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Glimpses of the Modern Empire: “From the Ruins of Empire” by Pankaj Mishra

From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia
by Pankaj Mishra
368 pages, September 2012
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Part II. The Chariot Drive of Progress

Of course the boom-bust — or dupe-dust — cycle of American prosperity, where the morning’s hangover is never enough to chasten the next evening’s scam-party, would all be very cute and picturesque in a small town Mississippian sort of way if charlatanism wasn’t unrestrained by borders (and if America wasn’t the most powerful country on earth).

Empires are about enlisting subjects; and trickery likes to travel. In the 19th century, vast dominions of dupes were just a train ride away from savvy swindlers and their top hats. And for the patron of Calcutta’s coffee houses, London must have felt as near, yet as remote and powerful, as today’s Wall Street feels to the McDonald’s cashiers in Nebraska. Railways, steamships, the printing press, the telegraph – these at once compressed the world geographically (with the wonders of Cairo no farther from Trafalgar Square than a Thomas Cook ticket and a travel guide) while at the same time expanding the terrain of daily thought. Foreign realms and ideas not only influenced explorers and travelling merchants, but they started to permeate the brains of people who never left their hometowns.

In Moby Dick, as Ishmael prepares to set sail on his whaling voyage from Manhattan (December, 1840), the local newspapers are talking about the US presidential election between William Harrison and Walter Van Buren. But they are also proclaiming, in enormous typeface according to Ishmael, “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN.” Such is the prophetic quality of great art. Afghanistan was never very far away from New York. America, as only Melville might have foreseen, would eventually take over those bloody battles, after the British and the Russians, and the relationship between Kabul and New York would become more intimate and more dangerous. The first Anglo-Afghan war left only one British survivor, or two if you count his beleaguered pony – the pair limping out of the Afghan desert and into the famous painting by Lady Elizabeth Butler (recently ekphrasticized in William Dalrymple’s book, The Return of the King). From that moment on, Afghanistan would become a kind a mysterious White Whale that would forever madden whichever foreign power was most obsessed with conquering it.

There were other moments in those years of colonial expansion when the bow of Empire would feel the shuddering ram of the White Whale’s head. The Sepoy Mutiny in India. Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905. But military engagement, the harpooning, the spilling of blood, was merely the culmination of a much bigger story. Military victories offered more of a confidence boost than any actual resolution. What mattered – what always matters in Empire – had more to do with communications, with culture, language, education, wealth and status; and perhaps most of all, according to Pankaj Misha in From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia, the ideas of writers and thinkers, many of whom would experience some pained epiphanies of their own.

“Was the successful business-man the grand culmination of manhood toward which evolution was striving?” chided one such intellectual, the Bengali poet and philosopher, Aurobindo Ghosh. “The British aristocrat, the American capitalist…these, I believe, are the chief triumphs of the European enlightenment to which we bow our heads.”

Ghosh’s sarcasm might sound more humorous today if it hadn’t solidified into the ordinary; that is, if we didn’t find the same apotheosis, Homo businessmanius, in the modern worship of Zuckerberg and Tata; if a generation of Indian smart-phone programmers weren’t still bowing their heads to the Tony Starks of their imagination. But in Ghosh’s time, an alternative life, the life of the intellectual, of spiritual contemplation, of old world tradition, a life free of stock market theology was something entire populations were not only willing to consider, but to rally behind, even to die for. What would modernity make of us, they wondered? Should we live the noisy material life of British broughams and brandy; or can we choose a simpler, more contemplative lifestyle of dhotis and yoga in a Pondicherry ashram?

Ghosh is just one of a large supporting cast of poets, philosophers, novelists, political leaders and thinkers who provide the intellectual chorus behind the three main sopranos in Mishra’s book: The Iranian born Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, China’s Liang Quichao, and the Bengali Indian, Rabindranath Tagore. Together their voices, rarely harmonious, provide an intellectual score for the drawn-out, colonial fin de siècle that occurred in the 19th and early 20th century across the region of earth that spreads between the Red Sea and the Pacific Ocean – a landmass which the ancient, eastward-gazing Greeks lumped together under the toponym of “Asia.”

