Tag Archives: Proust

Tuesday Poem: “A Sideways Raining of Metal” by Zireaux

Makhtumkuli, or Magtimguli, Magtymguly, was a Turkmen spiritual leader and philosophical poet, born 1733 in Iran, died 1797.

Makhtumkuli, or Magtimguli, or Magtymguly, was a Turkmen spiritual leader and philosophical poet, born 1733 in Iran, died 1797.

‘My mother, Arcady, a widowed furrier
and skilled equestrian, hearing the news
her only son was sentenced to lose
his life, was swept by such a fury, her
screams were even more fierce and tireless
than when that mother of Euryalus,
in Virgil’s song was told her son
was fed to dogs. Or when Jocasta’s
abandoned son became the one
she’d wed! Arcady! They say love lost is
madness found! This proverb fits
most aptly for mothers, isn’t it?
Forgive me, friend, your quiet demeanor
suggests you view my grass as greener.

But do not worry! Rescue will come!

I remember the night of my execution.
As if to loosen, or rather, un-noosen
the growing strain (for O, how glum
my guards became, in some ways dearer
to me than lovers, as death drew nearer),
it was decided I’d share a dinner
with my polite and cousinly captors.
Last meals are granted to death-facing sinners
in Turkmen custom, but only after
the crook is hanged (those gastro-requests
are for the hangman to ingest);
so what an honor it was to be
that night’s regaled celebrity.

And what a marvelous meal was sprawled
across the sofreh’s silk – the nans
like fighters’ shields, the lightly bronzed
and basted dumplings (mantί it’s called)
as tender as angels’ lips, and heaps
of sticky palav from which the sheep’s
fat trickled down our arms! The chal
(cool camel’s milk) was rich with cream,
the sweets with grenadine, and all
of it, each taste called forth a dream
more vivid than epic visions stirred
by Makhtumkuli when he, with curd,
would mix his bread; or Proust when he
would taste his madeleines with tea.

For I was due to die at dawn!
And here the food on which I fed
reminded me of what was spread
before me in my youth, the nan
and mutton, rice and soup all nicely
garnished, stuffed and spiced precisely
as mother would do. We hugged and toasted
with ardent, woeful farewells, the guards
and I; and never with better hosts did
I let nagging sleep retard
a happier evening – for never such ease
and satisfaction I’d felt, or pleased
with life I’d been as during that splendid
banquet, convinced my life had ended.

A moment later it seemed (so deep
my sleep!) those same lamenting men
who’d sworn with mugs aloft that when
I died a thousand days they’d weep,
seized hold my flaccid arms and legs
and like a boat on water dragged
my calm, blindfolded figure toward
the misty courtyard’s scaffold. I heard
a kind of off-key harpsichord,
a flight of swallows crying. The blurred
perception of a wall. I sensed
my bearers press my back against
its cool damp stones to sit unaided.
They left me there; and there I waited.

The cock and lock of old dragoons
(I thought I would be hanged, by God!
But did it matter? A firing squad,
I mused, was just as good) and soon
a bullet – a swift, unloosed and feral
mastiff – out from a gunner’s barrel
was shot and bit straight through my skin!
It tickled, I swear! It tickled and made
me laugh! Another was fired and in
my chest it sunk. A fusillade
I heard, at last, as the remaining
guns unleashed a sideways raining
of metal upon me, with deafening pops,
yet landing soft as water drops.’

More Tuesday Poems at Tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com.

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Tuesday Poem: The Final Episode of Kamal, Book One! “A Haunting, Sad Lacuna”

The Burning of the Library of Alexandria, by Hermann Goll (1876)

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.’

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”).

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.

Queen of Sheba

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, John William Waterhouse

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 adored.
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.

See the complete index of episodes from Kamal, Book One

Listen to Kamal read live!

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“To Contradiction” (My India Tour Continued) by Zireaux

Indian Film Star, Sushmita Sen

Indian Film Star, Sushmita Sen

A distant homeland, far-off terra.
And when I spoke to little Clara
on Sheela’s cell-phone yesterday,
she asked me why I’ve kept away.

“My work,” I wept. “How’s your brother?”

“He’s fine,” she said.

