Monday, April 30, 2007


Back from a hectic weekend in NYC. Four movies in 48 hours + a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories + 5 hours of commuting time = 1 Exhausting Weekend.

The weekend (for me) began with a screening of Grigori Chukhrai's Forty-First, a 1956 Russian film being included in Tribeca in tribute to the camerawork of Sergei Urusevsky. The film was introduced by Martin Scorsese (yup, old Marty himself, in person) who blathered incoherently for five minutes about his personal love for all the other films that Urusevsky had made - an introduction no one really listened to because they were all too busy bathing in the glow of being in the same room as Scorsese and saving up the memory to tell all their friends afterwards (which, of course, is what I'm doing - hey, if you've got a name, drop it).

Forty-First isn't a particulary original or profound film - it's plot is predictable to the point of cliche, and both the story and the performances have the subtlety of a Bollywood tear-jerker - yet it's a visually stunning film, with image after image projecting the haunting, timeless quality of a great painting. The visual metaphors are obvious enough - when the hero is dying of fever in a cabin by the shore the sea is rough and churning, when he recovers the sea turns calm; when the two lovers quarrel, they are shown walking on two narrow strips of beach separated by a narrow strip of water - but they're executed so superbly that the final effect is one of breathtaking beauty. You know that scene in From Here to Eternity where the two lovers kiss on the beach while the waves wash over them? The second half of Forty-First is like watching that scene over and over again for an hour. That intense, that poetic.


Saturday evening found me in church. No, I haven't decided to mend my sinning ways. I was there for a screening / performance of Passio, a film by Paolo Cherchi Usai that is meant to be accompanied by a live performance of Avro Part's Passio. (Stephen Holden's review in the New York Times here). The setting itself was awe-inspiring: the cathedral of St. John the Divine, an echoing stone hall whose very magnitude reduces you to insignificance, and a giant screen hovering high up on the wall like some white, nameless God.

As for the movie, well, experimental is the word. Passio isn't so much a film as a collection of video-clips - some mere images flashing for a second or two, others over a minute long - with long pauses of blackness (and columns of vertical letters that flash by too fast to read, but which are, I'm told, the text of the Passion according to St. John). It's all very subliminal. You sit there, staring up at a blank screen, then these letters flash, then you get the blank screen again, then you get a quick five to ten second image, then it's back to the blank screen. And all the while Part's music swells in the background. There is no narrative here, not even the pretext or hint of one, the only obvious connection between the images is a series of motifs that runs through the film. This is collage of disconnected images, fragmented almost to the point of abstraction.

And what images - a close-up of an eye operation (the cornea being slit open and cleaned from the inside); naked men lying on the ground in their death throes; kaleidoscopic abstractions of colour; a helpless, struggling horse being lifted onto a table; one snake swallowing another, the tail of the one being eaten still thrashing even though its head has disappeared inside its adversary; a close-up of what looked like open heart-surgery; shots of cameramen filming; scenes of film editing; two beetles fighting; a naked human form dancing, surrounded by swirling fabric; scientists measuring the diameter of an aboriginal's head, and comparing it to a collection of skulls they already have; a buffoon dismantling a woman and packing her away in a trunk; things seen through a microscope; a baby being thrust back into its mother's womb. The clip that most impressed me showed a man standing squirming between two others, presumably held captive. The shot is cut off just above the waist, so that the chests and faces of the people involved are not visible, nor are there any real clues to the context or setting - just three pairs of legs. Yet the scene somehow manages to convey terror and helplessness.