Mishra uses this term “Asia,” along with its typical East vs. West connotations, as a kind of balancing pole to steady his delicate crossing of ideological divides. But he’d be fine without it. The vigour and vastness of his reading allows him to travel on firm ground, and any themes which unify his subjects have little to do with geography. On the contrary, what al-Afghani, Liang and Tagore have in common – to say nothing of Mishra himself – is not a sharing of culture or place, but rather it’s the seeking of greater understanding through experiences abroad.

For such is the nuance, contradiction, wealth of insight gleaned from a life away from home that well-known Imbibers of its active ingredient (often mixed with poverty and lost love) would quickly fill an A-Z list of brilliant artists and visionaries. Only in 1880ss Paris would the Persian-born al-Afghani awake to the shortcomings of both Islam and science; with Islam needing a reformation (himself as Martin Luther), and science unable “to satisfy humanity’s thirst for the ideal.” Only through his journey to San Francisco and New York in the 1903 did the Canton native, Liang Qichao, begin to see Americans themselves as victims of subjugation. “How strange, how bizarre!” he writes in the tone that would harmonize perfectly with Packer’s Unwinding. “The entire national wealth of America is in the hands of 200,000 rich people.” And Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature – more an artist than a theorist – would find a far more brotherly reception in his long-distant journey to Carnegie Hall than in his much closer travels to Hankou or Beijing.

For all their anguish over foreign influences, the three great intellects in From the Ruins also shared a common frustration: The way their fellow countrymen, like today’s low-income Americans who support tax cuts for the rich, would often prefer to mimic their masters’ behavior than to challenge their authority. “The British rule in India is the most wonderful phenomenon the world has seen,” declared Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, an Indian Muslim working for the East India Company at the time of the Indian Mutiny. But this mimicry of European ways, argued al-Afghani, would only expose them to European rule; and Gandhi, Liang Qichao and just about every other intellectual in From the Ruins of Empire would concur. “We have for over a century been dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot,” wrote Tagore, adding with a similar sense of self-blame: “We agreed to acknowledge that this chariot drive was progress, and that progress was civilization.”

Tagore, by the way, seems eloquent; his metaphors mostly creative, organic, trustworthy. Mishra is generous with sources and historical context, but without access to the original languages, it can be hard to know which thinkers to trust. Vulgarity can evaporate in translation (oh the liberation one feels residing in a country where one can’t understand the language!). Intellectualism, too, has its share of shysters; and in the early 20th century, millions of people would fall victim to cheap social metaphors: Chains and shackles. Foreign influences were weeds to be rooted out. Enemies were always cancers “metastasizing,” with unwelcome lifestyles becoming tumours in need of surgical extraction. In presenting these dull ideas as worth our consideration, From the Ruins of Empire can sometimes feel like a quaint relic from a bygone era.

But the book — vast, plodding, often magnificent – is written with the intensity of labour and undying sense of purpose we find in Korea’s impoverished General Pak, who, unable to afford the train fare, must trudge alongside the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railway, hoping to represent his country at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (arriving too late, alas). An arresting image, this journey of Pak’s, especially as the railway became such a symbol of the colonial enterprise. “The railway, the life-giver,” wrote India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, “has always seemed to me like iron bands confirming and imprisoning India.”

Liberating to some; bondage to others. A gourmet dining car filled with merry travellers hurtling from Paris to the exotic Orient; while a destitute General Pak is walking the other direction. This trudge against the prevailing English flow of expansion, wealth and conquest – this is the arduous journey on which Mishra sets himself and his subjects: Men poor in material possession (Afghani, writes Mishra, “surprised his Ottoman hosts with his meagre luggage”); men largely unrecognized in the English world; but men who are rich and powerful in intellect. In other words, neglected men, disrespected men, and yet men who, despite extreme hunger and the wise advice of female co-travelers, still refuse to stop and ask for directions.

The counter-forces, meanwhile — racism, greed, the might of the English language — are relentless. They need to be. Mishra’s “Asia,” after all, is home to sixty percent of the earth’s population. The imperial powers never had the numbers for a fair exchange of ideas. They required shiftier, more persuasive means to control the multitudes. Take, for example, the German-born entrepreneur, Paul Julius Reuter (Baron de Reuter). It wasn’t enough, we’re told, that in 1872 the Baron finagled a complete monopoly over the construction of Iran’s railways, roads, factories, dams and mines. Reuters news agency would carry on propagating what Mishra mildly calls a “filtered view” of Asia throughout the next century, amplifying its global chauvinism over local, more considered voices (Reuters was al-Afghani’s “bug-bear,” writes Mishra) and becoming a kind of Fox News commentator for the protection of European business interests.

