Author Archives: immortalmuse

Crim City 2: Off with the Budgie Smugglers!

Rafflesia arnoldii, or the Corpse Flower (from its smell of rotting flesh)

Rafflesia arnoldii, or the Corpse Flower (from its smell of rotting flesh)

Judging by our fellow pedestrians, my wife was overdressed in her belted white shorts and layered blouse; and instead of my Miami-chic shirt and slacks, trim Panama hat and docksiders, I should have been wearing nothing more than a super-snug Speedo, what the Australians call “budgie-smugglers” (a reference to the popular budgerigar parakeet, Melopsittacus undulatus, which apart from being suitably sized is also the most cleanly circumcised of all the glans-headed parrot-crowns in Australia).

I believe in dressing conservatively when traveling, especially in Asia, but anywhere outside one’s own country, really. The act of visiting a distant region of the globe, purely for the sake of it, the ability to come and go with no intention of seeking employment or bettering one’s finances, is the ultimate flaunting of one’s economic status. To dress informally, without effort or inhibition, is to trivialize and disregard the extraordinary privilege in which one is engaged. An insult to the locals. Better to err on the side of studied concealment than to dress — or undress — at the whim of one’s own comfort.

Yet even as we walked, a bikini top would loosen, deflate, become a flopping dead snake in a young woman’s talons. Or a flimsy bulb of flesh would free itself, hoppingly, of the briefest of briefs, then saunter nude as a tufted potato toward its flock. Of course Banki Kalgasa has no real “locals” as such. Apart for the dead and defeated, the warehouse ware-lords, the diamond-demons, the discarded young heroin addicts, the prostitutes and their mafia pimps, the drifters too drunk to find a way off the island, everyone else is a visitor.

There are no schools. No police. No courts. No government. Which is why, of course, people come here.

“Must be the Compe Teasi,” I said. “Look at that.”

“Disgusting. Not walking through that.”

“The Rafflesia’s down that way. Don’t see any way round.”

We were about half way down to the ocean, which bristled around the contoured hills like a perfectly cut bath rug. A crowd had gathered around a group of men, healthy, vigorous, taut and tensile men in their thirties or so, in mustaches or swoops of long hair or both, all of them naked but for their flip-flops. Some were shoving each other, shouting abuse, then leaning back, oblique, hip-assertive, like potters marveling at the oiled and glossy totems of their lust. That’s the point, apparently, of Compe Teasi (often called Cock Teasi) — contestants seek to impress the group with the sustained and veiny stalks of their arousal. The winner, according to what I’d read, was usually shacked-up with a frightened figure of nubility, usually a decade his junior, though in Banki Kalgasa, ages are impossible to confirm.

Strangely, a phalanx of women in traditionally dress — matching bulang headgear, gold silk wraps (suri-suri), embroidered yellow skirts — were singing and clapping their hands, indifferent to the penile pageantry. They sat beneath a large canopy tent festooned with jasmine and frangipani, appearing more like religious protesters at a gay rights rally. I imagined them gathering here daily, these women, setting up their tent, singing their songs in the hopes that one day it will all stop, this alien madness, this transient travesty. Traditional values, dignity, delicacy, the beauty of discretion, one day it will all be restored.

I caught the eye of a confident, sharp, furry-lipped woman in her mid-fifties I guessed. “Forgive these sex-crazed cretins,” I said in my awkward Indonesian, which would have sounded strangely formal, more like “my sincerest apologies, madam, for these bawdy behaving gentlemen.” I felt compelled to let her know we’re not all the same, us “orang asing,” or white-skinned foreigners. That we’re not all a bunch of depraved satyrs. That some of us take the time to learn a foreign language; some of us appreciate a country’s culture and history.

“It shouldn’t be allowed,” I said, and started to move on, but the lady seemed to appreciate my sentiment, smiling and beckoning me to follow. She led me behind the rows of clapping singing women, around some tables with biscuits, teacups, cut papaya, down a ferny path to a little hovel with a slim curtain for a door.

She pulled back the slight portière to reveal a young girl in a lilac and gold kabaya, asleep on a cot, small pink feet jutting over the edge, as if uncooked by the fever of her dreams.

“You win,” said the woman in English, a big conspiring smile. “You get.”

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Crim City: A Visit to Northern Sumatra

View of Banki Kalgasa

View of Banki Kalgasa

Three days now in Banki Kalgasa, an astonishing island city 110 kilometers off the Angkolan coast of Northern Sumatra. We’re staying at the Hotel Sedikassa Kemlia, or the “Little Glory,” a nice enough place. None of the fur-and-timber luxury we had in Sibolga, but lime-washed walls, solid teak furnishings, a view of the flashy fish-bars and temple salons cascading down the lush ravine.

