Poetry

Byronic heroes are people, too

For the sword outwears its sheath,

And the soul wears out the breast,

And the heart must pause to breathe,

And love itself have rest.

Lord Byron, So, we’ll go no more a roving

All these books in my library — lives lived

out, words spent, atria emptied of their 

blood. I see them and realise that I do not

have much time. But, like all the rest, I am

bound in webs of responsibility and class

and aspiration. A small cottage by the beach

with a well-stocked library and a fire in the

hearth where we could spend our evenings 

before the dark descends. And, perhaps, 

there is where I’ll have the time to ponder over

the mysteries of the Sufis. Why do the stars

call me so? Why does the sea, why do old

houses, and old books, and saudade call me so?

The dreams of another life… almost

forgotten… breaking on the shores of my

heart, and I… I frantic, searching among the 

ruins and the driftwood for a compass to guide 

me home. Home? The place I yearn for when I 

hear someone playing A minor softly, clear as 

a bell, through the sweet, sad sounds of static 

on old radios. In a short time, this will be a 

long, long time ago…

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Poetry

One hundred years of solitude and all I got was this lousy t-shirt

Why do you love lighthouses
she said
what’s with all those maps of distant islands
she said
and those other ones of the stars.
I don’t know
he said
maybe
he said
maybe
I miss somewhere
he said
somewhen
he said
maybe that’s how nostalgia was born.
Adam’s lament for home and we
his children.

O, Majnun!
they said
why do you sift the desert sands
they said
you will not find Layla there.
And Majnun said:
I search for her
everywhere
in the hopes of finding her
somewhere.

In this age of starships and relativity
as we journey out into the dark
we should not be surprised if
on another world
our ships land on other shores and
beneath alien suns
we find our old friend Majnun
sifting through those alien sands
ever-searching
ever-seeking
his belov’d.

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Prose

The Quiet Saudade of Video Games

A city child, down for the summer.

When suddenly he walked into

the twelve-foot wall of corn.

Leaving the dogs. Firelight

on the barn. The smell of Carolina.

The stars making me lurch.

Thirty years ago…

Jack Gilbert, Another Grandfather

SO THERE’S this game. Firewatch. The game is you by your lonesome in a lookout tower, deep in the woods of some heartland American state. Now just imagine that. The woods stretch away on every side, far as the eye can see. You have your little tower and you watch the sun set and rise and if you listen close you can hear the sound of a stream a little way away and the crickets and birds chirping in the forest. Your walkie-talkie buzzes every once in a while and you can talk or not talk and it just adds to the solitude like hearing a piano note hesitant in the dark, late into the night. I don’t know. The idea of that. There’s something to it. To these games that speak of solitude and the quiet exploration of weathered lighthouses on windswept islands (The Sailor’s Dream) or haunting backcountry woods (Firewatch) or even a vast, lonely universe and you in your little spaceship, alone amidst the stars (No Man’s Sky). It’s like they’re a Sufi journey into one of Attar’s seven valleys.

A while back there was this movie about a guy who’s a 9/11 survivor and he’s got PTSD and to cope he plays Shadow of the Colossus, a game where there’s just you and your faithful horse and the deserted ruins of an ancient Babylon.

Then there was Far Cry 4 and, don’t get me wrong, it was nice and all hearing Urdu gaalis in a video game but the best bit is making your way up the Himalayas and pushing through the snow covered trees until you spy the little stone path cut into the the mountain that leads up, higher, higher, and you follow it and it opens onto a little terrace on the side of the great mountains and a small sign by the path says it’s your ancestral homestead and there’s a little wooden house and a well and some goats and a small garden that ends at the edge of a steep drop and you stand there, all of Kyrat spread out before you. It’s home, you know?