Behind this “filtered view” that started in Europe and morphed, in the late 19th century, into the yellow journalism of Hearst and Pulitzer in America, the beast of Empire would evolve, shape-shift, consolidate. If the intellectuals in From the Ruins of Empire really did “remake” Asia, it’s hard to see their handiwork now. If they helped describe the Imperial leviathan of their times, they may also have made it more difficult for future generations to recognize its mutations. Fifty-six years after India’s independence, the country’s top graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi was quoted in The Hindu newspaper as relishing the opportunity to work (where else?) for Google or Facebook – the emerging Reuters of the modern world. A century ago it was “British rule is wonderful.” Today it’s “all hail the iPad.”*

While From the Ruins of Empire sustains itself on the concept of East vs. West, the dichotomy appears to have run its course, and was never very accurate or interesting to begin with. Perhaps New World vs. Old World is more apropos. Or spiritualism vs. materialism. But even these dualities seem antiquated in this age of Zen-themed shopping malls and yoga-oriented in-flight services (while some of the world’s greatest spiritualists, from Wordsworth to Whitman to Blake, are products of a hemisphere which Mishra broadly paints “materialist”).

What’s far more interesting – and largely absent in From the Ruins — is the realization, be it through travel or introspection or the onset of crises, that one has crossed a divide without realizing it. Or that the divide is not as clear as one supposed. Indeed, the moment we apply the trickery vs. innocence filter of Twain’s (or of India’s equivalent, let’s say, the novelist R. K. Narayan), the boundary between East and West is quick to blur. Dukes and Kings in Mississippi. Swamis and Godmen in Tamil Nadu. Bernie Madoff and Glen Beck. Sai Baba and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

Supreme fraudsters have never cared a jot for where or when they were born.

_____
*I recall a private conversation some years ago with a journalist in Hyderabad who expressed concern about the influence of Google in India. “But I can’t write about it,” he said, “because nobody wants to hear anything negative about Google.”

Read Part III

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“At Melville’s Tomb” by Hart Crane

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Zireaux's diagram of "At Melville's Tomb" (click to expand). Special thanks to Lynda Farrington Wilson for her help with the drawing.

Zireaux’s diagram of “At Melville’s Tomb” (click to expand). Special thanks to Lynda Farrington Wilson for her help with the drawing.

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
A risk, I know, to post this poem by Crane. I can already hear the twitter-twatter of distracted brains, like bird feet on a tin roof. The furrow of brows(ers). The clicks of the mice — back-button, window closed. What a strain this cranial Crane! Too hard, too dense!

But stay, my reader. Let us creep across the stars. A little voyage for us to make. A little ship for us to sink in.

It’s in our biology, programmed in our souls, to feel attraction to water. Crane, who found his dirty pleasure (dirty to him, that is) in sailors and their scepters, leapt off a steamship into the Gulf of Mexico. A suicide, apparently, after a male crew member responded violently to his physical advances.

“Harold Hart Crane 1899–1932 lost at sea,” reads the inscription on his father’s tombstone.

I’m no Cranophile, not by a longboat, and only recently — budded by Bloom (Harold) and carried by a Griffin (John) — has my interest come anywhere near the poet. But here’s Crane now, floating beside us, his debris on the page, in water writ, forever inscribed in “Melville’s Tomb.”

And it’s not every day a dead man speaks. Poets know death. They betroth themselves to death and learn how to “charm its lashings,” so to speak (see my notes on “Of Mere Being”). One measure of a great poet: The degree to which she mingles amongst the living and the dead.

In the history of great poetic voyages, Melville — who was foremost a poet (a fact I’ve stated before and which so often astonishes my readers, as if there was any question about it) — was death’s first mate and closest companion. Our Harold Crane, by comparison, was a mere able seaman, and his poem “At Melville’s Tomb” is a little wooden rower compared to Herman’s mighty Pequod. A single swipe of Moby’s tail would dash this poem into a 110 pieces.

But it holds water. It’s seaworthy. Can survive a humpback, maybe. Keep us from the sharks.

Observe my diagram. Most importantly, observe the position of the drowned Melville “beneath the waves” (he died and was buried on land, in fact, but Crane is speaking of his spirit here). Observe the living poet, standing on shore, beer bottle in hand, contemplating the ocean from his “ledge.” Ledge, of course, being a thing from which people, especially edgy, ledgy poets, often fall…or leap.