Hardly negligible in terms of glory, the hotel has allowed us to defer payment until we’re back on our feet; and even less negligible, indeed positively glorious from our point of view, is how amenable they’ve been about our bodyguards, serving them tea and setting up a pair of cots in the hallway outside the door. I can hear the two men’s slow syrupy chatter as I write this now.

“Bring plenty of cash,” we were told. “Stay upscale. However expensive you think something is, pay for it. Don’t skimp.”

We were expecting a day trip. A one-nighter at most. We caught the early boat from the mainland, my wife coasting our little red Dhiatzu Lark onto the central Banki Kalgasi pier at 7:30am, plenty of time to experience the city and return before sundown. But the island was more crowded than we expected. Two large cruise ships were nested grandly in the harbor. A long carcass of traffic stretched up the foggy hills. People were climbing out of cars, busses, haggling with their drivers, flagging down the buzzing motorcycles and riding pillion the rest of the way.

By the time we reached the city center, at about 300 meters elevation, an area known as Blunderbuss Square, the fog had cleared, the sun had settled on the city like a squatting hen.

“Says here,” I was reading a guide on my smartphone (the connectivity in Banki Kalgasi, by the way, is excellent), “if you’re driving a car, you can park wherever you want. No fees. But it’s best to find a gated lot.”

My wife, aesthetically opposed to any sort of vulgar language, suddenly let loose a string of expletives. Nothing to do with the issue of parking, but rather, some gunshots nearby had caused the Lark to swerve — or more precisely, my wife, the poor leggy terrorized darling, had attempted to duck her head, and in her struggle to find some obliging space in her already overcrowded seat, she had sent the Lark careening toward an embankment.

We bounced up a curb and came to a sideways-tilted halt. “We’re getting out,” declared my love, choking and wrenching the handbrake, kicking open her door and extending a long pale grasshopper leg toward the sun.

“Can’t say we weren’t warned,” I soothed, waving my smartphone as my wife lifted me out through her side of the car. “Expect sporadic — but generally safe — gunfire around Blunderbuss Square,” the online guide had told us. “A tradition since the Aceh pirates’ rebellion of the 1870s.” There was even a song about it: “Oh fire ye weapon into the air / when ye first step into Blunderbuss Square.”

Amid scruffy hibiscus and tufts of enormous benzoin, history had decorated Blunderbuss Square with various rock-monuments and make-shift mausoleums. Skirmishes, death sentences, duels of honor that ended badly. We ate egg and chicken frittatas cooked by a little lizard of a fellow and his tiny coal stove, then headed down one of Banki Kalgasa’s “adventure paths” — the “Rafflesia Trail,” known for a giant orange-pink flower (also called a “corpse flower” for its horrific odor) that resides near a sea-cave at the trail’s terminus. It seemed to be the star attraction, a magnet for the masses, a foul-smelling feast for an appetite shared by all.

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Tuesday Poem: “Train Ride to Menton” or “Villa Isabella” from Belvedere’s Paw

Julie Manet with Cat, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1887)

Julie Manet with Cat, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1887)

With the release today of my latest “Z-single” — a Wellington-based short story called “Belvedere’s Paw” — I thought I’d post an excerpt which could perhaps work as a prose poem in itself. I say this because I recall first composing this passage as a poem, during a train ride from Paris to Menton some years ago, the muse leaning far out the train’s door, summer wind in hair.

The scene occurs near the end of the story. A cat named Isabelle (called “Belle” for short) is being transported from Wellington, New Zealand, to Menton, France — thus creating a kind of symbolic link with Katherine Mansfield. A small miracle within the story has allowed the cat’s owner, a mother named Sky Blossom, to visit her young daughter in France after many years of separation. It’s a momentous journey for them, but the travel itself is presented from the cat’s point of view:

“Train Ride to Menton” or “Villa Isabella”

Isabelle – whose ancestry goes back to Lord Southhamptom, the well-known “silver-gray tabby” of the 1890s who won twenty-nine cat shows in Wakefield, England – wasn’t accustomed to so much movement.

The serpent roads of Wellington, the shaking and swinging, the roaring, vibrating, interminable flight, the moving walkways and trams, the escalators, lifts and stairs, the potholes and cobblestones of Paris, and for the last several hours, in the train, she’d felt herself falling sideways – everything, the hills and forests with their cabbage-growths of villages and church towers, the sprinkler’s long white worms of water leaping across the artichoke fields, and later (we’re in the South of France now, reader), the pale pink and yellow buildings with the orange tiled roofs and the blue-shuttered windows bearded with potted flowers and hanging clothes, the rock-walled roads and ravines, the lantana and honeysuckle, cascading bluebells and palm trees and stairways everywhere, and through the gaps, flashes of the mint-blue Mediterranean – all of it zipping by at a tremendous speed and cocking Isabelle’s ears backward, fixing her teal-blue face in a flinch.