Even No Man’s Sky is an aspirin for when you’re star-drunk from staring at the night sky too long and can’t breathe because there’s not much time left and there’s a universe to explore and you don’t have a starship by your side and you never will and you realise, then, that it’s taken so long for the light to reach you from those stars that they’re probably dead and buried on those alien, alien worlds and all you can do now is watch them and realise that that’s why they say ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’…

I’ll probably never play all these games anyway and I guess that’s for the best. This way I’m free to project my own saudade onto them. Truth is, they’d never be as good as my dreams.

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Poetry

Magellan

They sat in silence, watching night fall over the brambles. A flock of distant animals could be heard on the horizon, and a woman’s inconsolable voice calling them by name, one by one, until it was dark.

Gabriel García MárquezOf Love and Other Demons

They say Magellan once dreamt of Maccu Picchu,

burning in the moonlight and an orphan-king who

roamed the forsaken streets with a broken crown

as his tears mingled with the lashing rain. They say

Magellan never awoke from that dream and spent

the rest of his life searching for the ruined city. On

the night before his death, they say he scribbled a

last entry into his journal. Somewhere in South

America, he wrote, an orphan-king wed an orphan-queen

and they were orphans no more. They lived in great

happiness and their rule was just and wise. But the

conquistadors came one day and took gold and took

slaves and left him with a broken crown and a broken

heart and not much else. He wandered the desolate

ruins under the strange stars until one rainy night his

sanity tripped over the edge of an endless abyss. He

ventured into the jungle, then, and the great beasts

all ran from the madness of the orphan-king. On moonless

nights, Magellan wrote, even now I can hear his footsteps

echo in that strange dream-city and my soul shall find

no rest until I wander its lonely streets. In my search for

this city I have spent the riches of a thousand kingdoms

and I would spend the riches of a thousand more. I can

not breathe, I can not eat, I am neither here nor there. I

am the yearning in your tired, tired soul on sleepless nights,

he wrote, when all your desires melt away save

one.

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Prose

Eternal Summer (or HOPC)

One who has lived many years in a city, so soon as he goes to sleep,

Beholds another city full of good and evil, and his own city vanishes from his mind.

He does not say to himself, “This is a new city: I am a stranger here” ;

Nay, he thinks he has always lived in this city and was born and bred in it.

What wonder, then, if the soul does not remember her ancient abode and birth-place,

Since she is wrapt in the slumber of this world, like a star covered by clouds?—

Especially as she has trodden so many cities and the dust that darkens her vision is not yet swept away.

Rūmī 

SOMETHING’S broke, doc. Something’s broke. You gotta help me. It’s broke inside and I — I just can’t fix it. I had this dream, see? Well, it wasn’t a dream dream. Like I was asleep, sure, but it was real too, you know?

I seen this place, doc. This big ol’ school field. Biggest field you ever seen. And me? I’m standing by the edge of it watching these kids play in the field. They’re kicking around this old football and one of ’em, he sees me, and he’s waving across that big ol’ field.

“Come on!” he’s saying, “whatcha waiting for?”

And I look closer and it’s the guys, doc! It’s the guys! I ain’t seen them in years! So I run over to ’em and we play and we play and we play. We play until the sun’s low in the sky and it hurts my eyes just to look at it.

And then? Then we just sit there in that big ol’ field, catching our breaths, watching the sun set on another summer’s day. Summer ends way too soon, huh doc?

Now in the dream I start to feel thirsty, see? So I tell the guys I’ll be right back. The school’s right there — just up ahead — and I walk to the courtyard, all the way to the water fountain. The water tastes a little funny, yeah, but it’s alright. It’s pretty cold.

It’s all a bit spooky though, you know? School’s are always spooky at that hour. I mean, just think about it, doc! Think about all those empty classrooms, all those empty desks and chairs facing empty blackboards all night long. It’s spooky!

So I wanna get the heck out of there as fast as I can. I drink that water, doc, eyes closed, trying not to think of what’s in them empty classrooms. And then I feel cold, doc. All of a sudden, I feel cold. I look up and the sun’s setting and it’s almost set so I turn and I run back towards the field. But when I make it out of there, the field’s empty and the sun’s set and it’s all grey, doc. It’s all grey.