We start with the “embassy” — a Shakespearean locution for a message (see “Sonnet XLV,” Twelfth Night, King Henry V, etc) — which is “bequeathed” from sea to land, from washed-up bones to (dust-to) dusty sand. Speaking of messages, are those Crane’s fingerprints on chapter 104 of Moby Dick from where he stole the word “bequeath” — indeed stole the whole idea of messages coming from the mysterious underwater dead?

They are. The word “bequeath” appears once is that leviathan novel, in the chapter titled, suitably, “The Fossile Whale.” Ishmael describes how whales “bequeath [their] ancient bust” in limestone and marl. Messages from bones. And interestingly, in the very next sentence, Ishmael describes how whales also appeared in Egyptian hieroglyphics — writing, forsooth! — represented by the print of a whale’s fluke.

You can see, in my diagram, this cycle from bones to messages to chapters and hieroglyphs — and this is very important, because Crane is about to deliver his most astonishing and brilliant couplet:

Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Crane himself offered clues about these lines in a letter to the perplexed editor of Poetry magazine, Harriet Monroe, who initially rejected the poem. But Crane assumes — incorrectly — his readers can at least understand the basic layout of his vision.

I’ve read at least a dozen other commentators of these lines. Bloom, Buckingham, Franks, Irwin, Leibowitz, Lewis, Penn Warren, Quinn, Tate, Woods, others. Crane’s metaphors are so tightly packed (the calyx, for example, possesses both the whirlpool-like cavity created by a sinking ship and the flowers one puts on a grave) that none of these admirers seem to completely grasp the clear visual precision, the exactitude, which Crane has achieved.

Looking up from below: Hart Crane would have appreciated this camera angle in the movie Life of Pi.

Looking up from below: Hart Crane would have appreciated this camera angle in the movie Life of Pi.

Monroe couldn’t understand how eyes could “lift altars.” But in chapter 119 of Moby Dick, titled “The Candles,” Melville writes of the corpusants (also known as St. Elmos Fire) that ignite the Pequods masts: “Each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.” The sky, the horizon in Moby Dick, is a kind of altar, the masts are like candles. To Crane’s drowning sailors then, their frosted eyes looking upward as they sink into the ocean depths, it really would appear as if the alter were being lifted.

And what about the answers creeping across the stars? “As soon as the water has closed over a ship,” Crane writes in his polite exegesis to Monroe, “this whirlpool sends up broken spars, wreckage, etc., which can be alluded to as livid hieroglyphs, making a scattered chapter…”

In other words, the “embassy,” or message, has gone out to the shore; its “answer” then — following the allure of the sea — has come back by ship, which (like Ahab’s Pequod) founders and sinks, leaving its wreckage, as scattered chapters, or livid (sea-smeared) hieroglyphs, to float across the ocean’s surface.

Observe again my diagram and see my point: From Melville’s perspective, from his position at the cruel bottom of the ocean looking upward from his tomb, the “answers,” the replies to the “embassy,” the scattered bits of wreckage, really would appear to silently creep across the stars.

The silence here is crucial, too. We can hear so little when we’re underwater. Especially at the bottom of the sea. Wrecks pass “without sound of bells” — the same bells which Crane borrows from chapter nine of Moby Dick: “The continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog”.

Similarly the floating wreckage above us is absolutely silent. This will hurt Crane-lovers, but Disney — a la Pirates of the Caribbean — has given this perspective an almost camp quality; camera looking up from below at the floating bodies and debris above. And, too, the dead silence.

So naturally the “monody” — the song of poets, of this poet, this poem, coming as it does above the boundaries of Melville’s tomb, “high in the azure steeps” (the word “steeps” packed not just with height and loftiness, but with eyes, jewels, stars) — is silent as well. With this understanding, with this sense of being deep underwater, amidst the absolute silence, the final line of the poem presents itself as — ironically, given Crane’s craving to leap from the ledge — a celebration of being alive.

Because to the sea-entombed Melville, to “the mariner” looking up from below, the water’s surface is the limit of his world. There are “no farther tides.” Life, music, poetry, beauty, the sheer power of Crane’s language, this fabulous world in which we live above the surface of the sea — it’s but a shadow to those who lie beneath.

