Tag Archives: Nabokov

“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



Filed under Kamal, Book One, Poetry by Zireaux

“The Exiled Mind” by Zireaux

The Exiled Mind

In this passage, the California-born narrator of Kamal digresses a moment, reflecting on what it means to be an exiled poet with the task of writing an epic poem set in his former homeland.

To M.

'...my own tableau of beasts and tribals / below a Cartouche of priests and bibles...'

‘…my own tableau of beasts and tribals / below a Cartouche of priests and bibles…’

O Reader! You know not what’s ahead.
I do! I lie awake in bed
(alone, alas – my wife is prone
these days to sleeping on her own)
and in my mind I see outspread,
just like an 18th century chart, a
detailed but vast, mapped but untread,
known but untamed world — my Carta
still unwritten, unread,
untold, unheard! To you, ethereal.
To me, no greater or more material
kingdom has ever existed. A giant
of countries – strong and self-reliant,
yet private, secluded, monasterial.

It is, you see, a land designed
by shifty sextant: the exiled mind,
detached but still in hearing’s range
of all the ways my homeland’s changed
(to help you better estimate
the course my former country’s on,
see stanzas sixty-six through eight
in canto ten of Byron’s Don);1
— and all these changes grow ornate
with Distance’s hyperbole,
which renders even more superbly
my own tableau of beasts and tribals
below a Cartouche of priests and bibles.
O Reader! To take you there verbally!

Just ask that convict Kenneth Lay: / Discordant views should not be scoffed at.

Kenneth Lay, former CEO of Enron Corporation, in handcuffs: ‘Just ask that convict Kenneth Lay: / Discordant views should not be scoffed at.’

But how? The country’s no longer mine;
for though our lawyers might define
our status as a “separation,”
the laws of cline transcend relation.
(How much we changed). But hear me through!
For if you pause your game controllers,
turn your headphones’ claws askew,
ignore the latest wartime pollsters’
news and from the Tube unglue
yourself – or as my son says, “off it!” –
and listen to me, no greater profit
possibly could come your way.
Just ask that convict, Kenneth Lay:
Discordant views should not be scoffed at.

Uneasy planet! East and West!
To you I make this same request:
Tranquilize your telephones,
and temple bells and megaphones
which for your soul’s devotion call.
Free your mind of Wall Street’s numbers,
the music in your shopping malls,
and SUVs, the latest Hummers
(there’s nothing wrong with feeling small),
the pills to help your loins grow bold,
your dreams of gold from daughters sold
or children’s PhDs endorsed
by foreign firms, or those out-sourced,
or what your priests or stars foretold –

ignore it, world! Ignore it all!
And hear my story of Kamal.
For you will be my orphan’s parent,
and like Cervantes’ poor knight-errant,
my hero’s born to give you pleasure,
not me – for I have seen his life
already, heard the mingled measure
of his strivings and his strife,
his strains and struggles mixed together.
Like I said – these words you read
are stains of blood. Kamal will bleed.
And if he is to long outlive me,
(and fame, you know, in yours to give me),
it’s through his pain. For he will bleed.

Kamal will bleed.

Lord Byron (1788 - 1824)

Lord Byron (1788 – 1824)

To listen to the entire First Canto of Kamal, by Zireaux, read by Nick Ellsworth, click here.

1Here are stanzas 66 through 68 in Canto 10 of Byron’s Don Juan (to which the poet refers above):

I’ve no great cause to love that spot of earth,
Which holds what might have been the noblest nation;
But though I owe it little but my birth,
I feel a mix’d regret and veneration
For its decaying fame and former worth.
Seven years (the usual term of transportation)
Of absence lay one’s old resentments level,
When a man’s country’s going to the devil.

Alas! could she but fully, truly, know
How her great name is now throughout abhorr’d:
How eager all the earth is for the blow
Which shall lay bare her bosom to the sword;
How all the nations deem her their worst foe,
That worse than worst of foes, the once adored
False friend, who held out freedom to mankind,
And now would chain them, to the very mind: –

Would she be proud, or boast herself the free,
Who is but first of slaves? The nations are
In prison, – but the gaoler, what is he?
No less a victim to the bolt and bar.
Is the poor privilege to turn the key
Upon the captive, freedom? He’s as far
From the enjoyment of the earth and air
Who watches o’er the chain, as they who wear.