Villa Isola Bella

The actual Villa Isola Bella in Menton where Katherine Mansfield once lived (click to enlarge).

But now, at last, having arrived at the Menton station and climbing a short but steep distance to the perched portico of a three-story villa, the earth relaxed; the train and a leaf-blower and the perpetual mouse-squeal of her cage’s handle grew quiet; the two-day pandemonium of scents – car exhaust and diesel fumes, detergents, the dog-droppings and dog-spray of Paris, her wintergreen-smelling blanket, lemon-scented tissues, not to mention the sour fragrance of her own vomit which had dried in the front corner of her carry-crate – gave way to aromas of sweet honeysuckle, shady lawns, chestnut and fig and sea broth. A motherly breeze searched her fur for fleas. The shrubs were afizz with little blue butterflies. And the balusters were squat and yellow and inviting her to rub against them. She would grow to like this place, similar to Wellington in its verticality, but warmer, lazier, and wondrously insect-infested. In fact, the locals would so closely associate the villa with its cat, that the house itself became known as Villa Isabella.

_____
Today’s poem is posted as part of the Tuesday Poets, a blog founded by New Zealand poets, but which includes poets from around the world.

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Tuesday Poem: “The Twizzer”

The Twizzer Tuck-in

“The Twizzer:” Illustration by Lynda Farrington Wilson (click on image to expand)

This week’s tuck-in is “The Twizzer,” probably one of the simplest tuck-ins, in terms of its method, that exists in The Great Book of Tuck-ins. The actual instructions for carrying it out only arrive in the last line of the final quatrain. Thanks once more to Lynda Farrington Wilson for the illustration, which nicely captures — or whips up in a whirlwind — just about all the different images that occur in the lyrics (click on the illustration to see it more clearly).

The Twizzer
Famous Tuck-in No. 18 from The Great Book of Tuck-ins

Ingredients:

A simple bed, but not too pillowy.
One child, limber, or stretchy, or willowy.
A blanket the child is clearly outgrowing.
The reason for this — the feet must be showing.

Instructions:

From whirlpools to cyclones, tornadoes, typhoons,
to banners and ribbons and wreathes and festoons,
those candles for cakes which we love to adorn,
the twist in a ram’s or a unicorn’s horn;

the shape of some antlers on reindeer or elk,
or seashells named Wentle or Winkle or Whelk,
or turbans and tops, or conches and cones,
some pastries and pretzels, the cords of old phones;

fantastical gymnasts with elastical spines,
some noodles and knots, those vines that entwine,
to the last little swirl of an ice-cream that’s soft;
or pipe-smoke that’s twirling while rising aloft,

the tubes of a tuba, a big whirligig,
that cube we call “rubik’s,” the tail of a pig,
or hair that’s been braided, the ear of a pup,
a mobius strip (unsure? Look it up!),

from the glorious torque of our own Milky Way
to the spiraling core in our cells’ DNA,
it’s time now to add your child to the list:
So take hold of a foot, get ready…now twist.

_____
Today’s poem is posted as part of the dVerse open mike, and the Tuesday Poets, a blog founded by New Zealand poets, but which includes poets from around the world.

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Tuesday Poem: “The Splitano”

The Splitano

The Splitano: A “tuck-in” as a magic trick.

Our tuck-in this week, from The Great Book of Tuck-ins, is “The Splitano.” We didn’t plan an illustration for this one (although Lynda has a very nice concept in mind), so we’ve just used an image from the web. Next week we’ll post “The Twizzer,” which is more graphically demanding. Lynda has been working on what’s sure to be a wonderful illustration.

Thanks again for all the feedback on the tuck-ins so far. A lot of it has come from other writers and poets, which is very useful. I’d love to hear more feedback from parents of small children, especially anyone brave enough to test them on children (or creative variants).

The Splitano
Famous Tuck-in No. 1371 from The Great Book of Tuck-ins

Ingredients:

One child (limber), some pillows (well-fluffed).
A sock (for stuffing). A pair of shoes (stuffed).
One cleaver, or sabre, or hand that can slice.
To save you some labour, a chainsaw is nice.

Instructions:

Our bodies are never a thing of perfection.
They come in all sizes and every complexion.
And though they’re all different, this much is true:
We can’t have another; and no one gets two.

