Tag Archives: poetry

“Requiem,” by John Updike

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

Requiem
by
John Updike

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

John Updike in 2005

John Updike in 2005


Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
It’s fair to say — or no, it’s correct to say, it’s absolutely truthful to say — that John Updike was primarily a poet.

Even if Updike had never written his eight books of verse (including his posthumous Endpoint and Other Poems, from which the above sample is taken), I can’t see how any reader of Updike’s 21 novels, or his 15 short story collections, or his eight collections of essays and criticism, or his five children’s books, or his play, his memoir — or any of his hundreds of articles and reviews — how any reader of any one of these works could think otherwise.

“I thought he died a while ago.” Yes, they would say that. But they’d also say: “I never knew he wrote poetry.”

How can this be?

The best English novels — and I’m referring here to a very select group of wonders, by writers such as Joyce, Melville, Nabokov, Kipling, George Elliot and yes, Updike — are the fullest expressions of poetry achieved in the language. It’s much harder to think of a master novelist who was not a poet at heart — H.G. Wells, surprisingly, appears to have written nothing but a few lines of verse in Ann Veronica and some other forgotten story — than it is to recall a storyteller of significance who didn’t, at some early stage in life, discover and drink the magic potion of poetry (key ingredient on its label: lyrical metaphor) before setting off on a journey to some Novelayan peak.

At the refined establishment of prose, however, the poet is instructed to remove both wings and hat upon entering the premises; and once inside, our poor sylph is plied with cheap beer and two-dollar cocktails until passing out cold in a bathroom stall with mass-market graffiti on the walls.

A much admired critic, friend and voracious reader once described a small post of mine about a poetic delight in Melville’s Moby Dick with the teaser: “Zireaux explains why he believes Herman Melville is a poet” — as if Melville’s poetic credentials were debatable, or required some explanation. Regardless of whether Moby Dick, the novel, is a work of poetry (it is, of course), one fact can’t be disputed: Melville himself, like Updike, was indeed a poet. Melville wrote many great poems, including an epic poem called Clarabel: A Poem and Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1876), which he considered one of his few masterworks.

Requiem begins with a nice little joke — the idea that Updike’s literary weight problem only came to him “the other day,” so near to his death. Surely he had more than a mirror to measure his girth, the corpulence of his corpus so to speak. As I mentioned in a review of his Essays and Criticism, Updike was quite able to stand naked on the bathroom scale, and he fully understood the tastes of posterity: It “tends to give novelists a longer ride on one or two big books,” he wrote, thinking of Proust, “than on a raft of smaller ones.”

If anyone could be untroubled by his ever-widening output, it’s Updike, always letting himself go. Whereas most poets fear the shabby and the shallow, or create their own imagined depths, Updike embraced the puerile and the trashy. He found his beauty less in the magnum, less in the monumental, than in the fatty excess of commercial Americana: the candy-bar wrapper discarded on the broken macadam; the contents of suburban refrigerators and closets; a boyish passion for cars; the darkest details of marriage and divorce. Life is “shabby,” he writes, and “death is real, and dark, and huge” — such perfect commas, the pauses of a profound admission.

Even if the raft on which Updike floats is composed with just a few tree-trunk novels, and the rest with branches and twigs, and girlie magazines, microwave popcorn, discarded condoms, and (rummaging through his story, “Learn a Trade”) driftwood sculptures, refrigerator magnets, collages of beach-glass, deflated footballs, cardboard circuses, gadgets whose batteries have given out — it’s still a barge of beauty, magnificent and colorful; and it is his poetry that twines it all together; his poetry that will give this great American bard a very long ride.

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“Too Many Daves” by Dr. Seuss

So much poetic depth, a 24-line poem becomes a story.

So much poetic depth, a 24-line poem becomes a story in The Sneetches and Other Stories.

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

Too Many Daves
by
Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel)
 

Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave
Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave?
Well, she did. And that wasn’t a smart thing to do.
You see, when she wants one and calls out, “Yoo-Hoo!
Come into the house, Dave!” she doesn’t get one.
All twenty-three Daves of hers come on the run!
This makes things quite difficult at the McCaves’
As you can imagine, with so many Daves.
And often she wishes that, when they were born,
She had named one of them Bodkin Van Horn
And one of them Hoos-Foos. And one of them Snimm.
And one of them Hot-Shot. And one Sunny Jim.
And one of them Shadrack. And one of them Blinkey.
And one of them Stuffy. And one of them Stinkey.
Another one Putt-Putt. Another one Moon Face.
Another one Marvin O’Gravel Balloon Face.
And one of them Ziggy. And one Soggy Muff.
One Buffalo Bill. And one Biffalo Buff.
And one of them Sneepy. And one Weepy Weed.
And one Paris Garters. And one Harris Tweed.
And one of them Sir Michael Carmichael Zutt
And one of them Oliver Boliver Butt
And one of them Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate …
But she didn’t do it. And now it’s too late.


Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
If you ever find yourself trying to explain to someone that most essential of poetic qualities, what I call “poetic depth” (which I define as “miles per word“) — and reader, a time will come when you’ll need to explain it to someone, oh yes, few elements in poetry require a better understanding — then “Too Many Daves” is your Exhibit A.

But really, Mr. Geisel? Is that the route on which you wish to take your restless, impatient, easily-distracted — and sometimes very young — reader? A list of 23 names? It is. It is. Why shouldn’t it be? From Bovary to Prospero, Bloom to Rabbit, Jekyll to Hyde, Holden, Huckleberry and Humbert — names can carry us a very long way.