As mentioned in my review of Barbara Reynolds’s excellent book on Dante: ‘As talent agency, Exile (and its partner agents Poverty and Lost Love) boasts a remarkable portfolio of lyric writers, not just Virgil and Ovid, but Voltaire, Byron, Pushkin, Hugo, Nabokov, Brodsky, Soyinka, Zireaux – and this is just a sampling from the A-list.’

Note: Quite a few guesses but still no solvers of my poem: “A Little Morsel of Immortality.” First person to solve it receives a free signed copy of my next novel. -Z

Published as part of the dVerse Poetry group.


Filed under Kamal, Book One, Poetry by Zireaux

The Poet as Absent-Minded Neuroscientist

The sort of shaving commercial which appeared around the time Nabokov was writing Pale Fire.

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

Lines from Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”

Here’s Larkin’s narrator in “The Whitsun Weddings” (you can listen to the entire poem here):

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
    The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,

Here’s Nabokov’s fictional poet John Shade, from “Pale Fire” (from the novel Pale Fire):

When inspiration and its icy blaze,
The sudden image, the immediate phrase
Over the skin a triple ripple send
Making the little hairs all stand on end…
…And while the safety blade with scrape and screak
Travels across the country of my cheek…
Dressing in all the rooms, I rhyme and roam
Throughout the house with, in my fist, a comb
Or a shoehorn, which turns into the spoon
I eat my egg with. In the afternoon
You drive me to the library. We dine
At half past six. And that odd muse of mine,
My versipel, is with me everywhere,
In carrel and in car, and in my chair.

Zireaux’s comments on these poems:
In previous posts we’ve discussed the song of poetry, its music, its efforts to capture and preserve unique specimens of perfect beauty. Now we can look at where it lives (in shadows, sidelong glimpses, midge-like sparks of memory) and how it’s found, allured, gently caressed, almost never coming when it’s called (see my post on poets and their cats). In the above excerpts, notice how both narrators — composing some of the most beautiful lines in English — present themselves as engaged in the mundane activities of ordinary life: Reading, in the case of Larkin’s narrator. Shaving, in the case of John Shade.

Marvelous illusions. Joyce’s nail-paring. In fact, these poems were more likely constructed out of intense, agonizing, jackhammering desk-work (or podium-work, in Nabokov’s case), but the special effect is one of detachment, absent-mindedness. A uniquely artistic pairing: blind-spots to the outside world coupled with a most vivid spotlight on the musings of our brain.

We’ve already heard Jonah Lehrer’s take on Proust (see his book, Proust was a Neuroscientist), how the greatest of French novelists discovered the importance of smell, taste and our present mood upon our recollections (we can add madeleines-and-tea to reading, shaving, the bowel movement of Leopold Bloom, etc) — but Larkin and Nabokov, as shown above, deserve honorary chairs amongst the emerging bio-poetic panel of brain scientists: mainly for their insights into the idea that the most unexpected and brilliant poetic sprites of fancy often come to us when we’re occupied with the most familiar, the most routine.

Obligation touches genius “like a scourge of scorpions,” writes Coleridge; and yet in my view, meditation, in the monkish sense (obligatory musing, you might say), is just as unlikely to produce a great poem. Reading, shaving, showering, smoking, driving a car — the auto-pilot activities of the everyday, according to scientists such as Rebecca Saxe of MIT and Randy Buckner of Harvard, may be the true handmaids of our genius. At such times, they’ve noted, certain regions of the brain, including, for example, the right temporal parietal juncture (responsible for our imagining what other people are thinking) kick into action, indeed, appear to take on a life of their own, rummaging through the past like kids in a costume-trunk and performing for us fanciful skits about the future.

Traveling through time, designing and preparing for imaginary futures — a human survival trait, no doubt. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that, in moments of mind-block, you turn to a Gillette Mach3 Turbo or a Silk-Effects for Women to find your muse — although who knows? I’m simply suggesting that the narrator of a poem or novel will often appear more alive to us, more real to us, if his or her mind wanders (like ours, like everyone’s) during moments of daily habit; and that this quality of an absent-minded exterior combined with a radiant, boundless interior is what makes poems like “The Whitsun Weddings” and “Pale Fire” such extraordinary works of art.

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Filed under Poetry Reviews