinned her hair…’

And no offence, my listeners – not even
a crowd of you, an Eden Park
of you
, could match one Helen Clark
enjoying my rhymes. (Perhaps she’ll thieve ’em
with her signature, which fetches
a fortune when found on others’ sketches).
O Helen! You are New Zealand’s bride
however deep your vocal bass,
or even if you stand beside
the Queen in pants! You give such grace
to speeding cars and Kilimanjaro;
and though you never let us borrow
those funds from you, you still insisted
that our republics both existed.

But let us not allow our orator
to shirk the talker’s duty – to finish.
Lost threads of thought do not diminish
the patchwork banter of a bore.
They’ll find more thread, they always do,
and plot an extra sleeve for you.

_______
Note: It’s Tuesday again. To feel the day’s poetic spirit, you might want to visit the Tuesday Poets at http://www.tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com.au/

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Tuesday Poem: “A Sonnet to Boredom” by Zireaux

The Exhibition of the Crystal Palace, London, 1851.

The Exhibition of the Crystal Palace,
London, 1851.

If only life from time could be untethered,
each cellphone’s ringer set to ‘meditate,’
the minutes made to queue, hours wait,
then maybe you and I could be together.
But oh, the day’s delights, like violent weather,
go gusting through the halls of our estate.
And all I find of you, my love — some feathers,
scattered near the crystal palace gates.
I wish to hear the waterfall, to glide
with you ‘cross desert dunes of dreamy night.
Some broken plans, a date, a cancelled flight,
might wake me to the wonders that you hide.
But now — my thoughts are tourists, shuttled site
to site, unwavering from desire’s guide.

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Tuesday Poem: “Bonsai” by Cecily Barnes

Who needs your stunted style, your tiny jewels
of thwarted art, to snatch a kite flown loose
or bad-thrown ball? Or your unsayable rules
of infinite pleasures unknown, delights abstruse,
to feel soft feathers, their talons’ sponsal band?
To splinter a street, plumb galaxy’s soil, or hold
a heaving noose? To grasp your child’s hand?
To be unbound by any soul, un-bowled
by death, to never know what the Eleventh Azure is!
The stuttering night unveils its fairy dark.
The moon, that pruning groom, the manicurist,
bends down to rub its cheek against the bark
and hears the raspy chainsaw play its song,
while wispy light appears in wonders dawned.

acacia-bonsai“Bonsai” was originally published in the October, 2013, issue of Harper’s Magazine.

“Bonsai” is a poem that speaks to me. I mean literally, it’s speaking directly to me. The haunting “Eleventh Azure” in line 9 can also be written as “Azure XI,” which of course is an anagram of my name. And I’m not going to discuss the “Jew” in “jewels,” or the “thwarted art,” or the veiled threat to my child and so forth. So let’s move on.

Cecily Barnes has composed countless poems, too many poems. Among other accolades, she was awarded the Los Angeles Times Prize for Poetry (declined it), the Bollingham Prize (ditto), a Dickinson Endowment ($100,000 received by bank transfer I’m told) and turned down an honorary degree from Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts.

I first discovered her woeful early poems at a writer’s festival in Trinidad in 2002. Derek Walcott, Rabindranath Maharaj, Olive Senior from Canada, and my overly joyful, soon to be ex-girlfriend (along with her young poet friend and soon to be bedmate, Miguel Murat) — I recall hanging out with all of them at Queen’s Park, eating aloo pies beside a passionate flame tree, with pumped-up storm clouds over the Gulf of Paria.

Cecily wasn’t at the festival. Has never been the traveling type, and, her one endearing quality, despises all forms of literary pretense. But it was there, in Port of Spain, while enduring an excursus on the awkwardly absent V.S. Naipaul (and keeping one eye on musky Miguel) that I discovered Cecily’s poetry in a clandestine browser window of my Net-suckling laptop. I read, I understood, I knew immediately what was going on; that I must find this sinister poetess, that I must get to know everything about her, tame her, restrain her, shame her, destroy her reputation, silence her, silence her.

At that time Cecily Barnes — lover of anagrams, whose name, by the way, rearranges into “Lyric Absence” — wrote under a different pen name. Back then she was the more exotic and erotic-sounding Galaxia Gaudh. She was based in a brainy railroad town in Texas called College Station, and was — to use Jane Austen’s phrasing — still very much Galaxia then, untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy and fearless. I, meanwhile, a more youthful Zireaux, was desperately lonely, hurting and hateful; far too certain of what I’d become, far less certain of what I was.

I flew to LA and straight to Houston, took a rental car and some drugs. Mad, magnificent, unmarried days. On the outskirts of Houston I bought a 9mm Glock and box of bullets at a converted three-bedroom house with a signboard: “Arrowhead Guns and Ammo.” (So oxymoronic, the melting pot of American history). I bought the gun — not to use it, but, as that deranged narrator says in Mary Gaitskill’s brilliant “The Other Place”: to know I could.