But what better place for such rules to be broken
than the soft bed of sleep where our dreams are awoken.
And what better time to enchant and delight
than when dusk fades away to the fancies of night.

“I give you a child!” proclaim with a laugh,
“who will now be Splitanoed! Or — cut in half!”
A blustering bluff, to confuse and amuse.
Then stuff-up and puff-up and lace-up the shoes,

and set the fake feet at the foot of the bed.
In place of your child put pillows instead,
so the figure looks plump, the legs look extended,
while your child lays folded, or backward-bended,

with only a head peeking out — that’s all.
The rest tucked away in a gap by the wall.
Pretend now to chop. Fake cut and fake cleave.
A body divided. Or so we believe.

_____
Next week: “The Twizzer”

This poem is presented today as part of the dVerse poetry group and the Tuesday Poets, a blog founded by New Zealand poets, but which includes poets from around the world.

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Tuesday Poem: “The Elephanto”

The Elephanto: Illustration by Lynda Farrington Wilson, poem by Zireaux

“The Elephanto:” Illustration by Lynda Farrington Wilson (click on image to expand)

Many thanks for your feedback on “The Wallenbomber” last week. Very helpful. You can see the complete discussion here.

I now give you “The Elephanto,” another one of the”tuck-ins” from The Great Book of Tuck-ins, the unpublished collection I created for my children. These poems represent my first attempt at “children’s poetry” — although from last week’s comments, it appears the more suitable audience may be parents. I’ll present a third one, “The Twizzer,” next week, along with Lynda’s illustration. Do you start to get a feel for the work now? I’d be grateful for any thoughts or advice you can provide.

The Elephanto
Famous Tuck-in No. 413 from The Great Book of Tuck-ins

Ingredients:

One freshly made-up bed, or bunk.
One elephant with massive trunk.
Or parent’s arm. Or hose. Or pump.
One child (sleepless). One pillow (plump).

Instructions:

The trick to this tuck-in: Always make sure
the blanket is tight, the child is secure.
For if you’re not careful, amidst all the squealing,
you might find your child has shot through the ceiling.

Now quickly, before your intention is guessed,
extend out your hand and lock on the chest.
Don’t loosen your hold, no not by a fraction,
despite the wild wiggling and giggling reaction.

You won’t have much time to finish your work.
What parent can tuck-in a child gone berserk?
Despite all the squirming your hand must adhere
and vacuum each worry and suck out each fear.

For whether we wake up at sunrise or noon,
the moment we burst from our bedroom’s cocoon,
and march off to school, or skip off to play,
what countless impressions we gather each day.

And some we’ll forget, and some we may keep.
The bad ones will nag us and drag us from sleep;
and so we expel them — Presto! Pronto! —
by using this tuck-in: The Elephanto.

_____
Next week: “The Twizzer”

This poem is presented today as part of the dVerse poetry group and the Tuesday Poets, a blog founded by New Zealand poets, but which includes poets from around the world.

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Tuesday Poem: “The Wallenbomber”

Illustration by Lynda Farrington Wilson

“The Wallenbomber:” Illustration by Lynda Farrington Wilson (click on image to expand)

“The Wallenbomber” is one of a series of “tuck-ins” — that is, methods for tucking in a child to bed at night — from The Great Book of Tuck-ins, an unpublished collection I created for my children. The brilliant Lynda Farrington Wilson has now illustrated a few of these tuck-ins, while I’ve transformed them into poetry.

I’d be grateful for your impressions. Do you think parents of young children might be interested in these poems? Do you think children would enjoy them? I will publish some more tuck-ins over the next couple weeks.

The Wallenbomber
Famous Tuck-in No. 142 from The Great Book of Tuck-ins

Ingredients:

One child (courageous). Three pillows (soft).
One sturdy wall to prop you aloft.
Or ladder. Or tower. Or airplane — your choice.
One trumpet. Or just a very loud voice.

Instructions:

A word of warning before we get started:
This tuck-in is not for the weak or faint-hearted.
Or those who fear heights — not vertigo, no.
But those who are frightened of being…below.

Suspended pianos, or falling TVs,
or swords hung above us (see “Damocles”) —
how harmless such things when left at our level,
but once they are lifted, oh how they bedevil!

So stretch out the child, then lay lots of layers
of blankets and pillows – then say lots of prayers.
And once you have spread out the very last cover,
lean high on the wall, and wait there, and hover,

and hold it, just hold it, to build up the tension.
Now here I must mention that things in suspension
can seem very calm. But let it grow calmer.
Then trumpet at once: “WALLENBOMBER!”

