Tuesday Prose: The Mountain and Muhammad – A Review of “When Google Met WikiLeaks” by Julian Assange

Julian Assange’s publisher, OR Books, asked me if I’d like to review Assange’s latest book, When Google Met WikiLeaks. I said I would and waited for the review copy to be served, which it was. My return volley, however, has been hampered by a stiff-kneed schedule, and even when I took my swing, the target felt soft, my stroke ungainly. When Google Met WikiLeaks is not a significant book – more of a republishing of previous material. But the issue it addresses is vital to our times, and Assange is one of the few people capable of approaching it with intelligence and insight.

I present the review here in two parts:

downloadWhen Google Met WikiLeaks
by Julian Assange
220 pages, September, 2014
OR Books

Part 1

Amidst the recent outcry over the mass release of celebrity flesh on our cell phones, the actor and funnyboy, Seth Rogan, expressed both sincerity and solidarity: “Posting pics hacked from someone’s cell phone is really no different than selling stolen merchandise,” he tweeted.

We can forgive the comedian for missing the nuances of techno-judicial scholarship. Nobody hacked Jennifer Lawrence’s cell phone. It was her iCloud account that was compromised. And the pic-as-merchandise analogy, in fact, was addressed and dismissed over fifty years ago by such brilliant thinkers and economists as Hal Varian, George Akerlof, Joseph Stiglitz, Michael Spence and many others. We can no more stock a traditional market with digital goods than we can power our automobiles with dreams.

The Internet always seemed so big and borderless; but it was never infinite. It was never unconquerable. From the comfort of your private captain’s quarters (study, basement, bedroom), you could steer your journey wherever you wanted — cruise the currents of a telnet link, spelunk the depths of a subterranean SSH network. Self-driven, solitary; no timetable or paperwork or formal meetings; no need to hold a single conversation.

And yet the sense of discovery you felt when stepping onto some isle of remoteness, with its treasure buried deep in a directory tree, was both real and chimeric. Footprints — just as Crusoe discovered — were already there. Tracks, roads, pathways, the frontiers of your journey had been laid by others. However far you traveled, you were always connected. The Internet was always shared.

If celebrities feel outraged over the Internet’s obsession with their private parts, so too will non-celebrities for those private parts obscuring the urgency of more important spills — the pesticides and sludge, for example, that are choking the Great Barrier Reef. At first the overcrowding of this shared webspace seemed purely technical; the Internet’s 32-bit IP address system wasn’t large enough to offer refuge to every brain on the planet (let alone every thought in every brain). There were speed issues, security holes. But the biggest limitation, it turned out, was something all too familiar in the history of Empire: namely, the tendency of its inhabitants — and therefore its developers — to push forth narrow, deceptive, clan-driven ideologies over such things as diversity, imagination, clarity, intellect, equal rights, democracy.

One of the most significant dates, a turning point really, in the battle for imperial control over the Internet was April 19, 2004 — the exact same day, incidentally, 234 years earlier, that captain James Cook spotted Australia, the Terra Incognita of the Southern Hemisphere, and a discovery that would forever alter the future of its indigenous people. Now, centuries later, it was the arrival of Wall Street upon the shores of the Internet’s largest continent: Google.com. In the eight hours of frenzied trading between 9am to 5pm, Google raised $1.67 billion dollars of euphemistically “public” capital (there’s very little “public” about an IPO), thus positioning itself as the spine from which the Internet’s latest incarnation — a sort of sticky-cloudy Frankenmonster — would start to kick and grow.

There are other important dates, of course; other defeats and victories. For example, six years later, on April 5, 2010, WikiLeaks would release its famous “Collateral Murder” video, shaking the Internet out of its stupor, holding a mirror up for the Western powers to examine their own psychopathic tendencies. Many dates; many salvos. The launch of the TOR Project, a privacy-protecting network, on September 20, 2002. The launch of BitTorrent the following month. The world’s very first “tweet,” March 22, 2006. The publishing of Satoshi Nakamoto’s paper, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, in November, 2008. That fateful day in Hawaii when Edward Snowden decided to pull back the curtains on America’s National Security Agency.

However we look at the Internet’s history, Google and WikiLeaks are two of its leading players. No wonder, then, that the Australian intellectual-in-exile, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, would consider his meeting with Eric Schmidt, the CEO and Chairman of Google, a subject worthy of serious contemplation. Schmidt and the director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, had requested to interview Assange for a book they were writing, its vintage Soviet-era working title, “The Empire of the Mind.”