At this point you're probably wondering - why would anyone want to watch an hour and ten minutes of this? There is much in Passio that is gruesome; this is not a film for the squeamish [1]. Yet the overall effect is hypnotic, and the film leaves you with that authentically religious feeling of having experienced something profound yet mysterious, something of great import and significance whose meaning just escapes you. Comparisons with Bunuel are inescapable, especially after the eye surgery scene, but the thing the movie kept reminding me of was that line from Dickinson: "I like a look of agony / because I know it's true". The director clearly agrees. [2]

The speaker who introduced the film implied that it contained a message of redemption and hope. Personally, I can't say I saw anything like that in the film. Putting down the 'meaning' of a work or art as complex and subtle as Passio is always tricky, and every interpretation is necessarily personal and subjective, but what I saw was a paean to human fragility, the human capacity for suffering. Our bodies, the film suggests, are like images - weak, destructible. They can be poked and prodded, violated, abused. They can withstand a great deal of punishment, but are, in the end, defenseless, ephemeral. Like a reel of film, our lives can be cut short arbitrarily, are subject to the whims of the Editor. Yet something survives, something transcends the frailty of our existence. Something beautiful and living swells underneath this destruction, this pain, supports it, makes it bearable. Something like music. Something like the soul. And grace, like a dancing form, is more than the diagrams, the measurements, the X-rays; is something that cannot be analysed, computed or assembled from its visible parts. There is a deeper mystery behind the patched together narrative of our lives.

And this, I think, is the heart of the Passio experience. More than anything else, the film captures the fragmentary nature of understanding, of vision. Meaning, for most of us, does not come as some grand, coherent epiphany: it is experienced through whatever glimpses of the truth are vouchsafed us, lived in short bursts of inspiration, in those brief moments when knowledge seems almost within our grasp. These are the moments when we think we understand our lives, when we truly see; then the revelation flickers and we are left in the dark again.

Passio is a difficult, perplexing and often frustrating movie to watch (the fact that I was watching it seated on some intensely uncomfortable wooden seats didn't help). But that, I suspect, is the point of it, is what makes it true to life. If the test of a great work of art is that its images stay with you long afterwards, if the test of a great film is that it rewards contemplation, that you can spend hours afterwards meditating on it and having it grow more significant, more meaningful - then Passio is a great film.


But, of course, humankind cannot bear very much reality. So it was a pleasant change to slip back into more conventional film making Sunday morning, with Jindabyne. Jindabyne isn't part of Tribeca (though it did feature two weeks ago in the Philadelhia Film Festival, thus rescuing it from the stigma of 'commercial' film and making it worthy of notice by snobs like me). Directed by Ray Lawrence, Jindabyne is the story of the discovery of the corpse of an aboriginal woman by a group of four men out on a fishing expedition, and the effect this discovery, and their callous reaction to it (they tie the body up in the water, carry on fishing, and report it only when they get back home) has on their families and relationships. In particular, it traces the impact on one family, the Kanes, whose slumbering resentments are catalysed by the incident, plunging husband and wife into emotional turmoil.

Jindabyne is, in a sense, a ghost story. It is a film about the things that lie sleeping just under the placid surface of our lives - memories, prejudices, regrets, guilt, hostilities, longings - so that the smallest misstep can plunge us into a bewildering and helpless spiral of questions and recrimination. But it is also a film about the dead - that asks not how we should deal with the dead, but rather whether and why we need to deal with them at all.

The movie is a little too hectic - crammed full of details and sub-plots, as though the writer had started off writing the script for a mini-series, then decided to compress it into a two hour movie - and the ending is a little too pat for my taste. Every now and then Lawrence throws in a 'suspense' scene, as if worried that his audience may lose interest unless given a quick dose of excitement, but these scenes are always anti-climactic, and frankly, Jindabyne would be a better movie without them. Where the movie shines is in its quieter moments, both in its invocation of the easy intimacy of friendship, and its tauter, more intense emotional exchanges. This is human drama at its finest, and adding the elements of a thriller to it simply does not work.

I'll be honest. The main reason I went to watch Jindabyne was because it stars Laura Linney, and I wasn't disappointed. There is a role that Ms. Linney plays better than anyone else - a deeply unhappy human being, struggling to define and make her own identity, struggling to assert her control over a world that she (and often she alone) sees as falling apart. It is a role that requires ambiguity - the character must come across as strong and intelligent, yet also tormented by insecurity and self-doubt; she must be caring and compassionate, but also guilty and unthinkingly heartless; we must sympathise with her and understand her point of view without necessarily agreeing with it. It is a role that I've seen Ms Linney do again and again (more or less), and each time it's a pleasure to watch. She does it again in Jindabyne, and delivers yet another stunning performance.


