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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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Response from Nowhereisland — Friends or Foes? — and Early Version of Res Publica, from April, 2003

Mount Ngauruhoe: 'I suggest writers like Ngauruhoe'

Mount Ngauruhoe: ‘As far as stories go / I suggest writers like Ngauruhoe’

You’ll recall that on learning the British artist, Alex Hartley, had landed upon the artistic shores to which I have laid claim myself, I did what any native poet would do — I applauded his designs and showed my respect for his achievement by nominating myself Poet Laureate of the territory he calls “Nowhereisland.”

My thanks to those of you who may have supported and seconded my self-nomination. As a result of our actions, yesterday I received a friendly but puzzling response from the director of an organization called Situations, the arts commissioning program behind the Nowhereisland project.

In her email, the director points out — addressing my claim that Alex Hartley’s work mimics my own — that Mr. Hartley “commenced work on Nowhereisland back in 2004.”

Puzzling indeed. If we’re going to bring dates into the matter of artistic discovery (never my intention), then for the record, Res Publica was conceived in 2001, with a completed version of the poem recited before a live audience, in April, 2003 — a good year and half before Mr. Hartley’s “discovery.”

I’ve decided to publish, below, that early version of Res Publica, from April, 2003, for Situations, Alex Hartley, and the Nowhereisland expedition team (they are still awaiting the copy of Res Publica, Book One, which was sent by regular mail).

I will comment further on the email I received from Situations — and its potential significance in terms of artistic integrity, colonialism and territorial rights — over the next couple days.

Res Publica

To M.


The following is a true account
of seven years and fifty weeks
of my life. The thrifty reader who seeks
some greater truth from such an amount
should stop here. A visiting Kipling once said
our island nation is British fed,
but will one day repay its debt in stories. *
Rudy was known for allegories.
This is not one – it’s factual role
as firm as the streets our Capital stole *
from the sea! As far as stories go,
I suggest writers like Ngauruhoe. *

Canto 1
It Happened on a Practice Day


It happened on a practice day.
A lull in squalls made failing motors
of the sails. We were trailing-boaters
with nothing to do now but play.
A ray of sun had set alight our skin;
the weary umpire was first to jump in;
and the cool Gulf quickly doused
the judgements which his body housed.
A flagsman leapt, then a meal-hand,
then a sailor for Team New Zealand;
everyone but me – an unsociable seal,
who was busy sleeping at the wheel.


A knocking of the stern against
some rocks – “Come in! Are we racing
again?” By god t’was night! I was facing
the stars, which floated free, unfenced,
in the celestial sea – like spectator craft! *
I looked around: My boat was unstaffed!
The water – shiny as horse-fur, banded
with white where moonlight spanned it –
was flat as an empty stage, no props
or crops of trees, no mountaintops
piquing the horizon – which truly shocked;
for the knock told me my boat was docked.


The air was warm, my clothes were wet,
without a trace of salt. To the West
soft thunder answered in anapest
a difficult question. And new ones beget:
My mates? Perished? What absurdity!
On a different boat they must surely be!
Slowly my thoughts (I snoozed through a storm?)
diffused like water from the low landform
which caused me to stand, and from the stern climb,
and question that morning’s rapid “burn-time,”
and whether my brain had sizzled while I slept.
But lo! On ground my feet now stepped!


The land was as long as a football field
and curved like rising Te Ra across.*
Momently inhabited it was. An albatross
waived and flapped her feathery shield;
then fell forward in flight. Now I
was alone in the night; not high, but dry,
perched on drowned Poseidon’s head
as if the god were standing there dead,
blue face underwater; scalp made of sand.
A moment’s panic bade me search the land
for blow-holes. But Tinirau I wasn’t to be; *
nor is that other Robinson me.


My GPS guided me swiftly home
the roughly fifty nautical miles;
to my unknotting conjugation, where smiles
were absent as always. It was a syndrome,
this icy fever of married life.
The dawn spoke more than my gab-spent wife,
who rather than assessing her husband’s survival,
was dressing for work upon his arrival.
An affair with her paycheck! Oh how the toil
of marriage can stagnate one’s life and spoil
one’s rhymes! Enough of this despair!
Fill our wings, Muse! To Wellington’s air!