We can safely say of “Too Many Daves” that no English poem of similar length has been so densely peopled; exactly one line per character when we include the loving, yoo-hooing, regretful Mrs. McCave. In fact, there are 25 characters in “Too Many Daves,” because Mr. McCave, Dave Sr., is working double-shifts to support the large family; or else maybe he’s recently, and happily, deceased (or wishing he was).

Perhaps the most revealing choice of words in the poem is “she wishes that, when they were born, / She had named one…,” as opposed to something like, “when each was born,” or “at the time of each child’s birth.” In other words, the language suggests, or at least allows — which makes sense given their mimeo-monikers — that all 23 Daves were born at the same time; and maybe the McCaves have a legal claim against a fertility clinic and Papa McCave is living large in the Bahamas and drinking Yama-Mamas with a family named the McRamas (or even the O’Bamas?).

Viginti-tretuplets. Twenty-three gene-sharers. But Sunny Jim is no Moonface. At least those two certainly don’t hang out together, not like Buffalo Bill and Biffalo Buff, or Stuffy and Stinky, those paired humiliations to poor sophisticated elder brother, Harris Tweed.

A name like Marvin O’Gravel Balloon Face rockets us through the deepest space of possibility, because remember, no one knows her children better than Mrs. McCave, and there must be a reason she imagines such an inflated cognomen, or what you might call an inflappellation, for Dave number 12. The last-born, Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate, by the way (and maybe Mrs. McCave herself?), is an avid reader of Nabokov.

“Too late,” the poem ends. Too late — and too bad. Of a single name, we learn, is born a individual character (23 in this case). So, too, with words. Most writing, most poetry, and 99% of blogs let’s be honest, have way too many Daves. We “yoo-hoo” for a thought and they all come running. Weepy Weeds and Soggy Muffs are nothing in popular prose but drab diminished Daves, the same words serving multiple purposes.

Poetic depth occurs, you might say, when poets treat words as if they were their own children — the way Updike cared for his words — or when they take the time, like Flaubert, to observe the precise characteristics of a thing before assigning it its proper name. And if naming everything Dave is “not a smart thing to do,” the ever-revising poet (20 years to finish “The Moose,” O wonderful Ms Bishop!) will know that the paradise of poetic depth (and why else live?) often exists between a Ziggy and a Sir Michael Carmichael Zutt, and you’d better take the time to get it right.

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Ticklish Talking (or, “On Completing a Major Work of Poetry”)

1421, by Gavin Menzies

1421, by Gavin Menzies. '...books / that make one think some Chinese ships /
once sailed around this country’s hips / in 1421'

Ticklish Talking (or, “On Completing a Major Work of Poetry”)
by
Zireaux

 

“And then?”

               “Then what?”

                                   “Well why this stifling
of your story? What muzzles you?
You’ve served some meat; we want to chew
it –- Arcady! This foolish, trifling
rhyme of yours. How dare you set
the scheme my tongue must follow!”

                                                        “And yet
in life, my dear, aren’t we required
to speak a certain way? Our words
are chosen for us. What we desire
to say is rarely what gets heard.
Come here, my love! Just look outside.
It is that time, the eventide,
when gypsy’s belly-dancing twilight
slips her gauze across our eye-sight,

moves in sequined undulations.
Car-lights blaze like embers in
a desert’s sideways-howling wind.
Their wild and festive oscillation,
through the curtain gaps, advance
and stir our shadows into dance.
But do those drivers see the fervent
fun they fling upon our walls?
And is our reader so observant
as to see our bodies sprawl
upon this bed in just our socks,
a blanket on a pinewood box
which wasn’t built for two to mingle?
(Our ghost had friends, but slept a single).”

The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. '...or Mona / Lisa has some trick persona / which symboligistic scholars / think denotes the holy grail'

“And so?”

               “And so, my dear, most stories
must live in constant twilight. To read
them is to nonchalantly speed
through claire-obscurist territories,
our eyes fixed more upon the red
oscelar brake-lights up ahead
than on the angels lighting stellar
tapers in the night. And yet,
unknown to readers, most storytellers
— in rendering that silhouette
through which their readers, eyes ablaze,
so blindly pilot –- use those rays,
those passing rays of light, to brighten
up the starless dens they write in.”

“Your point?”

                     “My point: The reader rarely
disembarks his car to walk
(or if the writer’s rich, to stalk)
around the author’s nest! This barely
visible shack! It stands on legs
of cinderblocks — or rather, sags,
much like a creature apprehended
in a net of shadows cast
by trees (the net both torn and mended
by the car-beams speeding past).
See now, dear reader! See? I turn
my lamp on here, and you discern
through golden window what I’m doing.
View the woman I am viewing

as she lifts a hand-knit sweater
‘bove her head — ”

                      — “It’s corduroy,
a jersey” —

The Book of Secrets, by Deepak Chopra

The Book of Secrets, by Deepak Chopra. 'I know that Chopra / is a fraud. And so is Oprah.'

                  “ — and lets us both enjoy
those lacy, black and loosely fettered
pups beneath; the way, each yoked
to each, they both in tandem poke
their noses out through thickly rolling
waves of flesh; how each one seeks
a tasty treat, or soft, consoling
master’s stroke. O let us peek
beneath their muzzles! No? Not yet?
A symptom of the female set:
The more she feels a lover eyes her,
the more she serves up appetizers!”