The final film of the weekend put me firmly back in Bunuel territory. This was the French comedy Avida, a hilarious and entirely whimsical film very much in the classic Surrealist tradition, complete with lobsters, burning giraffes and extreme close-ups of a pair of lips. Ostensibly the story of the kidnapping of a rich heiress's dog by a trio of bumbling zoo-keepers, Avida is a mad-cap farce set in a dream-like world. Like all good surrealists, directors Kervern and Delepine take great delight in taking everyday scenes and transforming them just enough to make them ridiculous. Thus we get a matador who fights rhinos instead of bulls, a village of refugees who live in closets instead of houses, a bodyguard with performance anxiety who has to gather his concentration before he shoots at the fleeing bad guys (and breaks down in tears when he misses), two friends who spend their time shooting each other up with a tranquilizer gun, a game involving the throwing of plastic chairs, a saviour in the form of a woman singing African songs who offers our wretched heroine the potato chip of grace etc. There's also the usual obsession with the macabre - a bloated death wish lies at the heart of much of the 'plot', vultures scuttle about, and there's an entire sequence where we get to see a dead dog being decapitated, skinned and (as a sort of visual bonus) having his brains extracted from his skull with tweezers. For all that, Avida is delightful fun, it's only real flaw an a-ha moment at the end that provides a (to my mind) entirely unnecessary 'explanation' for what's been going on.


Ironically, the best movie I watched last week was right here in Philly - a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. But that's another post.


[1] As evidenced by the number of people who walked out of the screening during the movie. I blame the New York Times. At least half the people around me had no idea what they were watching. I can only imagine how disorienting it must have been for them to walk in expecting a normal film and stumble upon something as experimental as Passio.

[2] The other thing I kept thinking of was Clockwork Orange. Not the movie so much as the book - you know that part where they condition violent criminals by making them watch footage of terrible atrocities. Passio feels a little like that at times.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Entrance Tests on the Planet Dork

No, this is not a post about JEE. You can read about that here and here.

This is a post about a lesser known entrance exam - one conducted on the Planet Dork in the Galaxy of Styrofoam.

Before we get to the exam itself, you must understand a little bit about Dorkian society. The entire population of Dork is divided into two equal categories - X and Y. This division is not based on ability - people in both categories are equally intelligent - yet Dorkian society defines different roles for them.

Type X people are supposed to be primarily responsible for domestic arrangements, and for looking after young Dorkians. While there is a growing trend of type X folks seeking employment opportunities and career, Dorkian society does not take seriously the idea of Xs as primary wage earners. As a result, Dorkian caregivers place less emphasis on education for Xs - they believe the returns to such investments (both in general and more specifically, for themselves) will be relatively poor, and while they're happy to encourage Xs to pursue careers, they don't see it as high priority.

By constrast, type Y people have a clearly defined role as primary income earners, and having a successful career is seen as the highest priority for them. As a result, society is willing, even eager, to make whatever investments in their education are felt necessary.

The most preferred career track for potential employment seekers on the planet Dork is to become an Alien. Being an Alien means plenty of travel, lots of BPs (the Dorkian currency), maybe even the opportunity to star in a Spielberg film. Becoming an Alien is not easy though. Precisely because Alien status is so sought after, competition is fierce, and young Dorkians spend sun-cycles of their lives preparing to get into a good Alien training institute.

The most sought after of these are the Institutes for Inter Terrestrial Studies (the IITS). Every year, hundreds of thousands of Alien hopefuls sit for the IITS Entrance Test (ET), hoping to make it into those hallowed halls. IITS are not the only places that offer degrees in Alien-hood, though - there are hundreds of other, less prestigious institutes, collectively known as the Also There Institutes (ATIs).