I wake up, then, and I’m covered in a cold sweat but it’s just a dream, right? So I turn over and I go back to sleep. In the morning I wake up and I remember and it’s spooky and all but it’s just a dream, right? So I head to the shower. But I can’t tell the hot water tap from the cold water tap. They’re both grey!

It’s been a week and it’s all grey now, doc. You and your desk and the light from that window and the city outside that window. It’s all grey now. It’s all grey. I don’t wanna live in the grey, doc. You gotta help me! You got a pill or something? I never been on any pills, doc, but I’d take ’em just to see the colours again.

Colour’s grand, doc, ain’t it? It’s like summer, doc. And this grey? Well, I been shivering in it for too long now.

You gotta help me, doc. You can fix it, can’t you? Fix what’s broke inside? I sure hope you can, doc, cause by god I’m sick—’n—tired of it. I ain’t crazy, doc. I ain’t. I been going to work and I been going to church and I been eating my vegetables. I even laid off the smokes, honest doc!

But it’s just so grey. I can’t take it anymore. I miss the colours, you know?

I miss not being broke inside.

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Prose

Djinn

The Lord sits with me out in front watching

a sweet darkness begin in the fields.

We try to decide whether I am lonely.

I tell about waking at four a.m. and thinking

of what the man did to the daughter of Louise.

And there being no moon when I went outside.

He says maybe I am getting old.

That being poor is taking too much out of me.

I say I am fine. He asks for the Brahms.

We watch the sea fade. The tape finishes again

and we sit on. Unable to find words.

Jack GilbertThe Lord Sits With Me Out In Front

I COULD see djinn. I’d see them, shadows falling off the houses in the old city. I’d see them, covens huddled under the banyans in the dark parks whispering strange songs in forgotten tongues. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I’d see them in the mosques and there I’d pause and watch as they prayed in the moonlit courtyards to the lonely gods of the night.

They burnt little fires that winter. There must have been hundreds of them; dirty pools of warm, smoky light in the back-allies and grimy roofs. And by each one — by the sleepy night watchmen and the boys who sold flowers and the silent, bundled up men who walked with determination to their empty homes — I saw them. I saw the djinn. And they saw me.

***

They began to point on the night of the winter solstice. Shadowy arms would be raised as I walked past, gesturing to the hills. And when I realised what they were doing, I turned and ran back to the house and turned the key in the lock.

I must have stared at that ceiling for hours, watching the lights from the street play across the peeling paint. It began to rain. A light drizzle that sounded like her pitter-pattering about the house and my heart twinged and I sighed and pulled on something warm and headed out.

They stood along the sides of the road, a thin file of smoke. I looked at them for a long while and they stared back, shadows drifting in and out of darkness. I shook my head, pulled the jacket tighter about me and, bent low against the north wind, made my way towards the silhouette on the horizon.

***

The path wound upwards. Gravel crunched under my feet and a sickly moon lit my way. The djinn were closer now, close enough to touch and I felt the damp from their shadows bridging the gap between us and hurried onwards. A cloud smothered the moon and I stopped and stood still and felt the gloom closing about me. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, they picked out a faint glow in the distance. I turned to the djinn to ask but they stared at me with their shadowy eyes and said not a word and the wind blew harder and — heart pounding, pulse racing — I began to run towards the light.

The path ended at the door of a small, alabaster mazaar. A solitary light bulb illuminated the wooden door and, desperate for a fellow man, I banged the brass knocker and hollered for someone to open up. Sure footsteps paced towards the door and I heard the sound of ancient locks being unfastened. The door creaked open with a sigh so familiar that I scarcely noticed the old man who stood at the threshold.

“Well, don’t just stand there! Come in, come in! We’ve been expecting you.”

Expecting me? I didn’t know what to make of him, but my heart slowed once he’d closed the stout door against the terrors of the night. Inside, a dim, carpeted corridor stretched onwards and we walked along it until we reached a sparse, white-washed room with a charpoy in the corner and a shelf lined with thick, leather-bound books.