“Be serious, Arcady! A merry
search is on for you, you know.
And not just in New Zealand – no,
the BBC, Fox News, Al Jerry – “

Al-Jerah

               “ — whatever. The global news
broadcasts your face without your views.”

“But of the two, my face is better.”

“Except when wearing bold-print hats
and matching collars made of letters
spelling ‘shame,’ ‘disgrace’ – and that’s
when they proclaim your death. If they
knew you were still alive here — ”

                                                  “May
I slip these off? These stanzas tingle
when my lips with yours commingle.”

“Okay, I guess, but please – I worry
these escapades just cause delay
my love! – that they postpone the day
this poem’s finished.”

                                     “One cannot hurry
the Muse. She likes it slow.”

Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki

Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki. 'My dad was neither rich nor poor /nor even my dad…'

                                   “I know.
O darling! But maybe I could show
your poem to some kind of literary
figure – the type that turns a crime
to profit. Imagine the monetary
benefits (I hate these rhymes) —
the cash! Arcady Robinson:
The Man Behind the Isle. Part One.
A True, but Incomplete Confession.

(Or should we ask for name-suppression?)

Imagine all those readers demanding
the second installment! The better half.
The judge will want your autograph
more than your neck!”

                                 “You’re misunderstanding
books. Shall I explain?”

                                  “Please yes – ”

“It’s not that books aren’t bought unless
they’re finished first (for Byron
published all his works in parts);
but publishers these days require in
books those cabbalistic arts
that make one think some Chinese ships
once sailed around this country’s hips
in 1421; or Mona
Lisa has some trick persona

which symboligistic scholars
think denotes the holy grail;
or if a woman wears a veil
then freedom either must enthrall her
or appall her (nothing betwixt).
I couldn’t care less for politics.
I’m not an Indian with spices,
snakes or mangoes to bewitch
provincial readers. No artsy vices
such as drugs or guns enrich
my bio page. I lack the style
that lets a witty pedophile
be so adored. I know that Chopra
is a fraud. And so is Oprah.

The World is Flat, by Thomas L. Friedman

The World is Flat, by Thomas L. Friedman. 'I’m not a pundit like that Thomas / of the New York Times, who sees / some universal homilies / in brief encounters abroad'

And dragons, hobbits, ghouls, boy-mages
— yes, they work to mesmerize
the kids (and Rowling gets the prize
for feeding them their veggie-pages).
but I’m like MAF, with virgin greens
in need of certain quarantines
to stop invasive breeds of fancy.
I’ve never served a King or Czar
in such a way with unzipped pants he
anoints me as a tabloid star.
My country isn’t torn by war.
My dad was neither rich nor poor
nor even my dad…”

                          “Why stop your raving?
Your lips are nicely misbehaving.”

“I’m not a pundit like that Thomas
of the New York Times, who sees
some universal homilies
in brief encounters abroad. I promise
this as well: There’s not a chance
in hell I’ll beat that racer Lance
— so tell me, then! An honest query:
What publisher will publish one
who lacks the features necessary
to be a popular writer?”

                                      “You done?”

“With what, my dear?”

                                    “Your ticklish talking.”

“This poem has sailed.  This poet is docking.”

 

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The Gimmal

Gimmal

The gimmal in gold

The Gimmal

A definition: There exists
in words what I call gimmals, their twists
of rhyme have pithy twins -– as “orchard”
has its demon sibling, ‘tortured;’
and ‘hero’ finds no other rhyme
than ‘zero,’ ‘summit’/‘plummet’ — some twenty
specimens I’ve caught and plenty
more must roam the language. But I’m
convinced the greatest gimmal match is
the ‘violence’ that one’s ‘silence’ hatches.

I describe the “Gimmal” thus: A unique and astonishing sub-species of “scarce rhyme.” It consists of two words, and only two words, which rhyme together perfectly in double or even triple rhyme (at least the last two syllables must rhyme), and which appear related in meaning, like two siblings, or twins who’ve been separated at birth and who, reunited again, cast new light upon the other’s existence.

Most critically, once joined, they are forever wed; no other standard English word can rhyme with them.

Beautiful/Dutiful. Achievement/Bereavement. Where do these pairings come from? Meager/Eager. Cupid/Stupid.

I put out a call for gimmal contributions in July of 2010. I’ve yet to receive a gimmal, however, that wasn’t already on the meager list I eagerly provided. More gimmals exist. Keen-eyed poets will certainly discover them.

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“On Being Duped by Indian Reality TV” (Returning to Auckland Tomorrow) by Zireaux

Amitabh Bachchan hosting the Crorepatti TV games how

A Turning Point in Indian TV: Amitabh Bachchan hosting the hugely popular Crorepatti TV game show

I do not write of love that’s unrequited.
No! I write of love attained then blighted.

Of beauty gained then lost; of pleasure’s throne
ascended, a million paradises owned;
of oceans crossed and golden fleeces found;
I write of Sheba bedded, children crowned;
of iridescent flashes chased and netted
and twitching with survival’s lust;
of sea-nymphs caught and dragons petted
— and all of it, alas, to dust!
The rose de-petalled, the muse beheaded!
Be clear! Be clear unthrottled throat!
Was it Stendhal or Proust who wrote
that love is sweeter in the past? But what
of love unfairly severed, cruelly cut?