The interview was held in June, 2011. The place was the house of Assange’s friend, Vaughan Smith, in rural Norfolk, about three hours northeast of London. Assange was under house arrest at the time, a tracking beacon clipped round his ankle as a condition of his provisional release from jail, although his politico-criminal status adds little to the interview’s gravitas.

The meeting’s historical merit had none of the personal injury or sense of redemption found in, say, Nelson Mandela’s face-to-face encounter with P.W. Botha in 1989; or the meeting of revolutionary minds in, say, Fidel Castro’s visit with Malcolm X at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem in 1960. Perhaps Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at Mandela’s funeral offers a closer comparison; or Richard Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong, but only in terms of the great cultural divide being crossed (with none of the germinating results).

“I was intrigued that the mountain” — that is, Google — “would come to Muhammad,” writes Assange in a 50-page thought-piece, which, along with previously released material concerning that historic meeting in Norfolk, appears in Assange’s latest book, When Google Met WikiLeaks. We can ignore his self-casting role in the Muhammad cliche; Assange’s point is that, as frail and ankled-snared as Fabritius’ goldfinch, he felt weak and isolated compared the $200 billion behemoth that was Google at the time, its “playful logo imprinting on human retinas just under six billion times each day, 2.1 trillion times a year.” An interesting choice of words, the playful logo, the mechanical retinas, the rhetorical calculations. Emotions cast as market symbols. Machinery as optometry. Neither Muhammad nor the mountain, in this one-day encounter amidst the Norfolk idyll, comes off as very human.

But still, Assange appears the less corrupted of the bunch. There’s an endearing, sometimes hard to believe, naivete in his belief that the emissaries of Google might actually value Assange’s input into their proposed book about “the empire of the mind;” or indeed, that such a book, written by men in charge of increasing their company’s share price, could possibly contain anything other than buzz-speak and the latest Silicon Valley platitudes. “The scholarship was poor — even degenerate,” writes Assange about the astonishment he felt when he finally read Schmidt and Cohen’s book two years later.

Empire of the Mind would change it’s title to the more prognosticatory, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business (see my review of it here). “[The book] did not seem to fit the profile of Schmidt, that sharp, quiet man in my living room,” observes Assange. “Reading on I began to see that the book was not a serious attempt at future history.”

Turns out the quiet man in Assange’s living room (Vaughan’s living room, in fact) was more shrewd than sharp. The audio of the encounter has been available online at least since my review of Assange’s Cypherpunks in October last year, and the complete transcript is republished in When Google Met WikiLeaks. The meeting is a distressingly one-sided affair. Assange is one of those people who speaks in careful, well-constructed sentences, coolly rallying together a very large force of well-behaved words, trusting them to act according to their job descriptions. If he appears overly loquacious in his effort “to guide [his listeners] into my worldview,” as he puts it, it’s because his worldview is both compelling and complex; but also because his encounter with Google was, in his mind, less a meeting than an interview. And as the interview subject, he assumed he was “expected to do most the talking.”

This he did. One gets the sense that Assange had visualised in great detail his contribution to Schmidt’s and Cohen’s book before their arrival. “I consider the interview perhaps the best I have given,” he says, crediting his interviewers — Schmidt, Cohen, Lisa Shields (Schmidt’s partner at the time), and Scott Malcomson (a speechwriter and communications wonk) — with his command performance. But as an exercise of empire-building, Assange is outplayed, outmaneuvered in every way during the idyllic Google-chat, except perhaps in terms of honesty and honour.

When The New Digital Age appears two years later, in April, 2013, and he finds none of his world view in its pages, Assange would review the book for the New York Times. The result is a review as clear-sighted, articulate and awakening as anything the Times has published about the Internet — and Google — in many years.

Titled “The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil,’” the review eviscerates Google’s dysto-Gogolian vision; and rightly so. Publications such as The New Yorker and Slate, with the smarts and credibility to land a knock-out blow to such New Digital nonsense, delivered sycophantic softies or stayed out of the ring entirely behind disclaimers such as, “The editor of The New Yorker’s website is the co-founder of a company funded in part by Eric Schmidt;” or “Eric Schmidt is the chairman of the New American Foundation board. New America is a partner in Future Tense with Slate.”

Google must know a lot about the future of technology, the reviewers and talk show hosts so spinelessly conceded, because, well, Google owns the present. But if that’s the case, why did Assange know so much more about the Internet’s future than the Chairman of the Internet’s largest property?