Back on the highway, those hanging green recipe cards and their carefully measured exits — 3/4, 1/2 — grew shorter, less frequent, cooked up fewer burger joints out of the hot pancake terrain. Ten minutes past Hempstead I swerved to avoid what I thought was an armadillo (nothing but a sun-drenched tumble-bag), lost control of the car, and the local African-American sheriff, a friendly former boxer, ended up introducing me to his tow-truck driving granddaughter, a friendly former pageant queen — but where was I? Right. College Station. George Bush Drive. The one-bedroom apartment of Cecily Barnes, a.k.a. Galaxia Gaudh.

Now before I knock on that door, I must explain…or never mind, let’s just knock on that door:

“So much distance you’ve came here, Mr. Zero. Come in, come in. Such a flatterer you are for Galaxia. Some Irish Cream?”

That’s Branko, bald, burly, Latvian, punching his way through an English sentence while trying to activate an atrophied grin. Stolid, very big feet, I doubt the boxing Sheriff could have taken him down, not even in his, the Sheriff’s, prime.

“Where is she?” I asked from the living room’s squeaky white leather sofa. Beside me was a glass-topped table with a lone, twisted, long-embittered bonsai.

But to cut this story short — both time and audience are limited here — this bumbling Branko was so convivial, so charming, that I quite forgot my obsession with the vulgar poetess, his “Gal” as he called her, and before I could say “what cologne is that,” the two of us were driving to the local Dairy Queen for root beer floats, then drinks at Gatsby’s Bar, shooting the Glock near the water tower, then mini-golf, more drinks, a visit to a cute two bedroom cottage with a “for sale” sign on Appaloosa Avenue which, from the following month, we’d end up sharing for nearly three years like a good gay couple.

The point is this: We rarely let Galaxia come between us, or not until the end anyway, when, in the winter of 2005, I issued an ultimatum to my bruised Branko: It was either Galaxia or me. We had often talked about her, and I had made my position clear: “Snowball poems, diamantes, clarihews. Big whoop. She’s deaf to dialect. Always will be. Let’s see her produce a multi-layered sonnet.”

To which he’d reply: “Say what you want, mon amour. Her youth is a threatening for you, I know it. She’s read more books than yourself can ever. Writes faster. More prolificness. Did I tell you that Re:Visions Magazine is publishing her sestina series? Next stop, the New Yorker.”

Arguments in the shower. He called me a “friendless iconoclaster,” said I had an inflated sense of self, that I was condemned to obscurity, that the poet is not an individual, not even human, not worth our attention, but merely a vessel; and that poetry, like math and physics, has existed since the beginning of time, even before we acquired the voices to express it. “It’s there to be discovered, not created.”

I accused him of being afraid of other people’s feelings, of an inability to appreciate poetic passion, of suffering from a crippled cognition (okay, that was cruel), of being a Pygmalion in his laboratory (he was now a computer science doctorate, spending long nights away from home in the university’s computer lab). Galaxia, I declared, could never exist without people like me being sucked dry of our literary genius, and oh, while we’re being honest, I’ve always detected a faint but clearly discernible whiff of anti-Semitism oozing from your pores.

We separated. I moved in with a beautiful art history student from New Zealand, soon married her, and we now live happily in Australia with our daughter Acacia. Branko. of course, returned to his ungrateful Galaxia Gaudh. Did we love one another, Branko and I? I suppose we did, and I suppose it was because of my affection for Branko, this intimate bond of ours, that Galaxia — now Cecily Barnes — never trusted me, was determined in fact to destroy me, to elevate herself in Branko’s eyes as a poet of grandiosity and “prolificness.”

Over the next decade or so, I’d discover her poems in all sorts of respected journals, Granta, the New Yorker, bylined with numerous identities (“Umayu Funshock” my all time favorite). Her style was easily recognizable. The sentence patterns, her fondness for anagrams, the lifting of phrases from other poets and authors on Gutenberg.org (the line about “infinite pleasures,” for example, is from Balzac’s Gambara); not to mention her propensity for the word “stuttering,” a favorite anagram of hers. Her poetry is also marked by the vainglorious, a sense of immortality, and she often disparages the efforts of individual poets, especially poets like myself, seemingly sunk in insignificance, imprisoned in our heads, or living on “little isles,” bowl-bound by marriage, children, death.

I admit my career has never blossomed like it might have.

If I see any hope here, it’s in the strangling vines of competition, the rival forces of philistinism making fools of one another. How distressed Cecily and Branko must be by the corruption of her work. See how the creeper of surveillance spreads through the entirety of “Bonsai:” The NSA in “uNSAyable,” “spoNSAl,” “chaiNSAw,” in “BoNSAi” itself; and all those “spy”s in “wiSPY,” “raSPY,” “graSP Your;” not to mention the final couplet’s much-too-obvious — but perhaps heroic — anagram of “wonders dawned.”

Bonsai is a trivial work, indeed, a very bad poem, by a poet undeserving of our attention. It’s stunted, manicured, pruned by a collective aesthetic, shaped by the buffeting forces of self-infatuation. But even amidst such a vast dehumanization, there will always exist the “tiny jewels,” the “pleasures unknown, delights abstruse,” in the soil of its genesis; the leafy lanes of College Station, the monarchs and scarlet maple, the concentrated slice of Branko’s tennis backhand, the horrible oatmeal cookies he used to bake (his nose tipped with flour), the adorable collie pups we used to visit at Wiggles and Wags. The smell of Hugo Boss.

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