Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Second
Odysseus and Calypso in the caves of Ogygia. Painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625)
Okay, my taxi bard, your time
has come to take my poem’s stage!
I’ll add a sample to this page
and let your poem play in mine:
The Taxi Driver’s Poem
Ogygia! [The island’s name
where poor Ulysses once became
the sex slave of that nymph, Calypso.]
How beautiful you are! And – ipso
facto – the lather of your shores
is Envy’s froth! The world adores
such thickly oozing golden light,
your sails and whales and sea birds in ﬂight,
your Wearable Arts64 and well-carved boats;
[Our taxi driver here, of course,
reveals New Zealand as his source]
and surely if we took a vote
why all the trees would love to wear
your bright red bows in their summer hair!
But O, sweet country! Give me a raft
to sail back home on, and what a draft
I’ll write for you! How much admired
you will be! How well-attired
in Kowhai trees; how clean and green
– and perfect for a dancing scene!65
Not Hobbit caves;66 a Taj Mahal
you’ll have, my love – [I can’t recall
his words precisely, but these ones fall
quite nicely on my page] – and all
your wondrous beauty, by all seen!
A Koh-i-Noor67 for you, my queen!
A dazzling pendant for your splendid
neck I’ll write, in rhymes resplendent!
Not ‘ice’ – as lesser bards68 now call it –
not some ‘piece’ to ﬂaunt your wallet,
but rather such a rarity,
of so much carat, when you wear it we
A model at New Zealand's 'World of Wearable Arts'
will stagger at your brilliance! Swoon
at so much splendor! [You’ll note his use
of exclamation marks – effuse,
to say the least!] Why even the moon
in clearest, blackest night, will pale
– nay, disappear behind a veil
of blazing brilliance when my readers
sing of you! What says my meter?
It says: Please pay my passage home!
And I will write you such a tome
that all the world will be smitten
by your stardom . . . especially Britain!
Okay – that last rhyme might seem odd.
Most likely I emended it.
It’s doubtful he’d have ended it
with such a perfect British nod.
But never mind. His point is clear.
And I agree. You are, my dear,
a country of such rare device;
the closest thing to paradise
I’ve ever seen. Reﬁned, demurring,
well-built (attractively contouring),
a mix of prowess and of grace.
Your tallest tower like the mace
of Hanuman (that Monkey god;
who holds a rattle to your club)
You are the South Paciﬁc’s hub,
a single triple-seeded pod
of land in fruitless, boundless blue.
You don’t do what the others do.
You’re young; and thus a leader of
our hearts. It is this spirit we love
– the way you shrewdly shirk the ships
who lewdly whisper, ‘Apocalypse’,
into your pretty ear.69 You set
the world’s best example – and yet
a side of you (all sheep and farm)
could use a lyric ornament
to earn the long-due compliment
of English patrons. (How fast such charm
transforms a debt-extractor
into an instant benefactor.)
Despite your beauty, it takes a jewel
to end a creditor’s pursual.
Now here’s my point (for too much drivel
will make narration’s compass swivel):
As unadorned as you appear,
your jewels might exist right here.
'Your tallest tower like the mace / of Hanuman'
Right here, in our own hemisphere,
a Nobel Laureate could in fact be
sitting in an Auckland taxi!
Right here, a modern day Kabir70
could well be writing you a Wonder
of the World! And what a blunder
it would be –
(What’s that? A knock
so late an hour? I’m sure I locked
– and what a blunder we’d
commit to let it go to seed
without its fruit appreciated.
For beauty unseen is uncreated.
64 Part fashion show, part creative dress-up competition, Wearable Arts began in 1987, in the South Island city of Nelson. Today it’s recognized as an international art event.
65 More than 100 Bollywood movies have been shot in New Zealand, which is considered an ideal location for the romantic backgrounds common in Hindi song and dance scenes.
66 The Hobbit dwellings depicted in Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, Lord of the Rings, were constructed on a sheep farm near Matamata, a town close to Hamilton on New Zealand’s North Island. This region is known for its beautiful limestone formations. The owners of the property negotiated with New Line Cinema, producers of Lord of the Rings, to allow tourists to see the ﬁlm set. Cost: NZ$50 for a two hour tour.
67 In Persian, Koh-i-Noor means ‘Mountain of Light’. The Koh-i-Noor is a 108 carat (21.6 g) diamond which originated in the Indian subcontinent and is now in a crown owned by the British royal family. Legend has it, the remarkable diamond is worth all the wealth the world can create in seven days.
68 This editor guesses ‘lesser bards’ is a reference to rap singers. If so then I imagine this term belongs as much to the ‘Taxi Driver’ as to Zireaux himself. Interestingly, as a performing poet, Zireaux seems to consider himself both part of the rap genre and aloof from it. In Kamal, the narrator writes about the rapper Eminem ﬂatteringly, as a ‘fellow’ Walt Whitman (or White-man) – but he also suggests the rapper ‘mashes’ metaphors and courts his fame by ﬂashing his buttocks on stage: ‘And you, Vulgarity . . . ! / . . . rate dear Eminem on what his ass is! / (How well my fellow Whit’man’s self’s expressed. / The metaphors which others mix, he mashes!)’.
69 On June 8, 1987, New Zealand’s parliament enacted a law designed to keep the country free of nuclear weapons. Operation Satanic, referring to the sinking of Greenpeace’s ﬂagship boat, the ‘Rainbow Warrior’, proved a major boost to the proponents of a nuclear free policy. Such was the importance of this event that even intense American pressure could not deter New Zealand from carving out its independent nuclear policy.
The Indian poet, Kabir (1440–1518)
Fifteenth century Indian spiritual philosopher and writer, famous for his pithy, poetic epigrams about the beauty in a simple life. An example of his work (from the translation by Robert Bly, Kabir: Ecstatic Poems, Beacon Press):
There is nothing but water in the holy pools.
I know, I have been swimming in them.
All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can’t say a word.
I know, I have been crying out to them.
The sacred Books of the East are nothing but words.
I looked through their covers one day sideways.
What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through.
If you have not lived through something it is not true.
Zireaux’s comments on these stanzas
What is religion but communal poetry? A cathedral, a holy book, a monkey god — poems of the crowd. And then there is Kabir, less poet than a poetic creation. More Mystic than musician. Saints are the masterpieces of their disciples. And no country shows greater proficiency in the mass production of disciples than India.
“If you have not lived through something it is not true,” writes Kabir, a quarter of a millennium before Voltaire, five hundred years before the founding of the Skeptics Society. Scientific enlightenment needed another step, of course: Truth beyond sensation, beyond one’s own interpretation of it. What endures from Kabir, however, if not the stirrings of a Renaissance, is the independence of spirit surpassed only by the likes of Byron and Beethoven (to affirm the sentiments of the great historian, Kenneth Clark).
Was Kabir’s poetry any good? I have no idea and don’t plan to formulate one. My Hindi is very poor; it would take years to achieve the level of lyricism required. I can say that quoting Kabir in English is unlikely to produce a poetic result. Despite the sententious reading of epigrams that always makes an audience go “ah,” there’s very little poetry in meaning.
Read from the beginning of Res Publica | Listen to the audio version (read by Stuart Devenie) | Buy a signed copy of the book
Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Yahoo Buzz | Newsvine | Google Buzz