“Sit down, sit down!” The old man gestured towards the charpoy. “Would you like some tea?”

I managed a nod and collapsed in the corner. He looked at me and smiled before walking out. I heard a stove being lit and the rattle of cups and water boiling and soon the little room was filled with the fortifying scent of milky tea. Outside, the wind blew harder and harder and knocked against the wooden shutters and I began to shiver and my forehead burned and I reached for the gray mantle that lay on the charpoy and wrapped myself in its warmth. It had a strange, familiar fragrance and I felt my shivering lessen as it touched my skin.

The old man entered bearing a cup and nodded approvingly. “Good, good. Here, drink this. It will help.”

I reached for the cup with trembling hands and, at the first sip, recoiled. The old man laughed.

“It will help with the shivering, I promise. Now drink! Go on.”

It was an odd brew and yet, like so much else, tainted with a strange familiarity. I felt the fever subside and the shivering cease.

“Thank you, baba.”

“Call me Khizr,” he smiled. “And don’t thank me yet, Shahreyar!”

“How—? How do you know my name?”

He looked at me kindly. “They told me, of course!”

“They?”

“Yes, they! I’m not a magician, young man, who else would have told me?”

He watched my confusion with amusement. Outside, it began to rain and the wind scratched at the door and lashed the downpour in wave upon wave against the shutters.

“Khizr, who are you? Why were you expecting me?”

He didn’t reply. Instead, he arose and shuffled towards the book case. A heavy tome was put into my hands.

“Open it,” he said. I did. Inside was faded ink and yellow pages and the smell of old books. Across the front was printed The Conference of the Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar and, lower down the page, a philosophical religious poem in prose.

“What is this?”

The old man looked worried. “Oh no, oh no! You can read, can’t you?”

“Of course I can read!”

“Good, good! Then please do so. And, if you don’t mind, please read aloud.”

“But — Where do I read from?”

“What a silly question to ask! Wherever you feel like!” He sat back and closed his eyes. Thunder rolled in the hills and the wind and the rain continued to batter the little mazaar. I flipped through the book, cleared my throat and began to read.

“‘A man humbly asked permission’ — Is this fine? Should I start from here?”

“Yes, yes! Don’t interrupt! Go on!”

“Alright. ‘A man humbly asked permission to say a prayer on the carpet of the Prophet, who refused, and said: ‘The earth and the sand are burning. Put your face on the burning sands and on the earth of the road, since all those who are wounded by love must have the imprint on their face, and the scar must be seen. Let the scar of the heart be seen, for by their scars are known the men who are in the way of love.'”

Khizr’s eyes snapped open.

“Wonderful, wonderful! ‘For by their scars are known the men who are in the way of love…’ And yet I sense you do not appreciate it? Why, Shahreyar? Why? I can see the scars of love on your heart. What good does this self-pity do you? She is gone! She is gone and soon… soon so shall you. There isn’t much time. There is much you must learn. Come.”

I stared at him, open mouthed.

“Come with me.”

He plucked the book from my hand and marched down the corridor and began unbolting the locks.

“Are you mad?” I yelled. “There are… things outside! They’ll come in! They’ll kill us!”

He looked at me steadily and in one swift gesture threw open the door. The full fury of the storm burst in upon us. Thunder boomed overhead and biblical torrents lashed our faces. Lightning lit the sky and the hills and there, just at the edge of the pool of light from the solitary bulb, stood a company of djinn.

“No!”

He gripped my arm and pulled me out towards the shadows. Rain soaked us to the bone and my feet sunk into the sludge and yet the old man pulled me onwards with a strength I could hardly resist.

“They are you, Shahreyar!” he shouted. “They are you! Nothing more, nothing less!” And as I touched the djinn, my fingers closed upon smoke and they dissipated up into the darkling heavens. The rains trickled to a stop and the winds quieted and we stood there, the two of us, breathing heavily as the clouds parted and the moon once more bathed the night with its radiance.