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Tuesday Poem: “The World Inverted: A Prophecy” by Zireaux

Qutub Minar in Delhi: ‘…gotmek the wyşka – a phallic slur we / Turkmen know well. It means: “devour / the minaret,” or “fell the tower.”‘

Sayeed continues his story…

‘Of demons (dow) her lyrics spoke.
Of dark Aladdin’s cave from where
great sharks would fly, metallic Furies,
enormous monsters of the air
who’ll gotmek the wyşka – a phallic slur we
Turkmen know well. It means: “devour
the minaret,” or “fell the tower.”
Now, wait. I know what you’re thinking, Arcady.
The raving words of a mad slave-lady.

But no! She wasn’t mad. She’s not
mad now. My Noorya simply knew
the secrets of this world and through
her rants deciphered nature’s plot.
She sang of far-off islands, yes!
Demesnes where men in women’s dress
or male-resembling females reign.
A new – or tozey noohh (she mewed
the English, noohh) – unfairly gained,
noohh-land, noohh-world, with strange noohh food
which cooks so quickly when it’s set
in windowed cubes to pirouette
on lighted stages (yenil sahna);
noohh skies, noohh scapes, nooh flora and fauna.

And billboards tall as Qutub Minar
depicting woeful adolescents
in the nude; and incandescent
gambling parlors, closet-cars
that rise and fall a hundred meters
to eerie music; and groups of eaters
who dine with strange utensils, plates
of porcelain, daffodil wine, in seats
with sea-views, banquets that rotate
above the clouds! She sang of streets
athrong with teaming migrants, places
where every race of person races
from shop to shop – then stops, or stalls,
to pluck some money from the walls.

Of faces carved in filigreed
designs, she sang. Of men who feast
on men; and birds whose wings have ceased
to work for them. And sometimes she’d
divine a distant country cursed
with land that rumbles, boils and bursts
beneath a people so obsessed
with flashing totems, hand-held charms,
metallic idols which are pressed
against their ears, that no alarm
is felt; they do not hear the sounds
that boom and pulsate all around
just like – but far more dreadful, stronger –
a lover’s heart that beats no longer.

She spoke of desperate people throwing
themselves off precipices, diving
from highest bridges — yet surviving;
their downward progress somehow slowing,
stopping, even, Noorya claimed,
reversing direction, upward-aimed.
Bir dünýä tersi. “The world inverted.”
What could I make of her strange song?
All life bidüzgün, corrupted, perverted
by telbe myrat, desires gone wrong.

“Our lives,” she sang, “will be destroyed
by petty passions ill-employed.
By trash, by junk, by fleeting thrills
that over-cost and under-fill.”’

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Tuesday Poem: “When Capture Serves as Rapture’s Cause” by Zireaux

commissioned  a clan of wrestlers, body guards  and hired guns to make her feel  more safe

‘…commissioned / a clan of wrestlers, body guards / and hired guns to make her feel / more safe…’

And yet despite all this – despite
the joy we gave (and felt in giving),
the love received, the easeful living
we made, the fact – to mother’s delight –
we soon acquired an air-conditioned
sedan for her to ride in, commissioned
a clan of wrestlers, body guards
and hired guns to make her feel
more safe, the fact we even barred
the bus’s windows, locked and sealed
the doors each night so we’d be sure
our fortune (Noorya) slept secure
within – despite all this, indeed,
despite the sense that we’d been freed

from penury and risk, that we
could bribe officials now, obtain
convincing passports, entertain
both old and new-crowned royalty,
receive – some six or seven times –
awards from DREAM (Dept. of Rhymes,
Emotions, Artful Musings), sing
for tourists, foreign dignitaries,
directors of movies, visiting
jihadists, church groups, missionaries,
hippies in Volkswagen buses – despite
the grand chateau and ambient site
of forest-edged, lacustrine lawn
amidst the hills near Sheberghan

and where our choral cavalcade
would holiday (what beauty, Arcady!
The hot afternoons beside the shady
swimming pond, our meals arrayed
on giant rugs with servants to chase
the monkeys away!) – a magic place,
a Dome of Pleasure, a Palace of Song –
despite all this success – and so
much more ahead! – something was wrong.

Perhaps it was the undertow
one feels when riding buoyant waves.
Or maybe thoughts of Noorya gave
us pause; for shouldn’t it give one pause
when capture serves as rapture’s cause?

If you’re not palpably, scalpably poor,
with dirty clothes, and nearly dead,
then Fate locks cross-hairs on your head.

But there was something else far more
disturbing, Arcady. Something even
now I’d rather not believe in,
out here, on this tiny isle, unkempt
and hungry, dispossessed of hope
or anything else that might just tempt
the world to fix us in its scope;
but which I can’t forget: The way
her cries (which didn’t, at first, convey
a meaning, as such, or something sensible)
began to sound more comprehensible.