Canto 2
Longitude 175 58’


To the Land Office on Lambton Quay,
where nary a report of my tiny highland
by passing ship or plane or island
map was produced by the Admiralty.
The flu-sick helicopter pilot
(a woman named Meg) sought my islet
at longitude one-seven-five, fifty-eight,
beyond the swirling Culville straight
and Cuvier isles by roughly eighteen
miles, and snuffly expected a slate-scene
of liquid, with depths of fathoms forty,
but found a landing-pad for our sortie.


Land! Untrespassed land! Untrammeled
hope! Geographers appraised:
“It was,” they said, “quite recently raised.
Tectonic crusts can shift…” They rambled
on and on, while I recalled
the prior week a tremor had stalled
my wife’s soft typing a millisecond.
“Did you feel that, dear?” I beckoned.
“No” – click-click, her thoughts well-railed,
while mine across great oceans sailed
on maritime bail from marital prison;
not knowing, off shore, my new home had risen.


My home! No prints of human feet
or vision were stamped upon that ground
before mine! Yes, such spots are found
by children and lovers and other discreet
explorers of secret places daily.
The earth, like skin, impermanent, scaly,
replaces wounds with scars, and erases
others. Imagine the infinite cases
of ownership, were deeds dispersed
for all things traversed or sighted first!
Boundless kingdoms in every town –
but none of that matters to the Crown.


What is ownership alas? One kind
alone is vital to the poet: the title
of Uniqueness! For each new recital,
a copyright of style is legally assigned,
making tycoons of many a bard
who once found paying creditors hard.
Lord Byron owns the ancient East.
All paradise from Coleridge is leased.
Couldn’t I divine within me some song
to build my empire loud and long – *
Oh foolish bards! Get real! A purse is
worth more in bank notes than verses!


“Sweetheart, I need some money. It’s urgent!
The emergent country I staked with a flag
(when set aground by ‘Helicopter Meg’)
needs protection from government insurgents
who claim our recently risen stone
lies within their Economic Zone!
Our lawyers, however, tell a different story:
The rock’s outside the territory
of this nation by a distance fixed
at a quarter league. Everything betwixt
that point and Peru is blue free land!
And therein sits our New New Zealand.”


Notice my choice of “our” and “we.”
My tight-lipped wife’s a shrewd investor;
the issue of “returns” have long obsessed her,
making loans her choice of charity.
Even the way she drafted our prenuptial
was less kind-hearted and more cleanuptial.
I bravely signed her contract then
and — once I produced a schedule when
she’d be five-times repaid or more
(then moved it forward a decade) and swore
to slavery should my promise prove cracked –
she savorily agreed to my contract.

Canto 3
Amends to the Albatross


I embarked on a life of solitude.
I packed a boat; I farewelled friends.
I brought some herring to make amends
to the albatross (a waste of food.
She had fled when I arrived).
On clams and mussels and seaweed I thrived.
There was plenty of rain. By the time November
came and went, I was a member
of parliament – of parlia-tent
I should say, just me to represent
myself, a population of one,
to protect the liberty and joy I’d won.


Indeed, it’s hard not to rejoice
in a country which breaks from Johnson’s rule
(that Republics are governed by more than one fool) *
and gives Res Publica a singular voice.
Matters of nationhood could be debated
in sleep’s chamber. On a mattress inflated
I could sign, or veto, then take a swim
and check all imbalances according to whim.
I remember once composing a treaty,
then floating it, bottled, to Tahiti,
and voting all regulations to reject!
And then came my wife, her debt to collect.


Where were the profits from oil I’d promised?
The fisheries and pearl farms? The rich investors?
The earl from England? Or was he a jester!
“You’re worse than Madam Scary, my palmist,
who predicted our pairing would be marital bliss!
Only” – lifting a paper – “she never signed this!”
I couldn’t argue. The truth was plain.
The same contract; my same bloodstain.
I offered to repay nearly ninety percent
of what remained of the funds she lent.
But she refused, and demanded in one year
I double her investment – or disappear.


Alone in my air-bed I tossed and raved
and schemed and dreamed of my Xanadu.
An army. A gold-mine. A Sultana, too?
In the end I commissioned the island paved
by a handsome Kiwi-slash-Turkmenistani
with thick mustache, who was such a good man he
offered to work for a negative sum
if I’d let seventeen of his relatives come.
And why not? He arranged the ship and sloop
and life-vests for the entire troop.
By the time his family paddled ashore
he’d imported from Auckland provisions galore.