Release from the wall! And let yourself drop!
And plop in a cushioning, smooshening flop.
You needn’t feel worried. Your child may be queasy.
But after such anguish, sleep will come easy.

_____
Next week: “The Elephanto”

This poem is presented today as part of the dVerse poetry group and the Tuesday Poets, a blog founded by New Zealand poets, but which includes poets from around the world.

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Tuesday Poem: The Final Episode of Kamal, Book One! “A Haunting, Sad Lacuna”

The Burning of the Library of Alexandria, by Hermann Goll (1876)

The Burning of the Library of Alexandria, by Hermann Goll (1876): ‘No doubt, in some unearthly realm, a vast / librarium of titles have amassed, / an anti-Alexandria to match / the one which Caesar had his men dispatch.’

Our hero is astonished to discover that the old, bedraggled stranger he met in the previous episode is none other than Ramana Narayanamurthy (a.k.a. Rick), Kamal’s old philosopher and friend (who always advised Kamal to “pursue the greater pleasure”).

But Rick still doesn’t recognize Kamal, who is badly burnt and disfigured. Rather, Rick thinks this horrific figure must have heard the story of Kamal and Imogene, a story which Rick has often told, and which he proceeds to summarize now — to our hero’s overwhelming grief.

We learn that Kamal’s mother found photographs of her son on a pornographic website (the photos, you’ll recall, taken while Kamal was drugged, without his knowledge); and that she shared this website with Imogene, who, as we know, was pregnant with Kamal’s baby; and that, as a result, Imogene has committed suicide. Unable to bear this news, Kamal passes out, and Book One comes to a close.

‘Kamal? Good try, my friend. You think I’d fall
for that? So you, it seems, have heard before
my story of Kamal and Imogene!
How he was banished, and she, the poor
naïve young girl – just turned sixteen –
heart-broken, wild, and furthermore,
now pregnant with his child, was by
her mom (my mistress) made to lie
with twenty men in just a single night
so she might temper sadness with delight.

The story always breaks my heart. Like you,
my friend, the men I tell the story to
feel most compassion for Kamal, who never
discovers how his Imogene, forever
in love with him, is ravaged by the pills
her mother makes her take in hopes
an overdose of drugs will kill
the unborn child; or how she copes
with so much self-disgust, until
one day, of her freewill, she takes
a razor (once Kamal’s) and makes
a slit along her forearm, this way-wise,
and on her favorite pink divan . . . she dies.

That’s right, she dies. “But poor Kamal!” I hear
them say. “They’ve both lost what they held most dear
– but he knows not her miseries! Imagine,”
they say, “when he discovers how his passion
was mistreated, crushed, defiled!” To which I say,
“Dear men, it’s she who suffers most!
Kamal, it’s true, was cast away,
and surely must have felt morose
for days – but hey, didn’t he obey
my firm philosophy? For sure
enough, did he not take my cure
for melancholy? Choose a greater pleasure.
To find our worth, it’s happiness we measure.

Queen of Sheba

The welcoming of the Queen of Sheba: “…of oceans crossed and golden fleeces found; / I write of Sheba bedded, children crowned…’

Not misery! Move on with life! Move on!
If one joy ends, then let another spawn!
And judging by the path Kamal selected
his heart’s already disconnected
from his first lost love. Two weeks
before my body turned to this
monstrosity – when I had cheeks
the ladies still adored to kiss,
when pills I took still worked! – a shriek
resounded through our mansion’s halls.
And then I heard my Lady call:
‘Come quickly, Rick!’ So to her room I sped.
‘You won’t believe it! Becky phoned and said

Kamal is now a worldwide celeb!
And look at this! I’ve found him on the web!’
Together, she and I – transfixed, amused,
astonished – every single page perused
of that amazing site. My friend, I can
attest, without a doubt, Kamal is not
a destitute or even mournful man.
O no! Of all the graphic, candid shots
we saw, of all the images we scanned
– Kamal engaged in carnal trysts;
Kamal the proud polygamist –
not one perspective of his face did show
the slightest trace of misery or of woe.

“Come quickly, Genie dear!” – my Lady wanted
her daughter to see, and so the site was flaunted
to the girl. Kamal the Libertine.
Kamal the Sultan in his nest of Queens.
Contrast his star with Imogene’s – who, quite
the opposite to him (I know
because I saw the painful sight),
refused to let her sadness go.
And so she suffered most despite
her final choice: That is, to die.
And die she did. And much as I
believe that such a choice confirms one’s strength,
the second measure of one’s life is length.