Priestess of Delphi (1891), by John Collier.

Priestess of Delphi (1891), by John Collier: ‘…her glazy gazes / seemed perceptive…’

I mean to say, that slowly her wailing
began to make sense. Those languid lips,
serenely-lined (though veil-eclipsed
and often gagged) were soon exhaling
wisps of words, aphasic phrases;
and now, as well, her glazy gazes
seemed perceptive, as if what she
was singing was something we call haydys
in Turkmen – in English: prophecy.

And while our troupe performed their latest
songs and I half-napped amongst an
eruption of pillows (or laps of drunken
nymphs) inside my private tent,
or lounged with rose and olive scents

on shaded ottomans behind
our colonnaded palace porch,
I heard her words. I felt them scorch
the happy arbors of my mind,
and cloud my future with their smoke.

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Tuesday Poem: “Chasing its Serenading Glitter” by Zireaux

'...our comet-coach... / , ...with dangling ornaments arrayed / around its rims, celestial made / and often tailed with children chasing /  its serenading glitter....'

‘…our comet-coach… / …with dangling ornaments arrayed / around its rims, celestial made / and often tailed with children chasing / its serenading glitter….’

Sayeed continued…

‘We rode, we toured, performed, inveigled
our meals and paid the driver well.
He bought a coat with huge lapels
and hired some cleaning boys, bedraggled
barefoot, lean, yet proudly dressed
in bellhop suits with fanning crests
atop their orange pugrees (what you
in the West call “turbans”). He painted the bus
a stunning, vibrant blue – a blue
as minty-cool and luminous
as Noorya’s burka when she’d sit
up top, above the windshield, lit
up by the morning’s ginger glow
and crooning to a crowd below.

That light! That morning sun! It seemed
throughout the day to follow us,
our comet-coach, our nebu-bus,
festooned, beribboned, tinsel-streamed,
with dangling ornaments arrayed
around its rims, celestial made
and often tailed with children chasing
its serenading glitter.

                                              We’d blaze
across the abstract earth, replacing
antique browns and bitter grays
with freakish prismatic rays of sound;
a streak of iridescence crowned
with instruments, and one blue gem
in front — my wife — inspiring them.

We rarely – no, never did decline
an invitation to perform.
We played in rain, in thunder storms,
in sleet and heat. We played in shrines,
in stadiums, for jugglers, dancers,
mystics, shamans in a trance, or
even once (I’ve sworn to keep
the place a secret, but near Kabul),
we lulled a baby prince to sleep.
To every type of mosque and school
we’d come, to every army camp
we’d drive, or sometimes park and tramp
up to some mountain rebel cave
to sing beside a martyr’s grave.

'...cinemas, picnics, wedding parties, / bloody games of Oglak-tartis /  (or “snatch the goat”)...'

‘…cinemas, picnics, wedding parties, / bloody games of Oglak-tartis / (or “snatch the goat”)…’

To camel fairs near Kandahar,
and poppy fields where tribal chiefs
would meet, and Mazar-e-Sharif’s
resplendent parks, and arms bazaars,
and cinemas, picnics, wedding parties,
bloody games of Oglak-tartis
(or “snatch the goat”) – to village zones,
remote locales, where we would score
the weekly movie on a lone,
anemic TV set, which poor
malnourished crowds had gathered round
(a chair for it; for them, the ground);
or where we sang for traveling actors
performing plays of dubious fact or

fantastical fiction, or both together,
with devils, witches, serpents, jinns
cavorting with mock Americans
in heels, lorgnettes, sunglasses, feather
boas, gloves and so forth – Arcady,
I tell you! In every trip we made we
found new life, new notes to play,
new compositions, states of mind,
new reasons to sing, new formulae
of beauty. Our bus became a kind
of pollinating thing, a humming
bird, a twitting lorry, thrumming
and nectar-sipping, tune to tune,
story to story, bloom to bloom.’

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Tuesday Poem: “The Whirligig of Noorya’s Screams” by Zireaux

A manually spun Ferris Wheel of the kind described by Mr. Sayeed. Photo by Richard Alois.

A manually spun Ferris Wheel like the one described in the poem by Mr. Sayeed. Photo by Richard Alois.

‘Around the umbral shale, a dress
– with pink and purple thistles gemmed –
of courtly mountains river-hemmed
and cloudy wigs a powdered mess,
we gamely rode. Our flautist followed
on foot, but soon the landscape swallowed
his shrinking shape behind us. Later,
that eve, we met again, five miles
outside a twinkling Herat, where raiders
of Persian stock (quite nice, all smiles,
and courteous to Noorya) accosted
us gently, then stole our horses.

we made our beds and ate our meal
in the wind-rocked cars of an old Ferris Wheel.