Right. With that set-up, let's consider a set of young Dorkians who have come of age and are considering a future career (and for the moment, let's assume they're all interested in being Aliens). According to the Falstaffian Academy of Random Trivia - the premier statistical agency on the planet Dork - the probabilities around the ET are as follows:

Probability of young Dork having any potential to be an alien: X: 10%, Y: 10%

Probability of Dork with potential taking ET / other Alien exam: X - 50%, Y - 100%

Probability of ET candidate passing in first attempt: X - 1%, Y- 1%

Probability of failed candidate taking ET again (2nd attempt): X - 5%, Y - 75%

Probability of ET candidate passing in second attempt: X- 3%, Y - 3%

Probability of failed candidate taking ET again (3rd attempt): X - 0%, Y - 20%

Probability of ET candidate passing in third attempt: X - na, Y - 5%

Three things are important to note about these statistics.

First, that the probability of passing in the ET is independent of type. There are no systematic differences in ability / preparedness between the two types.

Second, that the societal bias against X types gets reflected in two ways - first, in a lower probability of their ever attempting to sit for the ET (50% vs. 100%). And second in a dramatically lower probability of their undertaking subsequent attempts after they fail the first time around. These lower probabilities reflect the lower priority Dorkian caregivers (and perhaps X types themselves) place on becoming an Alien for Xs

Third, that the probability of passing increases considerably with every subsequent attempt. This may be partly because of self-selection (only people with some reasonable hope will choose to attempt the ET again) and partly because, as with any test, an extra sun-cycle spent exclusively preparing for an exam results in superior performance.

Now, what do these statistics mean for the % of Xs both taking the ET and passing it. Notice that in any sun-cycle the composition of test takers will include people from three cohorts - first attempt, second attempt and third attempt. You can work out the probabilities yourself if you like, but the end-result is that X types account for 22% of the total candidates taking the ET in any year, as well as only 13% of successful candidates. The average X candidate has a lower probability of passing, but it's not because first attempt candidates are less well prepared than their Y counterparts, it's because most X candidates don't stick around for a second attempt.

But wait. What happens to these X candidates who don't clear in their first attempt and don't try a second time? Do they just give up on being Aliens entirely? Not at all. Because the probability of success in the ET is so low (just 1% on first attempt), almost all ET candidates also take exams for the ATIs. Again, probabilities of success in those exams are not different across X and Y types, except Y candidates who succeed in those exams are often the ones who feel it worthwhile to try for the ET a second time (after all, clearing an ATI exam is a positive signal). By contrast, X candidates who don't clear ET but do clear an ATI are almost certain to join an ATI. As a result, the proportion of X candidates in ATIs is much higher than those in the IITs, despite the fact that 50% of the eligible X population chooses not to apply for any Alien exams at all.

Interesting place Dork.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Sestina: Waiting

[Poetry Request # 14]

Am going to be in NYC this weekend - catching a bunch of films at the Tribeca Festival - so blogging will be slow for the rest of the month. Figured would end National Poetry Month with something special, though [1], so here's the sestina Space Bar asked for. The envoi isn't perfect - the rhymes are in the wrong order, and the meter is somewhat sloppy, but as anyone who has ever tried writing one will tell you, sestina's are hard, specially when you don't get to choose the six words that the lines end in.

At any rate, here goes:

Where are you? You’ve been gone for hours.
I’m left to sit in the car and freeze.
The streets are dark here, the houses nameless,
shadows yearn for the dusk’s reprieve.
I watch the wind blowing the leaves in a circle,
think of ghosts dialing the numbers

of the dead. The sunset, like an old jazz number,
makes the sky nostalgic, whispers of hours
spent in love’s high noon, turning circles
like birds unaware of the coming freeze.
How strange to have thought desire a reprieve
when our hearts were young and our loves nameless,

to have stared at the stars and thought fate nameless,
exulting in the endless numbers
of our hopes, and asking no reprieve
but a moon to dance by; hours
when the mirrors of our dreams were yet to freeze
into faces, our heartbeats into the circle

of these clocks. Things have come full circle
now. For it is we who watch with nameless
dread while time runs astray; we who freeze
the days into timetables, number
them, lock them in calendars, pretend the hours
are our prisoners, awaiting our reprieve,

when it is really they who imprison us. What reprieve
would we ask for, anyway? Where in this circle
of living would we have time stop? What hour
define as our finest? What nameless
day consecrate, forsaking all the unnumbered
others, letting the future freeze

into perpetual impossibility? Hope freezes,
it is true, and regrets like birds seek reprieve
in a remembered lake, return to a number
heart. Waiting for you, my thoughts circle,
descend warily; until the question can stay nameless
no longer: Are you coming back? It’s been hours.

