Our hero is astonished to discover that the old, bedraggled stranger he met in the previous episode is none other than Ramana Narayanamurthy (a.k.a. Rick), Kamal’s old philosopher and friend (who always advised Kamal to “pursue the greater pleasure”).
The Burning of the Library of Alexandria, by Hermann Goll (1876): ‘No doubt, in some unearthly realm, a vast / librarium of titles have amassed, / an anti-Alexandria to match / the one which Caesar had his men dispatch.’
But Rick still doesn’t recognize Kamal, who is badly burnt and disfigured. Rather, Rick thinks this horrific figure must have heard the story of Kamal and Imogene, a story which Rick has often told, and which he proceeds to summarize now — to our hero’s overwhelming grief.
We learn that Kamal’s mother found photographs of her son on a pornographic website (the photos, you’ll recall, taken while Kamal was drugged, without his knowledge); and that she shared this website with Imogene, who, as we know, was pregnant with Kamal’s baby; and that, as a result, Imogene has committed suicide. Unable to bear this news, Kamal passes out, and Book One comes to a close.
‘Kamal? Good try, my friend. You think I’d fall
for that? So you, it seems, have heard before
my story of Kamal and Imogene!
How he was banished, and she, the poor
naïve young girl – just turned sixteen –
heart-broken, wild, and furthermore,
now pregnant with his child, was by
her mom (my mistress) made to lie
with twenty men in just a single night
so she might temper sadness with delight.
The story always breaks my heart. Like you,
my friend, the men I tell the story to
feel most compassion for Kamal, who never
discovers how his Imogene, forever
in love with him, is ravaged by the pills
her mother makes her take in hopes
an overdose of drugs will kill
the unborn child; or how she copes
with so much self-disgust, until
one day, of her freewill, she takes
a razor (once Kamal’s) and makes
a slit along her forearm, this way-wise,
and on her favorite pink divan . . . she dies.
That’s right, she dies. “But poor Kamal!” I hear
them say. “They’ve both lost what they held most dear
– but he knows not her miseries! Imagine,”
they say, “when he discovers how his passion
was mistreated, crushed, deﬁled!” To which I say,
“Dear men, it’s she who suffers most!
Kamal, it’s true, was cast away,
and surely must have felt morose
for days – but hey, didn’t he obey
my ﬁrm philosophy? For sure
enough, did he not take my cure
for melancholy? Choose a greater pleasure.
To ﬁnd our worth, it’s happiness we measure.
The welcoming of the Queen of Sheba: “…of oceans crossed and golden ﬂeeces found; / I write of Sheba bedded, children crowned…’
Not misery! Move on with life! Move on!
If one joy ends, then let another spawn!
And judging by the path Kamal selected
his heart’s already disconnected
from his ﬁrst lost love. Two weeks
before my body turned to this
monstrosity – when I had cheeks
the ladies still adored to kiss,
when pills I took still worked! – a shriek
resounded through our mansion’s halls.
And then I heard my Lady call:
‘Come quickly, Rick!’ So to her room I sped.
‘You won’t believe it! Becky phoned and said
Kamal is now a worldwide celeb!
And look at this! I’ve found him on the web!’
Together, she and I – transﬁxed, amused,
astonished – every single page perused
of that amazing site. My friend, I can
attest, without a doubt, Kamal is not
a destitute or even mournful man.
O no! Of all the graphic, candid shots
we saw, of all the images we scanned
– Kamal engaged in carnal trysts;
Kamal the proud polygamist –
not one perspective of his face did show
the slightest trace of misery or of woe.
“Come quickly, Genie dear!” – my Lady wanted
her daughter to see, and so the site was ﬂaunted
to the girl. Kamal the Libertine.
Kamal the Sultan in his nest of Queens.
Contrast his star with Imogene’s – who, quite
the opposite to him (I know
because I saw the painful sight),
refused to let her sadness go.
And so she suffered most despite
her ﬁnal choice: That is, to die.
And die she did. And much as I
believe that such a choice conﬁrms one’s strength,
the second measure of one’s life is length.
O yes, our lives are scored in years. In fact,
if I was frank, and asked to be exact
who suffered most, then, well, I might just say,
it was their baby…my friend? Are you okay?’
Kamal, as you have guessed, has quietly swooned
(for he already was recumbent)
and from the truth is now marooned
in cool oblivion’s abundance.
For when we cannot bear a wound,
a hurricane of numbness sweeps
us to that land where no one weeps
from either pain or pleasure. ‘The Land of Nod’,
as Stevenson once called that place abroad.*
Hylas and the Nymphs, by John William Waterhouse (1896): Hylas was one of the Argonauts, sailing with Jason in search of the Golden Fleece. He encounters a bevy of naiads, who invite him into a pool. He is never heard from again.
Poor Imogene! I mourn her loss – or more, lament
the loss of anything
Of anything on which we’ve spent
more thought than thinking can afford.
To ﬁnd, at last, your lover gives consent
– I’m yours! I’m yours! – a gift it seems
that grants the kingdom of our dreams.
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?
With tragedy the future is devoured.
And reminiscence, too, is overpowered
by thoughts of present pleasures now aborted.
Each hope, however gently coaxed or courted,
refuses from our hand to feed – and runs!
(Yet lingers, still, beyond our touch).
Can characters a poet has spun
their maker ever know? So much
I feel for you, Kamal – a son,
as I have said – and yet for me
I don’t expect your sympathy….
Let shame say what it will! Like Laertes,
I let emotion douse indignities.
I promised you, Kamal, that I would give
you all I had – and loved – so you may live.
And this I’ve done. But O, how frail you are!
And how protective I’ve become.
For darkness threatens every star.
Who knows which rival will succumb
when fame and obfuscation spar?
For every book that’s published, one
exists – at least as good – which none
have heard of, books which editors have spurned.
A Xanadu porlocked! Lolita burned!
In every shelf of classics, there exists
a haunting, sad lacuna – lost, dismissed,
abandoned, silenced works of greatness. Works
blacked-out by popes and peons, kings and clerks;
or accidents, a freakish ﬁre, or duels
of honor, libraries bombarded
by civilized, invading fools;
a drawer unopened, box discarded,
or all those ‘literary schools’
which poison future Socrates
with drafts of mediocrity.
Unwarranted, political hysteria!
Abhorrent camps, the gulags of Siberia!
No doubt, in some unearthly realm, a vast
librarium of titles have amassed,
an anti-Alexandria to match
the one which Caesar had his men dispatch.
For every book we read, a phantom one
is shelved within that catacomb.
My hope, Kamal, is that won’t you won’t inherit
that fate; for that is not the fate you merit.
– End of Book the First –
*A reference to the poem by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894), which goes:
From breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay,
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.
Published as part of the dVerse poetry group and the Tuesday Poets, a blog founded by New Zealand poets, but which includes poets from around the world.
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