———–
Zireaux, who can’t help but break a word-limit for Herman and Hart, is the author of four novels, including
Kamal, which is currently being serialized on the web. His first novel, written in 1990s, will be available in paperback soon (with a free copy going to whoever solves this puzzle poem).

Please be sure to visit the poets over at Tuesday Poem. Surely there’s a Hart amongst them — Crane and Melville both sharing periods in their careers of extreme, debilitating under-appreciation. It’s a good reader’s responsibility, therefore, to locate and cherish the treasures in the tolling fog.

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“Be Clear, My Throat!” — The Story of Kamal, by Zireaux

I'm going to tell you the story of Kamal...

I’m going to tell you the story of Kamal…

My dearest followers, friends, subscribers, re-tweeters, and most of all, my good readers and listeners:

I’m going to tell you the story of Kamal — one of the great stories of modern American literature. I’m going to tell it through a combination of clear, explanatory text and rollicking, evocative verse, in a much abridged version of the original (the first book alone is told in 5,472 lines of structured rhyme).

It’s a story I know you’ll want to hear.

I begin with you, my small and most loyal following of readers. But of course, for Kamal to succeed — for the story to live on — it will require more readers as we go. Which means, if you’re enjoying the story, kindly request other good readers like yourself to join Immortalmuse.com as “followers” (or enter the email address in the left sidebar, or request to register here) so they can participate in the story as well. Users can unregister at any time if the story is not engaging (but it will be engaging, trust me).

I dedicate this telling of Kamal

to M.

…and to my father

Voltaire at 70. Engraving from 1843 edition of his Philosophical Dictionary.

Voltaire at 70. Engraving from 1843 edition of his Philosophical Dictionary.

In the opening stanzas, the narrator — whose name is Arcady — describes his determination to tell the story of Kamal no matter what. Even if he, Arcady, is unknown to the world, or lacks the poetic skills, or the artistic angst, or even if he sings off-key or gets his words wrong. Even if he’s past his poetic prime. Because nothing is more important in his life than the story he’s about to tell…

I – echem – be clear, unthrottled throat! –
I do not seek to hail the Muse of Epics.
I’ll sing this tale even if my notes
should make dogs howl and editors dyspeptic
and readers seize the DVD player’s remote
to watch more handsome heralds in action
(A-list artists like Lucas or Jackson,
whose instruments are loud and long
and far more profitable than any song
I could pipe!). Because my story’s ripe!
I cannot wait for that perfect type
of angel! I’ll settle for a spirit more modest
– a muse for a poet who’ll never find a goddess.

Depiction of Russian firing squad, 1849. ‘No firing squad (concoctor, it, / of Dostoyevsky’s doctorate).’ Dostoyevsky was condemned to death, lined up to be shot, and at the last minute, issued a reprieve — an event which perhaps gave birth to the intellectual.

Never? O surely I could search the Net
for inspiration – ‘scarlet AND lips,’ etcetera,
a yearning Humbert ‘Googling’ his lost nymphet
(nymphomaniacs, most cyber Jet Setters are!).
But what if heaven’s website tried to get
my own details? I’d frighten off the Sirens!
They want deformities, like Byron’s
foot, or synesthesia in childhood,
the taking of drugs and lovers like Wilde would
and friends at The New Yorker! I’ve never
been published. I’ve never been told I was clever
by courting agents. I’m married, happy and rich.
A life too tame for muses to bewitch.

A life devoid of those credentials
which writers require – the Yale-at-sea
which Melville had; or that essential
diploma of wit – the jail degree
which made Voltaire so consequential.
No war. No firing squad (concoctor, it,
of Dostoyevsky’s doctorate).
I’ve never even smoked! My name,
Arcady, itself evokes the tame
suburban streets and shade-smeared grass
which I, like Virgil’s hero, alas,
would one day flee – O what a claim! I sought
to find a richer Bucolic. Aeneas I’m not.

Robert Graves

The poet, Robert von Ranke Graves (1895 – 1985): ‘Is it true what Robert Graves once said, / that any poet over thirty’s dead?”

But hear me out – I near my autumn years!
The sun shines low upon the sea, which heaves
beneath its silver breastplate. A south wind clears
out summer’s comfort and chills the yellowed leaves
that hang like badges on trees – those brigadiers
who’ve never fought wars, but hearing
the rattle of distant canons, and fearing
their forces won’t respond to commands
untested by battle, would rather stand
tall and be slaughtered than be retired!
Perhaps my ‘sell by’ date’s expired?
Is it true what Robert Graves once said,
that any poet over thirty’s dead?