He built the first level. There’d be many more
added above – but the first was incredible!
A Byzantine structure with divans that were bed-able;
pink satin cushions littered the corridor,
where children, saddled with Micky Mouse bags,
rode bicycles streaming with Warehouse tags *
through vibrant smoke-filled lands indoors,
with Persian carpets lining the floors,
to a bright-eyed teacher near Entrance Eight
whose Turkic words they’d enunciate.
Indeed — since Cook’s Endeavor arrived
no better breed has ever thrived.


Such thrift! Such industry! Such zeal to adapt!
How eager they were to perform some labor
which met the demands of our western neighbor:
A swift tapestry. A stuffed seal well-wrapped,
and boxed and shipped to a buyer in the U.K.
with plastic flowers wired in a bouquet.
No enterprise eluded; no wage-law intruded;
no permit was needed or passport disputed!
I recruited an accountant. He was impressed.
We bought a generator for our concrete nest.
From boxing to xeroxing — our work was transformed,
and the saffron pilaus were microwave-warmed.

Canto 4
When Limping Sunlight’s Journey Ceased


Then came “Island Babes,” the game
on TV where bikini-clad ladies seduce
a castaway sailor, racing to produce
his child. (The show won great acclaim;
Not one of the seventeen infants was hurt!)
The producers saw a chance to convert
the roof of our massive island home
into a kind of open-walled dome
for scenes which called for clean conditions
(and off-screen advice from obstetricians)
with ample sea-views. Three mothers stayed.
The sailor married our first-floor maid.


My Turkmeni friend’s acuity,
his global sense for timely invention,
his noble bent – not to mention
consent for promiscuity
(he built a bordello on level five) —
brought wealthy fellows to our hive.
Oh unfaithful Muse! How many men
you’ve inspired before me and my pen!
Higher we rose without delay;
no code of compliance, no laws to obey.
Lottery stalls and cyber-cafes!
A maze of walls and malls to amaze!


Level ten was reserved for the King (of burgers)
and the rest of his estimable court (of food).
Oh the untiring, unfathomable fortitude
of aspiring Punjabis and Beijing-born workers!
An Irish pharmaceutical rented
levels twelve through twenty in which it invented
(in vacuo that ingredient – tax)
a range of aphrodisiacs.
Homes and clubs took a higher view,
and all the people of Waikawau knew *
when limping sunlight’s journey ceased; *
our tower’s orange embers ignited the East.


With the U.N. we were quick to enlist
our high-rise nation. Our intrepid free will
earned a capitalization of ninety three mil –
but again! These royal thoughts persist!
I say “our” – but was my life enriched
by a roof-top tent (same tent!) now pitched
one hundred and twenty meters higher? *
I am just a versifier,
whose hard-earned highness in life or title
won’t spurn the slyness of a wife’s requital.
To be Queen, she said, our contract had bound her.
While her heart enthroned my mustached co-founder.


Through the skylight of their royal penthouse,
I observed their polyandric cult.
Despite rain, or Thor’s sky-whitening bolts,
I remained, above all, a loyal tent-spouse.
A great queen she was! On each new graph
our empire scored in the upper half! *
How often I wished to congratulate her,
but her button wouldn’t glow in the elevator
no matter how slowly I depressed it.
Depressed it? I meant “pressed it” – lest it
falsely ascribe a wise introspection,
to scribes with horizons stretched every direction.


The sails and whales; the magic levity
of cormorants in flight; the pelagic grace
of sea-clouds trailing their silvery lace,
— they stirred illusions of longevity!
And just as the crescent moon is ignored
by sun-bright noon, incessant Time soared
so high and quiescent, no clear terminus
beamed through my azure. I determined thus
never to look down, but to worship infinity
and for years I was true to my timeless divinity;
and for years I considered my peace well-earned,
until the albatross returned.

Canto 5
Quick! Out of Bed!


It landed on the balustrade
(which helped to keep me safely caged
when nighttime walks were sleep-engaged).
The early morning gulls, afraid
of their giant sibling, grew upset
when I approached the para-pet
and offered it food, which it refused,
its transfixed eyes were well-transfused
with something wicked, reader! I shivered!
And had my voice by cell-phone delivered:
“A head-cold,” she sniffled, but that didn’t stop her.
I was whisked away by Meg and her chopper.