Must I be numbered among the unreprieved?
The clock completes its circle. Hope dies a nameless
death. Drop by drop, the minutes freeze into hours.

[1] Which is not to say that I won't complete the other poem requests - just that they may be more spaced out.

A deep, autumnal tone

"Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!"

- P.B. Shelley 'Ode to the West Wind'

Mstislav Rostropovich - great-hearted cellist, fiery conductor and one of twentieth century classical music's most iconic figures - died today.

It's impossible to put in words what Rostropovich sounds like. Whether he's wandering through the labyrinths of Bach, tearing into the orchestra with Dvorak or Haydn, or just humming along with Mutter and Giuranna in the Beethoven string trios, Rostropovich's playing is always both glorious and profound, both soulful and incendiary.

And Rostropovich doesn't just enhance the repertoire, he expands it. Take this list of composers whose work Rostropovich premiered from the New York Times' obituary - Walton, Auric, Kabalevsky, Misaskovsky, Lutoslawski, Messiaen, Schnittke, Dutilleux, Part, Penderecki, Foss, Kancheli - a veritable Who's Who of contemporary classical music composers (about a third of whom, I must admit, I've never heard of). What greater testament to the man's engagement with his field?

But most of all, there's Rostropovich's magnificent obsession with Shostakovich. There are other great cellists - Du Pre, Casals - and certainly other great conductors, but when it comes to Shostakovich, Rostropovich, for me, stands alone. It's thanks to him that I first discovered Shostakovich's magnificent Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, through him that I savoured the delights of the marvellous Cello Concertos, and that astounding Sonata for cello and piano No. 40.

What better way to mark this great musician's passing, then, than by linking to a recording of Rostropovich playing the first movement of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No.1.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


It's always a surprise to see the name of someone you know in print, isn't it?

Remember the Carol Rumens' exercise on the triolet as part of the Guardian Poetry Workshop that I linked to a few weeks back? Well it turns out an old friend of mine (and someone whose name will be familiar to regular readers of Minstrels) has a poem that gets featured on the shortlist:

There was always a reason for fighting,
back when we were alive.
Whether with guns or in writing,
there was always a reason for fighting,
though death often seemed inviting,
we did our best to survive.
There was always a reason for fighting back
when we were alive.

Do also see this glorious double triolet by Christine Webb:

After that hour of sleep, you woke, and made
a little sound, between a cough and sigh.
The breathless nights were over: unafraid
after that hour of sleep, you woke, and made
no gesture of distress, but simply laid
your hands in mine. It seemed easy to die
after that hour of sleep: you woke, and made
a little sound, between a cough and sigh.

Revisiting that hour, as every day
I do, I find you waking from your sleep.
You never speak, but always look away:
revisiting that hour, as every day
lengthens your absence, I pretend you'll stay,
look at me, answer. Else why should I keep
revisiting that hour, as every day
I do, to find you waking from your sleep?

Glorious stuff.


And while we're over at the Guardian, I can't help pointing to a hilarious discussion thread on the Arts Blog asking for misunderstood lyrics. I posted a comment on the thread, but I can't help repeating it here, adding a few other notable (and may I say, extremely embarassing) instances of my getting song lyrics completely wrong:

1. The first few times I listened to Joni Mitchell's Judgement of the Moon and Stars (from the album For the Roses) I was convinced that the line went: "In the court they carve your legend with / a napoleonic jaw". In fact, the line goes: "In the court they carve your legend with / an apple in its jaw". I can't help feeling Ms. Mitchell missed an opportunity here. I think my version, with its suggestions of failed glory and subtle references to Eroica is so much more evocative.