O yes, our lives are scored in years. In fact,
if I was frank, and asked to be exact
who suffered most, then, well, I might just say,
it was their baby…my friend? Are you okay?’

Kamal, as you have guessed, has quietly swooned
(for he already was recumbent)
and from the truth is now marooned
in cool oblivion’s abundance.
For when we cannot bear a wound,
a hurricane of numbness sweeps
us to that land where no one weeps
from either pain or pleasure. ‘The Land of Nod’,
as Stevenson once called that place abroad.*

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse

Hylas and the Nymphs, by John William Waterhouse (1896): Hylas was one of the Argonauts, sailing with Jason in search of the Golden Fleece. He encounters a bevy of naiads, who invite him into a pool. He is never heard from again.

Poor Imogene! I mourn her loss – or more, lament
the loss of anything adored.
Of anything on which we’ve spent
more thought than thinking can afford.
To find, at last, your lover gives consent
– I’m yours! I’m yours! – a gift it seems
that grants the kingdom of our dreams.
I do not write of love that’s unrequited.
No! I write of love attained then blighted.

Of beauty gained then lost; of pleasure’s throne
ascended, a million paradises owned;
of oceans crossed and golden fleeces found;
I write of Sheba bedded, children crowned;
of iridescent flashes chased and netted
and twitching with survival’s lust;
of sea-nymphs caught and dragons petted
– and all of it, alas, to dust!
The rose de-petalled, the muse beheaded.
Be clear! Be clear unthrottled throat!
Was it Stendhal or Proust who wrote
that love is sweeter in the past? But what
of love unfairly severed, cruelly cut?

With tragedy the future is devoured.
And reminiscence, too, is overpowered
by thoughts of present pleasures now aborted.
Each hope, however gently coaxed or courted,
refuses from our hand to feed – and runs!
(Yet lingers, still, beyond our touch).
Can characters a poet has spun
their maker ever know? So much
I feel for you, Kamal – a son,
as I have said – and yet for me
I don’t expect your sympathy….

Let shame say what it will! Like Laertes,
I let emotion douse indignities.
I promised you, Kamal, that I would give
you all I had – and loved – so you may live.
And this I’ve done. But O, how frail you are!
And how protective I’ve become.
For darkness threatens every star.
Who knows which rival will succumb
when fame and obfuscation spar?
For every book that’s published, one
exists – at least as good – which none
have heard of, books which editors have spurned.
A Xanadu porlocked! Lolita burned!

In every shelf of classics, there exists
a haunting, sad lacuna – lost, dismissed,
abandoned, silenced works of greatness. Works
blacked-out by popes and peons, kings and clerks;
or accidents, a freakish fire, or duels
of honor, libraries bombarded
by civilized, invading fools;
a drawer unopened, box discarded,
or all those ‘literary schools’
which poison future Socrates
with drafts of mediocrity.
Unwarranted, political hysteria!
Abhorrent camps, the gulags of Siberia!

No doubt, in some unearthly realm, a vast
librarium of titles have amassed,
an anti-Alexandria to match
the one which Caesar had his men dispatch.
For every book we read, a phantom one
is shelved within that catacomb.

My hope, Kamal, is that won’t you won’t inherit
that fate; for that is not the fate you merit.

– End of Book the First –

*A reference to the poem by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894), which goes:

From breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay,
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.

—–
Published as part of the dVerse poetry group and the Tuesday Poets, a blog founded by New Zealand poets, but which includes poets from around the world.

See the complete index of episodes from Kamal, Book One

Listen to Kamal read live!

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“The Man who had a Mid-Life Crisis at 26”

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1943), by Ivan Albright, oil on canvas.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1943), by Ivan Albright, oil on canvas.

Having been picked up and loaded into a car by a very large man (and myrmecologist) named Carl — and thus saved from a cruel woman — our badly wounded, disfigured hero encounters a man with a gun.

Kamal assumes this man is a soldier, also badly wounded, who has joined the front lines of the new war. Kamal invites the man into the car and listens to his story — and is astonished when he discovers the man’s true identity.

Now let me shape my final stanzas’ form:
This first book’s end is near indeed – and warm.
The sun, too motherly, too hot, too wearing,
is tender toward Kamal – and overbearing,
enwrapping him in fire. The car has stopped.

‘Wait here,’ says robust Carl. ‘I’ll see
if I can get some rations swapped
for bandages, okay? And we
will need some gas.’

                                           Kamal, now propped
atop some pillows, looks outside
across the olive blistered hides
of FEMA’s army tents that crenellate
a nearby park. Kamal obeys and waits

and sees a flutter of orange and violet laying
its eggs on mallow leaves; children playing
beside a fountain wall, an asphalt sponge;
and next to this, a steely cruise-ship plunged
into the earth from space – the Transco Tower,
imposing, tall, alone, austere.