How great our building appeared from a distance –
only slightly besmeared by national flags
like the pulled-out pockets of a poor man’s rags,
and the soot-black stains from someone’s insistence
on firing crackers for every last sixer
(struck not by our New, New Zealand Elixers,
but by the bat of the Indian team!).
Such flaws would be fixed. The Queen’s regime
would import new migrants to clean below:
the hemorrhage of oil, the waste-paper snow;
hot sewage boiling in a yeasty sand-brew!
“Say Goodbye!” said my pilot, “to East-Sealand Zoo!”


“How could you fail to notice?” asked Meg,
plucking from her bed-side dresser
the tissue burlesquing its predecessor.
“I don’t know, Megan; to mask some vague
understanding of masses? Money-seeking
betrays the spirit – oh look at me! I’m speaking
in cliches!” “What goes up, they say…” “Perhaps;
but our Queen would never allow such a lapse.”
“Biblical then?” “No, we arrested
Babel’s fate. Our builders were tested *
in typical English.” Bewildered cough,
then a kiss; we continued from where we left off.


“Did you feel that, Megan? The earth just trembled!”
“Oh yes.” “No, I mean, really shook!
Quick! Out of bed! We need to go look
and see if my nation has come unassembled!”
“Your nation? Why? Its emphasis
is height! Which means its genesis
is written in those stories, right?”
I said nothing. We took a flight
in her thunderous Muse. My nation approached
like a flea-ridden giant, leewardly broached
by waves! The sea rose levels four!
The fifth-floor bordello becoming the shore!


And the fleas – the fleas were people falling!
“Take me down, Megan! Down, I say!”
— as a waiter leapt from a tenth-floor cafe
and gamblers trapped in casinos were calling
for rescue! Quake-born – but not shake-proof!
“Down,” I demanded, “down on the roof!”
As loyal Megan vainly searched
for level landing, plainly perched
atop the rail like sculpted stone –
just one unruly feather blown
about by our dragon’s approach (a quill
taking notes) – the albatross was still.


“Didn’t you hear me? Down I insist!”
I made as if to exit my door,
while furious Megan swerved and swore
and reached aside to hold my wrist
— but missed! Now I was bold enough
to jump, so I did, with a landing rough
and just as Megan was coming my way,
the building started to crumble and sway.
Then tumble and crash. I sunk last,
like Melville’s native on Pequod’s mast; *
and only knew I wasn’t dead,
when I saw a white cloud with wings wide-spread.


A thousand worlds are born each day.
(Whoever says the world is shrinking
suffers from a lack of thinking).
Every set of eyes conveys
a country different than our own!
But if my fallen nation be known
to future readers, I thank the nurses
who served as midwives to these verses
by copying a notice every morning
and giving it to my neighbors. Its warning:
“All talking and pop-culture is restricted,
lest from this library you’ll be evicted!”

— Takapuna, April 3, 2003

Notes on the text:


1.7 – Kipling’s story, “My Lady of Wairakei,” in which Kipling makes this point, first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on January 30, 1892.
1.10 – Several streets in downtown Wellington are built on land which rose out of the sea during an earthquake in 1885.
1.12 – Ngauruhoe refers to an active volcano in New Zealand’s central North Island.

Canto 1 — It Happened on a Practice Day

1.2.5 – Uncontrolled spectator craft in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf have been known to cause delays for Americas Cup races.
1.4.2 — Te Ra is the Maori sun god.
1.4.11 – According to Maori legend, Tinirau rode on the back of a whale.

Canto 2 — Longitude 175 58’

2. 4.10 – Taken from Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Khan”: “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and her song / To such a deep delight ‘twould win me / That with music loud and long…”

Canto 3 — Amends to the Albatross

3.2.3 – 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.”
3.5.6 – The Warehouse is a popular discount department store in New Zealand.

Canto 4 — When Limping Sunlight’s Journey Ceased

4.3.10 – Waikawau is located on the Eastern side of the Coromandel ranges, the only town in New Zealand which could have seen New New Zealand.
4.3.11 – The sunlight is most likely “limping” because in Maori legend, Maui slows the sun by injuring it
4.4.7 – Had the builders followed the New Zealand Building Code, 1991, this would make the structure approximately thirty stories tall – but, of course, as the author makes clear, no such code was followed.
4.5.6 – Some literary scholars, such as Alberto Cross, in his book,
Kingdom by the Sea: The World of ______ (Stanton and Gross, 2001), claim the author is satirizing New Zealand’s efforts to rank in the upper half of the OECD countries. In interviews, however, the author has categorically denied such intent.

Canto 5 — Quick! Out of Bed!