And was I ever fresh? I was! Like Spring
I was! I swear that no one’s felt more loyal
passion for her Highness Beauty! To sing
until she wept! To kiss her pink and royal
cheek! To hold her hand, two wedding rings
enfolded in our fingers! I knew,
however, these visions wouldn’t come true.
I was like the peasant who –
though well attired – must jump to view
the Princess from behind the throng.
My dress was right. My lineage wrong.
Her carriage crushed my roses. A Moses or Milton
I’m not – but nor will I sing for Paris Hilton!

Lord Byron Paris Hilton

Lord Byron (1788–1824): “. . . I’d frighten off the Sirens! / They want deformities, like Byron’s / foot . . .” Paris Hilton (born 1981): ‘A Moses or Milton / I’m not – but nor will I sing for Paris Hilton . . .’

Yet look – my story’s bucking in its chute!
My hero on its back regardless! Dare I
leave imagination bard-less and mute
just because immortal maidens care not
for a star-less suitor of scar-less repute
– and the kind of life, in truth, like an ad
for life insurance? Adventures I’ve had
in youth were mostly on computers,
or televisions (those deadpan tutors).
Professional parents; the sort who wish
their Jewish brood were less Jewish.
Their parents worked hard so we could have it all.
I thank them. Now let me introduce Kamal . . .

__________
See the complete index of episodes from Kamal, Book One

 

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“America” by Zireaux

‘…and, of course / by Sendak’s blessed isle…’

America
by
Zireaux

(Lines from Kamal, Book One).

To M.

America! You gave me your tongue.
Your child-bard who madly swung
your throbbing bullroarer around
his head to hear the primal sound
of Quaoar – out there among

the muted witnesses of rape,
the oaks and willows and wild grape
(who once heard stories Ovid’s lyre
would take a thousand years to sire )
– that child, who with your giants shivered
in his sleep, whose soul was roused
by songs that crossed a frozen river’s
rails to Ursula (which housed
the torch dear Langston and Zora delivered);
was stirred by Twain’s and Whitman’s sermons,
inspired by Nathan, Edgar and Herman
(forgive me, men — you shouldn’t be put
in lists to keep one’s rhyme afoot);
and christened – or rather, his faith determined

by Walden’s water (and, of course,
by Sendak’s blessed isle — that source
of yearned for metamorphosis) –
O! I could go on like this,
but here’s my point: That child was me!
Is me still! Your wondrous lessons
even now – in south-most sea –
still surface with their phosphoresce.
Usonian Calliope!
Great Astronaut of Art! The part
you played for me still stokes my heart;
– for who, but you, oh country mine,
could give the god of epic rhyme
a wife like Marge, a son like Bart?

And then there are my children. Their sleep
reminds us: Angels are not ours to keep.
That never-met custodian takes back
her wards each night. A firm but light arrest,
as when a butterfly, on losing track
of up and down, decides it might just test
that rippling sky that blinks below (in fact,
a shimmering pond) and lo, it’s quickly pressed
into a specimen! So, too, my kids,
– awake beyond their closed eyelids –

seem caught in buoyant immobility.
Kamal’s face shows that same tranquility.
He even has my little Clara’s way
of tipping down her chin, as when a tide
recedes, the shore dips down into a bay;
the day’s sweet effervescent magic sighed
out from her chest. Kamal’s lips also splay
apart, and seem unlikely to subside;
the upper most of all – not just agape,
but puckered in a suckling shape.

_____
Published as part of the dVerse poetry group.

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“A Weirdly Whispering Wind” — Stanzas 227 to 234

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Third

How our narrator, waking safely on his island, celebrates his survival – but then, to his despair, discovers an unexpected hatchling . . .

Form All Black rugby star, Marc Ellis, streaking at a provincial rugby match in 2007.

Marc Ellis, former New Zealand rugby star and founder of Charlie's Juice company, streaking at a provincial rugby match in 2007.

227.

Delirious dreams. A raw and painful
sun aroused me. I do not mean
the sun itself was shining; the scene
to which my sore – but proud, disdainful –
body now awoke was shadow-less;
the sky in pure white doctor’s dress,
the sun a stethoscopic metal
on a ghastly patient pressed.
So has his heartbeat finally settled?
Is the air back in his chest?
And still those taunting words – raw
and pain and sun. And kelp. I saw
no kelp, yet seemed to feel it round me.
How strange such words should so confound me.