Just look at this, my room -– the richly-toweled
bath, the plush sage carpet, double-doweled
furniture of fine mahogany,
the pair of tufted ottomans — and me
behind this glass-topped desk. For fifteen days
I’ve worked alone, with luke-warm thalis
served on silver-handled trays
that ride atop the housemaid’s trolleys.
That jasmine scent of Sheela Ray’s
no more infuses evening meals —
indeed no scent of hers appeals
to memory, a faithful sniffer-hound.
And Camera Joe (her mutt) is not around.1

But now I’d rather show than tell. I’ll switch
the TV on and you can see the witch
and her associate yourself…

                                              a guy,
that Irwin bloke in khaki shirt
and shorts – I cannot say exactly why
he jumps on crocs. Perhaps it hurts
their pride more than he knows? But I
say careful, mate. For untamed friends
can lead to unexpected ends!
Now this, I love. Just when you think their song
can sound no worse, and they have ceased, along

the next contestant comes to croon some more!
In fact – and it was several days before
I figured out the game – it’s not to please
our ears that these contestants whine and wheeze
(such “Idols” sing on other shows)
but rather to regale our minds with all
the Hindi songs they know
and can so speedily recall.
A Cricket clown with zinc-white nose.
Oh here’s a show, a daily serial;
the Telugu is immaterial.
One needn’t understand the words to guess
the plot – a replica of Hardy’s Tess!2

Onida's Mascot -- the Devil

Onida's advertising mascot -- a devil

“Imported genius sold to those who seek
fresh thoughts” – the definition of unique.
Originality: “A cargo traded
on seas we know not of; or think blockaded.”
Last night I saw a Hindi film, each scene
a rip-off from The Great Escape.
With booming Bachchan as McQueen;
though both these men were paid to ape
the real mastermind, I mean,
the guy who died in unpaid glory
for acting out the real story.
That’s Bachchan there, the host. His stardom stalled
but not his greed. Crorepatti it is called.

That’s Switzerland, the Pennine Alps, I think.
They must be cold. Each time the camera blinks,
her sari changes color –- watch. Were they
to flirt and frolic round those hills that way -–
she in her pink and mustard tinsel dresses
and he in flashy shirt and cape,
and all her “no”s met with his “yes”es,
the guy would be accused of rape.
O India! Your throbbing breast is
aflame with patriotic fervor!
Yet dreamers make unsound observers.
And O how worse it is –- a great charade! -–
when people pine for beauties foreign-made.

The “Midas Game.” They play for gold (how mad
this country is for gold!) And what’s this ad?
The car looks nice, but where to find such roads?
These solemn Ramayana episodes;
She spins. Her yellow frock turns Nirma-white.3
Reports of something called a “Naxalite.”4
Where are you Sheela Ray? You’re bound to be
amidst this Chyavanprash and Parlay-G!5
I found you here last week among these channels
Same time it was. A Cuban dupe.
A bumptious chef in tattered flannels
and smoking cigs. This nincompoop
was placed on academic panels
and asked for his hypotheses
on this, and his philosophies
on that, and made to think he could outsmart
the likes of Hagel, Kant, Camus, Descarte!

The show is called “False Destiny,” but I’m —
another ad, we’re running out of time
(this ad, I must admit, is quite unique.
A sneering, fork-tailed, hoofed and red-horned freak
plays mascot to a range of new TVs,
for here, I guess, the devil’s not
the villain he is overseas!) –-
but I’m afraid each fingered shot
I take, this trigger that I squeeze,
is missing –- wait! That’s her! Her show!
Look close, my reader; so you can know
the wickedness to which I’ve been subjected!
To have one’s heart exposed, impaled, dissected

"What gives us cracked Quixotes away?"

"What gives us cracked Quixotes away?"

It’s all the rage. How much the masses love
to see a foreigner made mockery of.
The premise of “False Destiny.” And there’s
Ms. Ray — this scorching sorceress ensnares
her prey by traveling to a far-off land
and picking out the perfect Frank
or Franz, Fidel or Ferdinand,
on which to play her little prank.
The first few days proceed as planned;
She stalks the streets, a tigress on
the prowl, to kill not just a fawn
but something weaker still: A talking fusion
of mediocrity and self-delusion.

What gives us cracked Quixotes away, I wonder?
What facial flush or tic demarks this blunder
of the brain? I’ve searched my face. I find
a crease from hairline to my chin, a kind
of DMZ between two warring sides6
(it even cleaves my nose’s peak!),
as though my mind were split. Two wide,
and lashless eyes, their brows oblique,
as if expression can’t decide
which way to go — and cries and laughs
at once! What other facial gaffes?
In these, my cold-ham lips, did Sheela see
the fleshly gold of gullibility?

Or maybe there’s some other misproportion?
My head is very big, like Welles’s (Orson);
and maybe one can guess the thoughts inside
from a phrenology so magnified.
In any case, this heated hostess prowls
the town in search of men like me
whose lives it seems have run afoul;
who spend each day prosaically,
convinced their talent is an owl
that flies unlighted by the sun
and thus unknown to everyone
— to everyone but this Minerva of
the East, who finds the owl in the dove.

(I’m returning to Auckland tomorrow).