I do not remember much of what happened next. I recall bits and pieces — staggering in to the mazaar; collapsing on to the charpoy; drifting in and out of delirious dreams filled with the most hideous creatures hunting me through dark labyrinths until the morning azaan revived me and its melody lulled me to my first proper sleep since her death…

***

When I awoke, the sun blazed high in the sky and the breeze from the window held the scent of the sea. Khizr ambled in with a smile on his face and the ubiquitous cup of hot, milky tea in his hands.

“Oh, good! You’re awake! I was starting to worry.”

“What — ?” I gingerly shook my aching head. “What happened?”

“I suspect, my young friend,” he said. “That the answer to that, like so much else, lies in the book.”

I stood tentatively and walked to the bookshelf. The Conference of the Birds was easy to spot: it was the only one that was soaked; proof that the previous night wasn’t just a nightmare. I opened it and began to read:

“When the Simurgh, king of the birds, manifested himself outside the veil, radiant as the sun, he produced thousands of shadows on the earth. When he cast his glance on the shadows there appeared birds in great numbers. The different types of birds that are seen in the world are thus only the shadow of the Simurgh. Know then, O ignorant ones, that when you understand this you will understand exactly your relation to the Simurgh. Ponder over this mystery but do not reveal it.”

Ponder over this mystery but do not reveal it? Something broke within me and a torrent of old memories drowned my heart with a unfathomable sob.

“But Layla! What of Layla?”

Khizr said nothing, only motioned me to read on. I wiped the tears and drank the tea and did as he bade.

“A man came to a Sufi one day, weeping. The Sufi asked him why he wept. ‘O Shaikh, he said, ‘I have a friend whose beauty made my soul as verdant as branches in spring. Yesterday, he died, and I too shall die of sorrow.’ The Sufi said: ‘Why do you grieve? For a long time you have had his friendship. Go now and choose another friend, one who will not die.”

I looked at Khizr and he smiled eagerly at me. “Would you like to meet him now? He’s been waiting for you.”

The words caught in my throat. “Wh—? Who?”

Khizr turned at the door and shook his head, “Who? Your friend, of course! He’s been waiting a long, long time. Come.”

With a new lightness in my heart, I followed Khizr out the door into the bright sunlight. Behind me, the old book lay quietly on the charpoy, waiting.

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Prose

Ad Astra

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,

Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,

Thee fully formed emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,

Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Walt Whitman, A Clear Midnight

DAWN.

They lower the white shroud into the earth. You watch them. Your hand grasps a fistful of sand and throws it onto the white marble slab. Half-remembered words from a half-remembered religion form on your lips. You throw another handful and step back; then remember the admonitions of your grandmother – odd numbers and monotheism – and reach for some more to make it an even three.
Farewell, old friend.

***

DUSK.

“Where are you going?”

“Up.”

“Why? Don’t go. Come back to bed. Where are you going?”

“Up.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

“Aw, poor baby. Do you miss him? You must miss him so.”

“Don’t. I don’t know. Don’t let’s not talk about it.”

“Come back to bed. I’ll get your mind off it. Promise.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t. I have to go.”

***

NIGHT.

The roof’s concrete floor is cool beneath your feet. It is dusty. You do not care. In the distance, you see the Friday night lights of a rusty amusement park. You lean against the stone banister and take a swig from the flask. The warmth does much to fortify you against the cold. You watch them until they are switched off. The layers of dust leave a long, white mark on your jeans as you clamber up to the top of the old water tank. You do not care. You lie down and dust off your hands and cross them behind your head. Above you — far, far away — ancient lights from ancient stars twinkle across the inky sky. You watch them. When you were young, your grandmother sung you old Sufi songs. You remember one now:

If the stars in the sky
Should ever burn out

And the nights be left
Cold and distant;

How — pray tell —
Yes, how — do tell —

Should a man discover
His Belov’d?

***

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