2. Okay, so I'm slow, but for the longest time I was convinced that Aretha Franklin was singing "Hurry up easy street! / Find out what it means to me" - a message that I found both intriguing and engaging. When I eventually figured out that she was just spelling out the title of the song (R-E-S-P-E-C-T) - it just killed the whole thing for me.

3. Don't ask me why, but I always feel that what Metallica are really singing is "Whatever I'm made of", which, coming from a band called Metallica strikes me as being extraordinarily appropriate and clever. (What they're really singing is, of course, Wherever I may roam, but that's so boring).

4. For a brief period in the early 90's I was convinced, for some obscure reason, that the lyrics to Sounds of Silence went "The words of the prophets / are written on the subway walls / Tiananmen calls / Whispered in the sounds of silence". Logic soon told me that this was unlikely, given that the song was released almost a quarter of a century before the Chinese protests. Still, it always gave the song a political significance I felt it could do with.

5. This one I'm still unconvinced about. In Paperback Writer, did you know that the word before wife in the second stanza is 'clinging'? I always thought it was cleaning. I know 'cleaning wife' doesn't make much sense, but it made for such an effective contrast with "dirty story of a dirty man". Ah, well.

Oh, and I can't let this pass without mentioning two other variants that have left me scarred forever:

The first comes from a performance of Handel's aria 'I know that my redeemer liveth' that I happened to catch at an Easter service in a neighbourhood church some five years back (don't ask). The soprano singing the piece did a creditable job, except that in her East European accent e sounded like u, with the result that "In my flesh shall I see God" became "In my flush shall I see God".

The second is my all-time favourite Wierd Al Yankovic spoof - his rendition of American Pie as a retelling of the plot of Phantom Menace. So deeply ingrained is this thing in my head that I find myself singing along to the original Don McLean song, going:

My, my, this here Anakin guy
May be Vader someday later
Now he's just a small fry
He left his home and kissed his Mommy goodbye
Saying "Soon I'm going to be a Jedi,
Soon I'm going to be a Jedi."

Check out the full song here.

When the Dinosaur met King Kong

[Poetry Request # 13]

Again, I seriously doubt this is what Sandeep had in mind, but well.

It comes down to this - trapped between the
prehistoric lizard of religion
and a superpower gone ape, between
a past we thought we were done with and
the radioactive beast of the
future - we are bystanders, easily
killed; footnotes to the ideologies
that stomp through our streets, turning cities
to battlefields, adding casualties
up in a skyline of histograms.

What saves us, in the end, is not
ingenuity, but insignificance.
Our fame is too small a mouthful,
and the present proves too quick.
Unnoticed by eras our lives slip away.
We are spared because we do not matter,
are too many to count; emerge uncrushed
from beneath the downtreading days,
not certain how or why we escaped
but grateful, anyway, to be alive.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Are you there, God? It's Falstaff

[Poetry Request # 12]

Full of teen-angst, Shoe-fiend said. It's been a while, and I was never a particularly normal teenager (my idea of 'rage' music, for instance, was the first movement of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto), but here goes:

Hey, you upstairs! Can you hear me?
I know you're up there.
Look, we need to talk about our situation,
we really do.
So why don't you come down,
or maybe I could come up?
Hello? Are you listening to me?

Fine, if that's the way you want it.
I'll just tell you from here.
Let the neighbours listen.
Here's the deal:
I've been good to you, haven't I?
Given you what you asked for?
When you wanted the first nine month's rent
in advance, I paid, didn't I?
And when you asked for weekly payments
I agreed to that as well.
And every night you're thundering and rumbling up there
doing you only know what,
keeping me awake,
but have I ever complained?
And that time you flooded the basement
and I had to get Noah to help me move my stuff out;
I didn't ask you for damages, did I,
even though I was entitled?
Why, I've even tried to obey
these stupid bullet-point 'commandments'
you keep pasting in every room,
I really have.