Some minutes pass. It seems an hour.
Then suddenly a man steps near
– a hideous visage, his deathly glower
a muffin smeared with dirt and streaked
with sweat. And pressing flatbread-cheeked
against the window’s squeaking glass, he leers
inside. A fog around his mouth appears.

‘Please help!’ – his eyes like purple mushrooms spoiled,
his mouth an ancient ruin rimmed with boils.
What hair he has is clumped in sagebrush tufts,
his nose an oily bratwurst over-stuffed.
And yet (of course) Kamal is moved by pity
for such a ravaged hungry soul.
How sweet the country when a city
is smudged and smeared with clouds of coal!
Without an Anna, there’d be no Kitty;
Or too, without a Vronsky, Levin.
And dear Kamal, he finds a heaven
within his fellow creature’s fall. Which means
when help’s required, he quickly intervenes.

The Transco Tower in Houston

The Transco Tower in Houston, Texas: ‘…a steely cruise-ship plunged / into the earth from space…’

It’s like an anesthesia to his brain
– goodwill. And suddenly, despite the pain
that comes with any movement when one’s skin
is hot like embers pressed and paper thin,
Kamal collects his strength, unlocks the door.

‘Come in, brave soldier! This food and drink
is yours! And have some rest before
you must return to battle! Don’t think
me impolite – I’m very sore
and weak. For as you see, I’ve had
my scrape with death, like you, comrade.
But where you are a true contender, sir,
I’m but a meek and failed surrenderer.’

The famished man of course, too busy eating,
cannot reply or give a proper greeting.
Which doesn’t bother Kamal, who chatters for him
(as this, for speechless guests, is good decorum):

‘And where’s the enemy retreating to?
For surely they are not as strong
and brave and resolute as you?
Eat up! This food does not belong
to me but to a noble fellow who,
– with verity I can confide –
is charity personified!
And I am certain he would find it fair
with you his great prosperity to share.’

And in this vein Kamal continues, until,
at last, the man (perhaps against his will)
decides that he must speak. His mouth, a stubble
of crumbs and burgundy saliva bubbles,
gives voice:

                                     ‘The enemy? The enemy’s
right here! In here, by God! For with
a potent self-made venom he’s
destroying me! It is a myth
to think that wild and random seas
propel our boat with slippery wheel
which we can neither steer nor feel!
I chose to fight against myself because
I did not like the kind of man I was.

To be precise, I did not like his age!
I did all that I could to stop that stage
of life that follows youth. If you had known
me not too long ago, before I’d grown
into this decomposing piece of meat.
you might have said, “Hey, that was you
I saw on Hollywood’s Elite
last week – or was it in GQ?”
You would have kneeled and kissed my feet
beside the heels of movie stars!
For when I entered clubs or bars
I was – I swear to God – a pussy magnet!
But oh how quickly one’s good looks grow stagnant!

I saw it coming. Long ago I saw
it coming, knew deep down that beauty’s law
would not be broken – and only slightly bend.
And so I chose – for choice is ours, my friend –
to fight her foul enforcing years!
How old you think I am? A guess.’

Kamal tries hard to sound sincere,
although he picks a figure less
than what he thinks – for it appears
this ragged man is sixty or more.

‘Did you say forty? I’m thirty-four!
But that is one of beauty’s many prices:
To smite you with an early mid-life crisis!

My crisis came, in fact, at twenty-six!
For with perfection comes more flaws to fix!
My hair was curly, fleecy-gold, with Grecian
luxuriance, no hint of alopecian
inheritance; and yet I had a patch
of hair transplanted just in case
– and found the color didn’t quite match.
So out it came, which left a space
of baldness there. Another batch
of hair would take a month to grow,
or more, so I took pills – you know,
Propecia and Minoxidil – took both
together, in triple dose for greater growth.

Jean Claude Van Damme

Jean Claude Van Damme: ‘…and all those other scams, / to keep my booty as solid as Van Damme’s.’

And never stopped! And then the steroids – Oh!
I thought my muscles should be bigger, so
I chose, yes chose, a daily regimen
of HGH and anti-estrogen,
with all those supplements – like creatine,
and cortisol suppressors – in
my chest injected. Pure caffeine,
pregnenolone and insulin,
and all the rest. A drug machine
I was, by God! And then the diets!
Every weight-loss ruse – I’d try it.
The hoodias, voodias, and all those other scams,
to keep my booty as solid as Van Damme’s.