 
1Read more on Camera Joe.
2The producers of Indian TV serials regularly steal their plots from classic English novels, confident their audience won’t have read them anywhere before.
3Nirma washing powder, a popular brand of soap.
4Common term for communist rebel groups in India.
5Chyawanprash is a popular Ayurvedic health tonic in India; and Parle-G is the most well-known biscuit brand.
6De-Militorized Zone (DMZ)

 
Read how I met Sheela Ray at Orbits Restaurant in Auckland

 

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“My Poetry Tour of South India (Continued)” by Zireaux

Limbaugh, Hitchens, Chomsky, Bono, Ono, Jolie

Now let us not disgrace a poem
with world affairs and those who choose
— like Rush, or Chris, or even Noam —
to be the groupies of the news.
This world is a great performer.
And like her fans, these pundits swarm her,
request an autograph, then boast
that they’re the ones who know her most.
That they – so different from the masses –
were sitting in a privileged row.
That they not only saw her show
but afterward, with backstage passes,
engaged her in some repartee,
and pumped the hand of Destiny!

Stay back! Stay back, enticing diva.
I’ve seen what mischief you can cause!
Send B-grade actors to Geneva
so they can hear the world’s applause.
A diplomat you made of Bono.
An artist out of widowed Ono.
And though the world, no doubt, has gained
from these strange titles you ordained
and craves to know – much like a goalie
before a shot – which corner space,
of which unknown, impoverished place
will land the offspring of Ms. Jolie,

I’m just a poet, a weak believer
in anything I write with true
belief. (A perfect rhyme – “deceiver.”)
Each light we see, its shadow do.
In every righteous, preachy braggart
resides (an easy rhyme) a Swaggart,
who sings the proselytizer’s song,
then writes a book called, I Was Wrong.
(Or have I mixed my Jim with Jimmy?
They’re all the same. They make sweet noise
then falter with their alter boys.)
So, too, some sleeper spy within me,
it seems, emphatically condemns
the inverse of my stratagems.

For how can I deny my recent
activities with CaPP, and my
attempts to stopple those indecent,
municipal esophagi
which feast beneath each flooded alley;
my sympathies with protest rallies
— like that which I addressed last week.
in Kerala, amidst a clique
of writers like myself, including
a one-time novelist who now
would rather plot a grand gherao1
in protest of a land’s denuding.
(Like Hulme or a Harper Lee,
her first work was her apogee).

Bakker, Lee, Hulme, Langur, Man in STD Booth

And there I stood, palm trees assembled
like ladies holding fans of green
and dressed in collars that resembled
the pleated manes of Shakespeare’s queen.
And there beneath these spiky giants
beside a shadowed, calm, compliant
canal — all shade and treacle — I
espoused my cause, the “what” and “why,”
to mustached men who kept on flaring
their floral, knee-length lungis out
like flying lizards just about
to soar – but then, no longer caring,
or tempered by a second thought,
re-twisting them into a knot.

And women, too, observed my talents,
their plaited hair with jasmine lures
to hook the senses, or to balance
unspoken whims – just as langurs
are by their long black tails steadied.
Some held umbrellas; shops were readied
with blue and yellow tarps for rain.
The sky would grunt as from the strain
of holding heavy clouds; or flicker
the way a tube light does when its
too weak and merely sparks in fits
of failed florescence. Then a snicker
of drops upon the mud would spawn
a howling torrent.

                      I spoke on:

“The prick of dignity demands us
to rail against these deadly drains”

— and so forth. I read some stanzas
from my poems which might pertain
to civil rights and social duty,
then ducked into our blue Maruti;
then beaten, frazzled, rattling roads
and tilting buses, trucks with loads
all burlap-bound like dough unkneaded
with “Blow” and “Horn” their rear command,
and on the walls where scythes (not hands)2
bestow salutes; and strange, unheeded
equations, “Safe is Death’s Delay,”
“Polluting Takes Your Breath Away;”

and yellow signs that tout diseases
(or rather, tell the traveler where
a telephone for STDs is);3
and drawings showing ladies fair
in face, with ebon hair two petals
devoutly parted, precious metals
and gems and soaps and lingerie
ignite their eyes; and men like gay

Maqbool, Hero, Vincent Van Gogh, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy

Gestapo, debonair, mustaches
all trimmed to match that male motif
of movie stars in socks and briefs
with razors, Bata shoes, a Fascist
Bajaj, a Hero Honda – O!
What vanities these young men show!

Just see those posters multi-pasted
as though to please a compound eye
(or to ensure no space is wasted);
Baghban, Maqbool and Munna Bhai!
What dreams! What fantasies they feed on!
Reality is never agreed on.
A million worlds are born each day
and every set of eyes conveys
a world distinct from any other.

There’s Sheela in her private bus
which drives an hour ahead of us,
my manager-cum-poet-mother,
to whom the world is a place
for art to bloom – and she’s the vase,

the water pail, the disentangler
of bundled buds, inserter of
the baby’s breath, the scissor-angler
of stems to help what sprouts above.
To her “all art requires arrangement,”
for nothing’s worse that its estrangement
from mass appeal – and true enough.
I can’t but help respect the stuff
of fame, the stir of its concoction,
the way a monkish mind consorts
with pricey wardrobes, posh resorts.
(To wit — until that Sotheby auction,
the irises Van Gogh once saw
attracted insufficient awe).

So Sheela, by her florist-snippings,
perceives the world in costs and trends,
in viewerships and paper clippings,
in calls from sponsors, gifts from friends;
an ear pressed to the latest cell-phone,
each word well-weighed and clientele-prone.
The sapphire pins of damsel flies,
the drumstick trees with white bowties,
the water-sleeves cuff-linked with lotus;
bananas clumped like emerald quartz,
the silver gleam of seaside ports
— these riches pass her by, unnoticed!
(“A hornbill! Look!”) while she’d delight,
“We’re meeting Vikram Seth tonight.

