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.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1943), by Ivan Albright, oil on canvas.
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, 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,
‘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: ‘…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.
, 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 –’
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 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
Listen to Kamal read live!