But this 'no girls' thing - that's too much,
that's going too far.
I mean, who do you think you are
anyway? You're not my Father.
You're not my boss.
You're just the damn landlord!
There are other Gods around you know,
plenty of vacancies, all over the street.
Hell, if it weren't for the fact
that moving is such a pain
I would have left this shithole years ago.
Because let's face it, this place stinks.
Sure, the garden's nice,
but the rest of it -
the roof leaks, the climate control's all wonky,
nothing ever works the way it's supposed to.
Are you listening to me?

Look, say I have a girl come and visit.
What's that to you?
Say she even stays the night,
say we have sex.
What have you got against sex anyway?
It's not like you're so squeaky clean,
Mr. Father-cum-Holy Ghost.
At least when I have sex with a woman
I do it properly,
I don't slip a baby into her womb
when no one is looking
like she was some kind of secret bank account.
Who treats a woman like that, anyway?
Who treats his own son like that?
Sanctimonious bastard.

Look, this is all besides the point.
You live your life the way you want to.
It's none of my business.
I just wish you'd let me live mine.

Are you even listening to me?
But of course you are.
You're lapping this up, aren't you?
You're probably getting it all on tape.
You're probably going to sit
and listen to it all night.
Because that's how you get your kicks, isn't it,
hearing people complain?
Well, fuck this.
I'm tired of trying to reason with you
and having you sit all aloof up there
like you were judging me or something.
From now on I'm telling you.
I'm going to have whoever I want in my life,
girl, boy, whatever,
and if you don't like it, well,
you're welcome to come down here
and kick my ass.

IF you can.

You got that?

I catch you messing around with my friends again,
trying to scare them away and stuff,
and I swear I'll punch your fungus-covered face in.

And another thing,
I'm through with this forbidden fruit shit.
From now I'm eating whatever I damn well want.
Do you understand?
If you don't like it you can cancel my lease,
see if I care.

Oh, and speaking of leases,
have you noticed that the light on the porch
is out again?
It may not matter to you,
being omniscient and all,
but for the rest of us it's dark at night.
So how about you make yourself useful for once
and change a lightbulb?
Let there be light.
It's in the contract, you know.

Are you listening to me?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

I am dead and my dog lives on

[Poetry Request # 11]

Well, he did say "any style". So why not Shakespeare - a monologue - with a side nod to Browning?

I'm not sure what inspired this - it may have been the fact that I watched a performance of Othello yesterday, it may have been the news that they've discovered more of the Bard's work, it may have been that watching Iago always makes me think of Richard III. At any rate, here is Act I, Scene I.


I am dead, and my dog lives on.
My dog, I say; for when love is gone
what is left of the body but a barking cur,
a very beast that wears the collar
of my name, sniffs out my lust.
Her bitch is dead, she says, and lies
by the pond. O'er this she grieves, weeps,
sheds more tears than the summer has rain;
but my gift of a nine hundred year name
she does not heed. Is not this abuse?
To set the use of my ancient worth
against a moment's idle vanity
were to weigh with a scale of feathers,
balance gold against mirrored sunlight.
And am I thus to be contradicted?
Fie! Would that the bitch were dead!

But wait, wait - perhaps there were policy
in this, perhaps this seeming folly
were but outward show, and the barred gate
of this woe no more than a hurdle
such as the beloved are wont to set
in their pursuer's path, that o'erleapt,
it may prove a fence for privacies.
It may be so. But to quibble o'er
a hound! And besides, her tears were true.
What else then? Could it be that she,
sworn to another already,
likes not my wooing, and devises
this excuse to be rid of me? But who
could offer her more than I? There is none
that may. And to believe her beguiled
by some simple swain were an abuse
as bitter as to think this refusal
comes, as it seems, from a mere pet.