A panel at the Malabar Palace.
And Naipaul says you are a fraud
— but that’s a good thing. All those callous,
disdainful books of his, O god
how much he’s hated here!”

Rushdie, Naipaul

                            “Really?
I quite admire — ”

                         “O don’t be silly,
Zireaux! Rushdie likes you. Roy
adores you. But Naipaul won’t enjoy
a work that doesn’t worship Hindus.
I’ve booked us at the Taj Hotel
in Kochi — wait…”

                          And while I’d smell
the sweet enchantments of the Wind-Muse
— the clove and night-queen in her broth —
or note the spasms of a moth

upon a pool’s cyanic surface
beside a floodlit night’s buffet
she’d ponder what might be the purpose
behind the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
her cellphone chirps and chimes.

                                                “That must be
Rajindar of the Times. I trust he
remembers what he promised. Hello?”

And in my mind, a chaste rondeau
would form — the inclines of her figure
enhancing hip’s and bosom’s rise;
and how her torpid teakwood eyes
can stay so calm above the vigor
of white-glossed teeth, hardworking lips
arranging dates for business trips.

…continued on January 25, 2011

1A Hindi word meaning encirclement, referring to a typical South Asian form of protest whereby a group of people surround a politician or a government building until certain demands are met, or answers given.
2The “hand” refers to the symbol of India’s Congress Party, while the “scythe,” of course, symbolizes the Communist Party.
3STD stands for Subscriber Trunk Dialing, that is, inter-state phone calls.

Start from the beginning…How I met Sheela Ray at Orbit’s Restaurant.

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“On Reading in Mumbai” (continued) by Zireaux

The Oberoi Hotel, Mumbai, India

The Oberoi Hotel, Mumbai, India

…continued

a smoldering moon above the Arabian Sea,
the streetlights lacing Marine Drive as we
stood still in traffic; and a double row

of faces gazing outward from their bus
like photograph transparencies; the glow
of second-story rooms; the blue stardust
of diesel fumes which hovered near, as though
to spy its kindred cloud inside with us;
Diwali sparklers tossed by servant boys.
The driveway of the Oberoi.

Where we pulled in — “Good evening to you, sir;”
and from our air-conditioned claire-obscure
we hatched into a brilliant vestibule.
And Sheela’s costume suddenly dispersed
a swarm of luminescent animalcules
around her pink silk sari; others burst
out from her spangled purse and dangling jewels.
We still held hands! We drank a nightcap first;
and then — my room. And as we talked and teased,
her eyes cast out the light they’d seized.

“This country’s, like — in love with you,” she gushed.
More drinks. More fingers squeezed. More lightly brushed
together knees.

"In every kiss a wish to die" -- Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman looking very serious in Casablanca.

"In every kiss a wish to die" -- Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman near to a kiss in Casablanca.

                        “With me? Or my words? And tell
me, please — just what is ‘country’? Land? A figment
of the mind? A fiction meant to quell
aggression toward a mother god, as Sigmund
Freud might say? A place? A people?”

                                                          “Well,”
she stopped to reason what my verbal tricks meant.
“I’d have to say I mean the people of
a country when I speak of love.”

“Astutely said,” I said. “And cutely.”

                                                          This caused
a smile – a smile just inches from mine. We paused.
The ocean lay in clumsy camouflage
outside, the lights of passing boats too bright
against the starless cosmos. Her soft massage
of fingers.

                   “The people, Sheela?” I whispered. “Might
I not include you in that entourage?”

Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai near to a kiss in Dhoom 2.

Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai near to a kiss in Dhoom 2.

Her zaffer eyelids drooped. Her smile took flight;
How strange is passion! Reckless, clumsy, delirious,
absurd, insane…and yet, so serious.

As if our bodies grasp the repercussions
of their act; as if the fevered flush in
which we weightless grope is less a furnace
in our glands than some new atmosphere
of circumstance which heats (and burns!) us
in our mad approach. And it’s this fear,
this dread of how our lives will change that turns us
into solemn, stone-faced clowns, content to smear
ourselves in flaming streaks across the sky.
In every kiss a wish to die.

I wax too lyrical. Fact is, most lives
are serious, with heartbreak, loss — and wives
and kids; and “Sheela…I” – but just before
we plunged into the blue ionosphere
and neared that no returning point, some snore,
or constant wheeze, which we could clearly hear
but which we’d both decided to ignore,
erupted like a tractor shifting gear,
and spluttered, gurgled, hacked then brayed no more.

A shadow rose beside us. “You’re back already.”
It lifted a camera. Held it steady.

Portrait of Edward John Trelawny by Joseph Severn

Portrait of Edward John Trelawny by the English painter, Joseph Severn

I must admit relief that Camera Joe
had woken up just when he did. Although
my will is strong, I might have found it hard
to formulate a courteous excuse.
As Sheela knew – our threesome knew – we bards
are unpredictable and might produce
immortal rhymes upon a calling card
at 3am; then thinking it refuse,
discard it somewhere, never to be found.
But not with Camera Joe around.