5.3.11 New New Zealand followed its neighbor’s example of instituting a mandatory English language test for immigrants.
5.6.10 The three “natives” of
Moby Dick – Tashtego the native American; Queequeg the Maori; and Daggoo the African Negro — ascend the three mast-heads of their ship, the Pequod, as it sinks. Befitting the boat’s native American name (and the author’s nationality), Tashtego, the native American, takes the mainmast and is therefore last to sink.

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Part II of Lines from Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

Ivan Aivazovsky's The Ninth Wave

Ivan Aivazovsky's The Ninth Wave

For next Tuesday’s Poem I’ve asked Immortal Muse to purchase the reprint rights to Lee O’Neal’s delightful poem about the 2003 America’s Cup regatta, “Interview with the Wind.” The Muse has dutifully agreed; and we’ll conclude our children-vs-nature theme with that poem.

In the meantime, I’ll add some ballast to my claim that paragraph 4 of Moby Dick‘s 114th chapter represents one of the most impressive paragraphs in American literature. I’ve elucidated its poetic qualities (briefly). Take a moment to view the ordinary objects of your world — the trees and plants around your home, a shampoo bottle, a sandwich, an overweight cat, a fortune-telling octopus — as children, as toddlers, infants, babes; and you will experience an unquestionably poetic vision. “Grass is itself a child,” writes Whitman, “the produced babe of the vegetation.”

Apart from a few references to Ahab’s son, or sailors as children, or Ahab himself as a kind of orphaned hell-child, children are rarely mentioned in Moby Dick. But Ishmael’s poetic vision in Chapter 114 — his seeing children in the waves, “sleeping in these solitudes” (still 21 chapters before the Epilogue) — brilliantly foreshadows not just the eventual drowning of his shipmates (Ahab’s children) with the sinking of the Pequod, but the very last line of the book, where Ishmael is rescued by a ship named The Rachel. “It was the devious-cruising Rachel,” Ishmael concludes, “that in her retracing search after her missing children, found only another orphan.”

It’s sometimes said that poets retain the minds of children. Or that children are naturally poetic. Neither is true. But the poet as a kind of orphan, a free-floating exile, unbound to any ship — a state which characterizes a well-nurtured child — this seems an essential ingredient to so many great works of art. (For additional comments on the poet as exile, see my review of Barbara Reynold’s fascinating biography of Dante).

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Lines from Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

“The long-drawn virgin vales; the mild blue hillsides; as over these there steals the hush, the hum; you almost swear that play-wearied children lie sleeping in these solitudes, in some glad May-time, when the flowers of the woods are plucked. And all this mixes with your most mystic moods; so that fact and fancy, halfway meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole.”

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
Speaking of the sea, speaking of children (see last Tuesday’s Poem), let us ride on one of Melville’s waves: The fourth paragraph of Chapter 114 (“The Gilder”) of Moby Dick. Feel the rocking onomatopoeia of his phrasing, the lurch and lull of his commas, the rolling motion of the “m”s, the spewing pitch of his spondees (“long-drawn,” “mild blue,” “glad May,” “halfway,” that frame-rattling “interpenetrate”).

Ivan Aivazovsky's The Billowing Sea

A poem such as this — and one finds countless such poems in Moby Dick — should not be attempted without experienced sea-legs; or no, an oxygen tank, so high can it swell, into such thin air can it lift the unsuspecting voyager. In my long, mood-mixing conversations with Herman — who once stayed with me as a year-long guest in a cliff-side house above an orca-filled Wellington Harbor, New Zealand, 1999 — his thoughts would always return to that “seamless whole.”

Here he compares the ocean to land, waves to virgin vales and blue hillsides; and thus, despite the sea-level setting of Moby Dick, we can place its poetry on literature’s highest mountain peaks without fear of some metaphorical mismatch. By the time the introverted father of four became an honest Customs Inspector on Gansevoort Street, Manhattan, dear Herman was first and foremost a poet. At the shivering altitudes of his brilliance we find only Walt Whitman, a precise contemporary of Herman’s, sniffing at the snow — sniffing, I mean, at real snow, “For there is a scent to everything,” writes Whitman in Leaves of Grass, “even the snow.” (Tell this to Wallace Stevens, see comments on “Poems of our Climate”); and at last, at last, having never met in the world of the living (imagine!), the two great poets can sit together, play-wearied, on that poetic peak, on that frozen water, that land-sea of life, high above the America they composed.

Read Part II of this post…

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