228.

Where were they coming from? I wrestled
free of that well-fettered spot
– for seeking warmth, my legs were caught
by several nets in which they’d nestled.
I staggered up and looked around.
Tug’s twisted crane, like sniffing hound
in stiffened point, had found the very
spot where once the albatross
had looked at me with dark and wary
eyes. And there ol’ Tug had tossed
her smokestack pipe, which looked just like
a great harpooner’s skillful strike.
(What jokester muse to blame, that whaling
spawns the double-rhyme – impaling?)

229.

And there – untouched, untroubled – my planted
flag, all droop and drag, still stood
amongst the scraps of splintered wood
and strewn debris of disenchanted
dunnage. A truant, upturned drawer
of knives. And scattered on the shore
some tanks of water. A book (which heartened,
for it had landed someplace dry):
Melville’s Typee. A Charlie’s carton108
of juice (a mate of mine, that guy),
remarkably full, yet slightly scrunched
as if it had been stomach-punched.
Some happy news: my one-way shipment
had safely delivered my camp equipment.

Herman Melville: 'A book (which heartened, / for it had landed someplace dry): / Melville’s <em>Typee</em>'

Herman Melville: 'A book (which heartened, / for it had landed someplace dry): / Melville’s Typee'

230.

A tent. A bed. Some cargo had drifted
out to sea while I was lost
in throbbing dreams. A minor cost.
I couldn’t help feel but I’d been gifted
my life! This land! I scooped some sand
and kissed it! O all the dreams I’d planned,
my country! Our fate would be debated
in parliament – or parlia-tent
I should say – on my inflated
mattress, with me, just me, to represent
myself, a population of one.
To hold an election (and know I’d won!).
To write, to pass, to sign a treaty
sent by bottle to Tahiti;

231.

to draft new laws each year but never
let them pass, then on a whim
to check an imbalance, or take a swim
– or take a shit! And so forever
to break from Samuel Johnson’s rule
(that Republics are governed by more than one fool)109
A single fool I’d be with numerous
voices in my head. This struck
me as so credible, so humorous,
a wave of laughter felled me. What luck,
to go insane before my camp
was made, amongst these tattered, damp,
remains of my absurd intentions!
The mind must check its own inventions.

232.

But just as I was pacifying
these befuddling thoughts, I heard
those words again. What fish or bird
or god was speaking? I tried replying:
Raw!’ I shouted. ‘How raw my pain!
Where is the sun?’ – and in this vein
I tried conversing with that crazy
agent in my head, but soon
survival’s sunbeam cleared my hazy
thoughts. The rainy afternoon
detained me long beneath a torn
and trembling tarp. And when the storm
had passed, that eerie voice was silent.

‘Concussions make our thoughts turn violent.’

233.

That’s what I thought, my dear! Some knocking
of my head it must have been!
Some damage to the wit within
had made me hear some spirits talking
(while giving them such little speech;
no more than fi ve or six words each).
It wasn’t until the following morning,
when truly the sun appeared – a pink
electrifying sort of warning
bulb, for how it flashed and blinked
as it prepared for its ascent –
that I began to think, would I invent
such words? And not until that strobing
sun matured, and I was probing

234.

through the wreckage for some cooking
gear and kindling, did I decide
those words were more than mumbling tide
or weirdly whispering wind; and looking
for their source might give me peace
of mind. The murmurs, however, had ceased
a while. I fed on Tim-Tams.110 Then heard it
– ‘Kelp! O kelp!’ – muffled, yet clear.
I scanned the land where I inferred it
must be coming from. Just near
a crate filled with tin cans, a drum
of what I thought was oil had come
to rest. Or rather, not quite. That liver-
colored drum – I saw it shiver!