He films each couplet mumbled in my sleep,
(“Afflatus glossed and turned,” I’ve joked) to keep
my special quirks for curious Posterity.
Why not? All Byron’s news Trelawny dispatched.
And Sterne with good La Fleur produced a parity.
And Johnson with adoring Boswell was matched.
And me? I have my Camera Joe – a rarity:
A Sony lens with grown-up body attached.
Each night he fills up half my king-size bed.

So Sheela headed home instead.

 
Read previous poem about how I met Sheela Ray at Orbits Restaurant in Auckland.

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“On Reading in Mumbai” by Zireaux

My dear New Zealand, so tiny and so distant…!

Recently I read, with these persistent
rains we’ve had, that unsuspecting walkers
wading through the murky liquid streets
— a trishaw driver, a serenading hawker,
a bride with gold-bejeweled hands and feet
— will suddenly vanish, as if an unseen stalker
snatched them from below; and — gulp — a treat!

It seems a “killing” (so to speak) is made
when thieves in manhole covers trade.

And even I, on reading this, was struck
by how these unsuspecting people, sucked
into the ground, amused my comic sense
— until I read the part about their bloated
bodies, several hours later, dispensed
into the ocean mire. This was, I noted
to Sheela afterward, a crime against
potential readers! So there and then we voted
(Sheela, Camera Joe and I) to use
my growing fame to sell these views.

And just last week, on live T.V., in front
of cheering fans, my call to action was blunt:

“Enough of this manhole madness! We can’t just shrug
our shoulders and ignore it! How many dead
will we accept expelled like grotesque slugs
into the violent sea? Deplore it!” I said.
Cry out! Complain! And my ‘Campaign to Plug
the Plunge’ – or CaPP – which I myself will head,
is meant to give a voice to those who feel
a safer fate is ours to seal!”

I gave an example of a recent victim
(a twelve-year-old girl!), recited Donnean dictums
on why one needs to take a stand (“No man’s
an island to himself,” etc.) and heard
an orchestra of sniffles. I mentioned plans
to punish thieves; and cheers drowned every word.
A lady stood up: “The fault is Pakistan’s!”
she said – but she was shouted down, which stirred
up chants assailing crime, corruption, fraud.
“Zireaux, Zireaux hai zindabad!”

And on the drive back from the new Doordarshan
studios — beside the re-claimed marsh in
which the Worli slums distend and simmer —
Sheela took my hand.

“A thoughtful, brave
performance tonight,” she said, a tiny glimmer
in her eyes despite a twilight clave
by tinted glass, which made the dim yet dimmer.
Her bangles were subdued. Her necklace gave
no glint of life, the gems no longer shone.
Just dimples on a neck of stone.

Her crushed silk sari, too, was now the shade
of night-sedated lake, or somber glade
(which once – an hour before — was bright with dew
reflecting studio lights). A black ice sheet,
it froze upon her curves and slipped into
the darker mystery depths around our feet.
No, just her eyes, her eyes were all that drew
the muted lights around our shared backseat,
compressed them into tiny snowball sparks
to pitch at me with her remarks.

Those eyes caught every muffled source of light
that passed outside: the phosphorescent white
of open “chemist” stalls and “sweet-mart” stores
and “ladies tailors” sashed with silk and sequins,
the clinquant jewelry shops with guarded doors;
each blazing blue-tongued welder’s torch, delinquent
cooking fires, the aircraft lights that soared
across the sunroof’s starless space, the frequent
lamps and flames of makeshift camps and each
snack-seller on Chowpatty Beach;

…continued on Jan 11, 2011.

Read previous poem about how I met Sheela Ray at Orbits Restaurant in Auckland.

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“A Dream Before Leaving to India” by Zireaux

Ernst-Rudolph-The-Harem-Bath

The Harem Bath by Ernst Rudolph

Some lines about a dream I had last night:
Its theme makes sense, for I’ve just booked a flight
to foreign lands. The travel agent’s walls
had posters of some well-known sights — the Arc
de Triumph
, a Turkish Mosque, Victoria Falls.
“You mean, Mumbai” — the agent’s cold remark
to my ebullient greeting: “Duty calls
me to the mystic East! I must embark
(for I’m a famous poet) straight away
to Kipling’s childhood home: Bombay”

And in this dream last night, a one-eyed king
was watching a preposterous camel bring
me up the palace steps – O what a fool
that dream director! Camels in Tibet?
And naked odalisques in pools and jewel-
encrusted divans? And Sheela, dazzling, wet,
a kind of teacher at a harem/school
where I would play both royal bard and pet.
And yet, does not this crazy dream reflect
the life which I myself direct?

I own my dreams. My brain’s their sole creator;
and yet it seems some secret and much greater
force – a vulgar, fat, avuncular boss,
with bulbous nose and large caruncular ears —
an underworld controls my visions across
a dingy desk. “Tibet,” the Dream Don sneers.
Tibet? “That’s right. Majestic mountains glossed
with snow. A palace, pink and gold, appears
like frozen fire upon the vast plateau.
That’s what you’re meant to dream now. Go.”

I leave tomorrow, reader, happ’ly stuck
with Sheela and her Joe. Please wish me luck.

 

…continued on Jan 4, 2011.

 
Read previous poem about how I met Sheela Ray at Orbits Restaurant in Auckland.