                               My Clara’s smart.
I spoke of beauty, love and art,
then heard a voice:

                                “Who’s that?”

                                                      Her mother.

The line went dead and how it died
was obvious — a homicide.

Now ask my Clara what has happened!
Ask five-year-old, precocious Jake!
What gales of sense their minds will flap in,
what flights of fancy they will take!
Who knows what trumped-up sort of traitor
I am — a Voldermort or Vader?
Or just another man remiss,
a Crusoe to their Family Swiss?
Or maybe something better, Wells’s
adventurer, or even Swift’s?
On what soft wind or dreamy drift
of thought, or mum-propulsioned swell is
their absent father carried on?
What lands are dreamt? What maps are drawn?

O Contradiction! Neutral zealot!
You are the mirror dandies kiss.
You show the face and even sell it,
with lips impossible to miss…
then watch as puckered papules crash-in
to glassy, stone-cold, anti-passion!
Judicious tyrant, the clef, the thing
which holds the notes all Byrons sing.

"...these vain young men / who hangle from a crippled, wheezing / municipal bus..."

"...these vain young men / who hangle from a crippled, wheezing / municipal bus..."

No poetry can be constructed
without your mix of kings and slaves,
the sort of things your skill and luck did
for Shakespeare’s globe and Melville’s waves;
What monuments you’ve built, smart fellow!
Your Eiffel Proust, Chicago’s Bellow,
immense designs with concrete walls
and dainty streams and waterfalls;
and you, a tiny, scarred and ugly
philanderer with silver hair
and secret kids from two affairs;
and strong opinions brandished smugly
from dingy offices in which
you dig your quarry (and your ditch).

This world, reader! See it shiver
to life? The swallows skim across
the dusky brown and red-rust river
to leave a trail of silver floss.
No hearts will ever show more feeling,
or hold endearments more revealing,
that those which love Sushmita Sen
and throb inside these vain young men
who hangle from a crippled, wheezing
municipal bus (these men — poor dears! —
if they could tune their off-key ears,
perhaps they’d sing without eve-teasing.
And Sen might hear a deeper love
than any Bachchan’s1 spoken of;

and let’s not close this parenthetical
without an arrow shot up high
and tipped with fire most heretical,
and aimed directly toward Mumbai.
Toward you, great actors! And you, believers,
who worship them! We pay deceivers
to thrill us on the screen — and this
they do. But careful. Don’t dismiss
or over-praise -– they’ll turn their acting
to life, and start to star off-screen,
and make a living making scenes
they know will be most fan-attracting;
a puja, say, with feet unshod,
as if their role were cast by God).

Amitabh Bachchan performing his famous barefoot puja.

Actor Amitabh Bachchan performing his famous barefoot puja.

O how it gives the world dimension!
Or maybe it is something else;
and all examples of dissension
are really just strange parallels
of chance; a cosmic deck of cards might
confine (or circumscribe!) what bards write.
(And maybe Douglass Adams knew
the key to life is 52!).
But I trust you, dear Contradiction,
to be my muse (for now). I know
your strict neutrality can grow
fantastic realms without restriction,
and like this world of ours set free
an infinite plurality!

For those who say our world is shrinking
(there are pizza parlors in Chennai!)
are stricken by a lack of thinking.
Quot hominês, tot sententiae.2
For how the world expands with every
new birth and brain; each pod of reverie
a dynasty! A fresh campaign
of conquest! Fifteenth century Spain
repeated every .4 seconds
(or so the population clock
keeps time). This India could stock
another Spain, it’s reckoned,
in just one year! Despite such facts,
still people claim the world contracts.

And this, precisely this initial
assumption (worse than a cliché!)
is what transforms the superficial
— the Nike shoes, or Starbucks, say —
from bridges tempting mass migration
to Bering Straits of separation.
I side with Kipling here! The “twain”
may share a coffee, entertain
each other, come to understandings
— but like the stars and galaxies
which travel through the blackest seas
of space (that always are expanding)
their gravities can’t overcome
that first-force which they started from.

1Amitabh Bachchan, the most famous and prolific film star of all time.
2As many men, so many opinions.