Samuel Johnson c. 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Samuel Johnson c. 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds: 'to break from Samuel Johnson’s rule / (that Republics are governed by more than one fool)'

108 Charlie’s Not From Concentrate (NFC) Orange Juice was co-founded by the New Zealand rugby league and rugby union player, Marc Ellis (born 1971). He is also a television celebrity known for – as this editor’s Kiwi colleague puts it – ‘somehow stepping outside the natural time continuum and doing adult things, such as running a business, hosting sport and travel shows, while never looking, or acting, older than 20. And thus, his youthful indiscretions, such as buying illegal party drugs, or talking on television about “sweating like a rapist,” or encouraging streakers to disrupt a televised sporting event, are usually forgiven as typical Kiwi “lad” behavior.’
109 Samuel Johnson, in his
Dictionary of the English Language (London, Walker and Co, new edition, 1853, page 536), defines the word Republick: ‘state in which the power is lodged in more than one.’
110 Produced by Arnott’s, the Tim Tam is made up of two dry, brown biscuits separated by chocolate cream and dipped in chocolate. For some reason, each package of Tim Tams contains exactly 11 biscuits, which requires the breaking of one biscuit to equitably share the entire package between two people.

__________
Zireaux’s comments on these stanzas
And so at last the relevance of our title — Res Publica — becomes clear: ‘A state in which power is lodged in more than one.’

To recap: Our narrator has discovered a tiny island. He’s claimed it as his own. He’s packed up a boat, set off by himself to live out the rest of his life upon that little rock amidst the open sea. But as he nears the island, in heavy swells, he finds no place to land his boat. He doesn’t want to turn back. His life on the mainland is miserable. He decides, instead, to crash his boat upon the island’s frothy shores. A shipwreck, by god — and lo! He survives! With no way to return (the boat is destroyed); and isn’t that wonderful? Alone on his island at last! “Just me, to represent / myself, a population of one. / To hold an election (and know I’d won!).” He celebrates his conquest, his solitude, his absolute power.

But then, he thinks he hears a voice — words like raw and pain and sun and kelp. And then, in the final lines of stanza 234, one of the oil drums from the shipwreck begins to move. ‘That liver- / colored drum – I saw it shiver!’ (Next week we’ll learn what’s inside).

A note about Melville’s Typee: I’m of the opinion that Typee, the great whale-man’s first book, provided an inspiration for Wells’s The Time Machine. Both stories involve an encounter with two tribes, one cannibal, the other peaceful. Both Wells’s “Time Traveller” and Melville’s narrator (Herman playing himself) are responsible for the death of a beloved member of their host tribe. Both, at certain stages, become violent toward their hosts and disconsolately question their own behavior. And both find innocent, loving female concubines who help massage away their despair.

I can’t think of a better book than Typee, a favorite of my youth, to survive on the island of Res Publica. (Although you’ll recall that while preparing for his trip, Arcady packed Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, another work which no doubt survived the shipwreck).

Speaking of inspiration, I encourage you to visit the Tuesday Poets at tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com.

 

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On Native Doldrums’ Tide — Stanza 44

A typical 'chasing boat'

A typical 'chasing boat.'

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the First

44.

And so – some seventeen months later
there I was! A volunteer,
a ‘chasing boater’ sailing for beer,
quite close to my home – and cradled by Fate, her
gently rocking basket, her deep
maternal succor beckoning sleep.
Those moments of immeasurable ease!
Let others travel overseas!
I’d remain in my parent country. I’d
sit idle on native doldrums’ tide,
beholden neither to family nor friends,
nor aspirations, nor market trends.

Zireaux’s comments on this stanza
We near the end of the first segment of Canto One, with Arcady alone on his boat, just as he was in the opening stanza of the canto (see stanza 15). Only now we know the secret of his birth, the very texture of his torment.

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

For Tuesday Poem readers, apropos to seas and children and gently rocking cradles, I’d like to alert you to the Kiwi poet Lee O’Neil’s work. And, as well, to Melville’s brilliant sea-children. And finally, to the sea/children/cradle metaphor of the brilliant Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore:

On the Seashore

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
The infinite sky is motionless overhead and the
  restless water is boisterous. On the seashore of endless worlds
  the children meet with shouts and dances.
They build their houses with sand, and they play with empty shells. With
  withered leaves they weave their boats and smilingly float them on the
  vast deep. Children have their play on the seashore of worlds.
They know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets. Pearl-fishers dive
  for pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while children gather pebbles and
  scatter them again. They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not
  how to cast nets.
The sea surges up with laughter, and pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach.
  Death-dealing waves sing meaningless ballads to the children, even like a
  mother while rocking her baby’s cradle. The sea plays with children, and
  pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach.
On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. Tempest roams in the pathless
  sky, ships are wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children
  play. On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.

 

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