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“On Meeting My Muse at Orbits Restaurant” by Zireaux

Auckland Sky Tower

Auckland’s Skytower, with Orbits revolving restaurant: “…a place for doughty eaters / spinning a hundred and ninety-two meters / above a revolving earth…'

On Meeting My Muse at Orbits Restaurant
by Zireaux

 

At dinner recently,
a fancy dress affair my wife
arranged (“to stimulate your life”)
at Orbits – a place for doughty eaters
spinning a hundred and ninety-two meters
above a revolving earth – a stranger queried
if I was someone famous.

                                             “No,” I parried.

But then she moved where I could see her better,
and all at once the restaurant’s lights beset her
glossy lips and shiny teeth, the streak
of jet-black vinyl hair which sashed a cheek
and veiled an eye, her sequined red camise
which shook out stars – entire galaxies! –
upon our tablecloth. My children
were struck dumb; this flashing lady thrilled them.
And then she spoke again – “I read
of you in Business Week,” she said.
“You invented _____” (I’m tempted to say;
but poetry was meant to stay
exempted from that philistine debasement
one finds in modern film: the “product placement”).

Her accent and her figure bore that treacly
trademark of America – both sleekly
made, and yet congealing where her curves
and vowels stressed more feeling than deserved.
(American women! What beautiful poses you strike
while making your noses say “Uhmigod” and “Like.”)
But something else I quickly noticed
in her face – the finest, remotest
trace of meager birth, a chink
of darkness in that sheen, the wink
of secret ancestry. I guessed
an early youth outside the West.
Sri Lanka, maybe. Or Bangladesh. Some place
economists would call a “basket case.”

“I’m actually a poet.”

                                 The phrase did flow
so easily from me – a sleigh where snow
had never been could now across the mass
of smooth white candor’s crystals pass.
Two scimitars, the eyebrows of my wife,
rose up as she set down her butter knife.
A poet! Our starry stranger draped
in pseudo-sari themes now gaped
at me; then turned and waved down curving
aisle where sat a man observing
us. A grimaced smile. His nose,
a huge proboscis, soon transposed
into a camera as he came our way.
“He says he’s a poet,” she called. “Our lucky day!”

Her name, we were informed, was Sheela Ray.
She’d traveled here to film an exposé
on foreign countries’ famous people. “Arrived
this morning – what a flight! I’m sleep-deprived,
but knew as soon as I laid eyes on you —
now there is someone I must interview.
This country is our fifth so far.
You wouldn’t believe how sick we are
of singers, athletes, news presenters.
It’s like, you know, the moment we enter —
Famous, you say? To interview?
Try John. He reads our nightly news!’”
Views and news. Were these some rhyming clues,
dear reader, that I was talking to my Muse?

She said she felt the poet was the “King
of Art.” That she’d, in fact, been hankering
to start a kind of poet’s club on-line.
Or maybe TV. But uhmigod! To find
a real poet! And one, you know, who looks
as though he’s found success outside of books
as well as in — “Really!” she cried,
above a sudden rising tide
of birthday song. “I recognized
the blaze of brilliance in your eyes.
But never did I think” — she paused,
then spoke beneath our neighbor’s applause –
“so swank a man could be a versifier.”
Enough. Suffice to say her praise went higher.

Voltaire

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

Suffice to say I took her number, agreed
to call, and possibly (“Oh please!”) to read
my latest stanzas for the Sheela Show,*
and added: “I’m half a Yank myself, you know.”
Suffice to say, I called, agreed to go
to her hotel. And Camera Joe,
who is all shadow to Sheela’s flame
(I still don’t know his real name),
had made the place a studio
whereby his vid- or voodeo
would stir me to rhyme.

                                              And Sheela Ray —
she was, her words, “quite blown away.”
Apparently my stanzas had seduced her;
she dialed her cell – “I’m calling my producer.”

Now hear me, reader: A peaceful dozen years
have passed since last I suffered Cupid’s spears.
And though I must admit the satin gown,
or rather, loose-fit shirt, a “button-down,”
which Sheela likes to sit and chat in (blind
to how it licks her thighs) — that shirt combined
with her Bengali eyes and breezy
smile (which brings to mind the easy
gurgle of purling water), her lush
black hair, the downward rush
of dark, delightful, switchblade brows
– although their presence might arouse
in me forgotten youth, I’m talking now
of poetry! Why Muses are chosen. And how.

And whether this coupling of Muses and poets is part
of some greater design! A Supragenic Art!
I mean, when Sheela opines – with elbows aiming
skyward from behind her neck (she’s taming
her hair, which lifts her night-shirt off her bare,
entangled legs) – “you’re like a modern Voltaire!”
(“Vous-avez lu Voltaire en Francais?” I ask.
Oui,” she says, “seulement pour un classe.”)
— then pouncing forward, trapping my hands
beneath her paws – “Your genius demands
attention! Your characters are so –”
and here zooms-in our Camera Joe
with squinting, view-finder’s grin – “they’re so alive!”
where was I? — Oh, yes, my point at last arrives –

when Sheela gives such plump and fertile views
as these, and I the crooning poet, can’t refuse
their promised tingle – their sweet, euphoric caress
of first bejeweled consciousness, a bliss
that curious room-bound species, Writing Man,
will kill for (are muses veiled in Burkhasthan?
Inspired poets maim and rape
as well as any artless ape)
— when I – stay with me, reader! – when I
cannot resist her lullabies
of tribute which, alas, produce
this metered, rhymed, ambrosial juice,
these shivers of delight – are they for me?
Or vital measures for my poetry?

 

*A popular TV talk show in India.

Read about the dream I had before leaving to India with Sheela and Camera Joe.

 

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