I was by all accounts a doughty male,
and yet the day Viagra went on sale,
I chose to swallow one per day, then three,
then one per hour – that’s right! – to guarantee
a permanent virility.’

I always knew the side effects would come!
The falling hair, the roid-rage bouts, a numb
and mangled member! Worse! The sleeplessness
and nausea! O God! And I’d address
each symptom with a quick-fix cure
that kept me normal for a week,
a day, or less, to reassure
observers of my young physique.
I used these cures to make damn sure
– like that locked room and purple pall
which hid that portrait . . . can’t recall
the story, Cory something’

                                                         – ‘Dorian Gray?’–

‘That’s right . . . so none would see my youth decay.

A locked-up room of scar revisions, laser
resurfacing – see here? No clumsy razor
made these slices cross my scalp. It was
a surgeon grafting on some fresh new fuzz.
Or these cuts here; my face was lifted
twenty times. Or here, where fat
was sucked out from my breasts, which shifted
my nipples – see? Or look at that,
they carved the cancer out –’

                                                                          Kamal,
a gentleman and diplomat,
who wasn’t so much worried that
he could not bear the site of carcinomas,
but rather that he’d faint from the aromas

which wafted acridly into his nose
from this confessor’s mouth, and wounds, and clothes,
– politely said, ‘It is your heart, good sir,
which though unseen, is proof your story’s pure.’

‘My heart? My heart was not immune to me!
With steroids, all its valves gained mass
and each aortic artery
was stretched and strained. Just one bypass,
was not enough. Why, I had three.
I shouldn’t have had the last one done,
for by the age of thirty-one
I’d had eleven seizures of the heart.
And there were times it almost didn’t re-start.

Despite my ills, to those who knew me best
I still looked fit. You never would have guessed
I’d lost my teeth that day, or had a stroke;
that underneath my skin’s cosmetic cloak
a different man was aging way too fast.
Until one day – not long ago –
I looked into the mirror aghast!
For as a corpse will no more show
upon its flesh the maggots massed
within, until, at once, they burst
outside, the maladies immersed
in me – ’til then emerging twice, at most,
per day – now all at once lay waste their host.

No surgery, no treatment could repair
my ravaged body – look at me! My hair
is gone! I dribble urine, fail to feel
my feces pass until the stuff congeals
between my legs. My skin is sap, my bones
are foam, my mouth a festering sore.
What could I do but leave my home?
And luckily, just then the war
had started! I told my friends (by phone).
“I’m going off to win your freedom!”
But invalids – what armies need ‘em?
Not ours. No way. They looked at me and said
why fight for us when you’re already dead?

Cary Grant Male War Bride

Cary Grant in the movie Male War Bride

I’m not a soldier – look, this gun’s not loaded,
nor can it be. At most it has exploded
a paintball on a TV show. These pants
are from a party. I went as Cary Grant
in Male War Bride – yes, a pretty sight!
I wore a satin bridal gown,
and underneath its sheeny white
these camouflage fatigues I found
at Army Surplus. What a night,
I tell you! Sheridan was played
by Ms. De______, who once portrayed
the call-girl in that classic, Lucy’s Crime.
But that, no doubt, was long before your time.’

His speech, till now unfelt as such, a line
of finest fiber passing through a mind –
Kamal’s – which ripples to a pattern all
its own, begins to catch and drag some small
amount of dross, then gather weeds and twigs,
then snag, at once, upon a rock
of memory so firm, so big,
the jolt begets a massive shock.

‘A beauty, then, but now a prig.
And am I bitter? No! For I enjoy
this great new power to annoy
my listeners by giving them a drink
of words they can’t refuse despite my stink!’

Contending with absurdity to gather
his thoughts, Kamal pronounces – ‘Rick? Or rather,
O master Narayanamurthy! It’s me! Kamal!’

_____
Published as part of the dVerse open mike and the Tuesday Poets, a blog founded by New Zealand poets, but which includes poets from around the world.

See the complete index of episodes from Kamal, Book One

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Anniversary of a Puzzle, and Final Two Episodes of Kamal

Niagara Falls With a Rainbow

Niagara Falls with Blue Sky and Rainbow

Just two more episodes of Kamal — this Tuesday and next — to finish Book One.

I’ll then introduce some brand new poems for children, illustrated by the brilliant Lynda Farrington Wilson, who helped me diagram the imagery behind “At Melville’s Tomb,” by Hart Crane.

By the way, still no solvers of the puzzle poem — “A Little Morsel of Immortality.” This week marks its one year anniversary. There’s still a free copy of my latest novel for the puzzle’s solver.

Yours,
-Z

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