What noise, what noise that night composed!
Our rickety wheel a tambourine
for wild Aeolus to jangle between
my Noorya’s squeals. While contra-posed
to this, the swaying siren of
our piper’s flute (one cradle above
my mother’s, two from mine); and soon
there was more – more noise! A glumly yakking
harmonium; the strum and croon
of a zither; a pair of thumbs attacking
a tabla – our great shrill-mill, our gyre,
our rumpus ring, our compassed choir,
our disc of discord, so to speak,
gave symphony to Noorya’s shrieks.

What strange, what strangled sounds! A riot
of mangled music, notes like blades
upon a monstrous grindstone played.
By dawn our whirligig was quiet
yet filled with riders, musicians, like monks
in blankets wrapped, each in his bunk
– or wooden seat with metal bar –
ensconced in sleep.

                                             We travelled then,
my mother, Noorya, me and our
new troupe, an un-looped group of ten,
atop a tilting bus between
the camel-colored hills, through green-
lipped valleys, fertile mouths agape
with rippled rows of pear and grape.

Alfalfa fields; and apricot
in leafless tangled sprawls; and squalls
of dust cavorting round the walls
of some old fortress lost in thought.
We rode, we rode, and when our dour,
intemperate driver stopped each hour
for absinth tea, or when repairs
were needed, or army troops detained
us half a day, our band would blare!
Our drums would thrum! And Noorya’s pained
and plangent cries would slowly rise
– a kite of grief, a flight of sighs –
into the wild and frosty winds,
all strung to earth by violins.’

Sayeed looked dreamy here; the night
assuaging him with milky light.

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Tuesday Poem: “On Meeting the Flautist” by Zireaux

The Flute Player by Marc Chagall

The Flute Player by Marc Chagall

‘By noon we searched our gear, unpleated
an old and flimsy map. My mother
calmly scanned it. We ate another
pomegranate; while Noorya, seated
behind me, shrouded in blue, repelled
our fruits.

                                 By dusk, a red-hot weld
of clouds dripped sparks of luminescence
upon the distant dale to mark
a village. We heard the sound of peasants
relating stories in the dark;
and further off, diluted in
the crickets’ hum, harsh violins
and drums and squabbling tambourines
disputed what a marriage means.

Then to Mashhad we travelled. A bright
and bristly sky – the flakes of snow,
on touching down, would quickly stow
their parachutes of white. Each night
my wakeful mother watched for spies,
assassins, hints of some surprise
attack. Whatever trace of guilt did
niggle her, convinced her, too,
one’s fellow cutthroats shouldn’t be jilted.
They’ll track you down. They’ll torture you.
And Noorya slept all tied and twisted
in scarves, her hands concealed, a fisted
bundle underneath her chin,
her mouth held in a scarf-bound grin.

So cold it got! So cold! Much colder
even than this cold rock, the breeze
from these refrigerating seas
which keep us fresh, Arcady.

                                                                  I told her,
“Mother, we need to rest, find shelter,
get warm.”

                                 Some fear, however, compelled her
to propel our horses on;
some angst aroused a new suspicion:
a merchant’s smirk, a soldier’s yawn,
a drunken minstrel’s disposition
when singing of the local ghosts.
While Noorya, tightly trussed, was most
distrusted by mother:

                                                    “Not even gagging
will stop a woman’s tongue from wagging.”

“But mother,” I begged. “My Noorya wastes
and withers away. Just hear her groans
and gasps; and how, in dreadful tones,
she shrieks her name, as if, misplaced
in time, or in her reason lost,
she can’t locate herself.”

                                                                  We crossed
into Afghanistan and slept
inside a wreck of rusted truck,
which several months before had leapt
beyond a highway’s bend and struck
a passing riverbed a thousand
feet below.

                                 That morning we roused, then
we dressed amidst the crocodilian
surface of rocks which by the billions

lined the winter-slimmed and mountain-
shadowed stream. Who’s there? Beside
our fallen lorry’s painted hide
(a mural of courtyards, neon fountains,
palm trees, huts, electric trains
and one enormous gorilla, planes
encircling his head, a busty, black-haired
film-star in his fist), we saw
a stranger huddled in furs and lacquered
in daybreak’s dew.

                                                      We helped him thaw
and found a weapon in his suit
of rugs and rags and wraps. A flute,
alas; a pipe of hollowed bone
which he, throughout the night, had blown.’

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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.”

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!

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).

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.’

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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…’

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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.

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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.”‘

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