Read more about my poetry tour of India…


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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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Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, by John Updike, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, 705 pages

Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, by John Updike

Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, by John Updike

Is there a living writer whose achievements are so much taken for granted as John Updike’s? History is fertilized with unknown masters; but what about recognized masters who are under-appreciated? What happens to such fruit? How can any literary award’s committee sit down to discuss the world’s best – Lessing, Pamuk, Pinter – without someone muttering a single spondee — “Updike” — to quickly settle the matter?

There’s a terrible imbalance here: On its “Also by John Updike” page, Due Considerations lists 21 novels, 15 short story collections, eight collections of essays and criticism, seven books of poems, five children’s books, a play and a memoir; and Due Considerations itself contains no less than 146 articles of considerable stylistic, metaphorical, critical and intellectual weight. One’s reminded of Alexandre Dumas, a factory of a writer, a brand name, but Updike has chosen every word himself, written it all, while averaging an astonishing five beautiful sentences out of every six, with an equally impressive batting average of perfect words (whereas most popular writers these days hit no more than one sentence out of ten; and some no more than one per book).

Now compare this profound and prolific oeuvre, compare Updike’s scintillating talent, his steadfast devotion to testing “the limits of what I know and what I feel,” his implacable “homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness” and most amazingly, the fact that he’s still among us, still writing, still knocking sentence after sentence out of the park, compare this unrivalled writer to all the recognition he’s received so far — including Two Pulitzer prizes, the National Medal of Arts, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, even a reference to Updike on the Simpsons – and you begin to understand exactly how much merit is lacking. It’s just not enough. Can it ever be enough?

In his review of William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life, Updike inadvertently stumbles upon a possible explanation: “It all came down to one book,” he writes of Proust’s A la Recherche due Temps Perdue. “No wonder it had to be vast. Posterity tends to give novelists a longer ride on one or two big books than on a raft of smaller ones.” And there’s the rub for someone like Updike. Perhaps he’s written too much.

The bigger problem, of course, is us.  We’re easily distracted.  We’re quick to watch the caped daredevil parachute off a skyscraper while neglecting the urbane-looking chap who always, for some reason, floats beside us, inexplicably, an inch above the ground. Updike makes a daily habit of his American genius; it follows readers around, especially men: to poker games, movie theatres, baseball diamonds and YMCA swimming pools and the everyday wooing of dollars and cars.  “Small wonder,” he wrote in a short story inspired by his love for a ‘55 four-door Waterfall Blue Ford sedan, “the [American] landscape is sacrificed to these dreaming vehicles of our ideal and onrushing manhood.”Onrushing manhood. The suburban bedroom. The desperate housewife’s predecessor – desperate husbands.  Sex has bedevilled Updike throughout his life. Like few other American writers, he’s proven to be endlessly fascinated by America’s (and therefore his own) fascination with sexual liberty, forever comparing one decade’s behaviour with another’s, as a museum curator might compare different schools of art (The inclusion in Due Considerations of his frivolous essay “Ten Epochal Moments in the American Libido” is a case in point).

This obsession of Updike’s, I speculate, may cause readers to dismiss an Updike novel as passé while ignoring the deeper beauty of its craftsmanship; and perhaps the sex-obsession itself is an Americanism many Americans, at least the more international-minded, are outgrowing these days.  He seems to recognize the broader truth in old age, noting somewhere in Due Considerations – can’t find the exact quote – that sex in the late, pre-liberated 1940s had its own special codes and secret charms, and these were just as thrilling to the libidos of onrushing manhood as any activity in less prudish times to come. 

Updike’s lush style of writing is deceptively well-trimmed, impeccably-dressed.  He’s as prudent and delicate with his details with he is dismissive of dogma.  Notice his recollections of childhood summers: “I liked the freedom of shorts, sneakers, and striped T-shirt, and I liked the way I looked in the mirror, with freckles and a short hot-weather haircut.” Now notice the “perhaps” in the sentence that follows these details: “We love easily in summer, perhaps, because we love our summer selves.”

And we love such observations, perhaps, not just for the mirrors they present us, or even for the clarity of their reflection, but for the fact they’re conjured by a 73-year-old master of his art with the ability to astound us all the more – by travelling still farther through memory and time – the older he gets.

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