So be it then, let the heart forget,
the eye unchoose, and the hope repent
that it was e'er named. Oh, that the
wish were ne'er baptised in language,
that it may be the more easily damned!
But patience, patience. To slap a knave
were to lose but a glove. And something
may yet be gained from these passes -
a thing not of the marrow, but of the blood.
To see these matters in heat
were to be blinded by a day of grief,
such as makes the sight squint
against its own vantage. This light spent,
my thoughts darken apace and the outline
of a new scheme comes into view.
May not this loss be bent to my profit?
I am a dog, I say, and here is a mistress
who is missing one. May not her fancy
then prove ripe to more dog-eared
pursuit? The absence in her lap
fed with a bone so resolute?
Ay! this is the trick indeed! To wear
muscle in a sleeve of commisseration,
to grease the lock of her affection
with a slipped sympathy, and bear
a part at her side that may bear
another part inside her. So is she both won
and lost. Her dog is dead, she says.
Well, then, here is another found.
If she will not have me as a lover,
then she shall have me as a hound.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Grim Reaper

[Poem Request # 10]

with apologies to William Wordsworth:

Behold him, single in the field,
Yon solitary skeleton Death!
Reaping and singing by himself,
Stay here, or lose your neck!
Alone he cuts the people's throats
And sings a melancholy note;
O listen! for this next encore
Was never sung with so much gore.

No hungry wolf did ever murder
More wanton goats of weary bands
Of shepherds in some shady verdure
Among Arabian sands.
A voice so chilling ne'er did wail
From blackboards rubbed with fingernails
Breaking the silence of the sea
With what sounds like AC/DC.

Will no one tell me why he kills? --
Perhaps these plainitive murders flow
For old, unhappy, far-off thrills
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble trip?
Familiar matter, Freudian slip?
Some unnatural lust, maternal woe
That turned this guy into Psycho?

Whate'er his theme, the maniac slew
As if his rage would have no ending
I saw him singing at his work
And over his chainsaw bending; --
I listened motionless and still,
And after I was also killed
That music to my grave I bore
Long after I could hear no more.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Mandatum Novum: Haikus

[Poetry Request # 9]

Thou shalt not use more
than seventeen syllables
to write a poem.


The sun approaches:
Raise high your arms! Banish shad-
-ows! Set the birds free!


Mandatum novum:
Blessed are they who have found
a new man to date.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


People get killed.

Everyday, and for no reason other than the sad coincidence of place and time, people get killed.

The front page of the New York Times today is taken over by coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. Every known detail about the killer is made public. Interactive features about the victims are provided.

A news article next to the main story says 171 people were killed in bombings in Baghdad. They remain nameless, unseen.

It would be easy to make this a question of arithmetic, to say "how come 33 American deaths count for more than the thousands of innocents dying elsewhere, many of them because of US indifference / aggression?"

But when it comes to death, all comparisons are meaningless. When it comes to grief, we are all selfish.

"Any man's death diminishes me", Donne writes. It's a noble sentiment, but one that none of us can hope to live up to. If we were stronger, braver, more large-hearted, we should mourn every murder, weep for the death of every innocent. But none of us has the emotional stamina for that. Not when the supply of horrors is varied and inexhaustible. In the world we live in, indifference is not a failing, it is a survival strategy - the only way we can hope to stay sane.

So we choose what to grieve for, and our choices are subjective and arbitrary. Like trying to decide on a poem you like, a painting that moves you. Between the tragedies we are universally appalled by and the intimacy of our private losses, lies a shop's-worth of horrors that we must greet either with tears or with a shrug of the shoulder. Are we to blame if some events, deserving of our sympathy though they may be, leave us unmoved? Does this make us inhuman? Or does it prove that we are, in fact, human, and have only a limited capacity for sharing in other people's grief?

The killings at Virginia Tech are newsworthy because they are unexpected, because they are a shock. A freak incident of mass murder that is unlikely to be repeated is more 'interesting' than the unspeakable predictability of the daily violence in Iraq. Is it right that this is so? No. Is there any virtue, therefore, in withholding our sympathy from the victims of these killings, in saying they are not the only innocents to die, they do not 'deserve' our exclusive sympathy? Not really. They deserve all the sympathy, all the tears, that we can afford to give them.

Whether or not you grieve for the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings is irrelevant - a matter of taste rather than of principle. Some people are affected by pictures or by individual stories. Others by numbers. Some people mourn for what cannot be stopped from happening again, others for what can but will not. These are preferences, patterns of thought behind which we hide the impossible choice that faces us everyday: the problem of deciding which among a hundred injustices we engage with emotionally, and which we choose to ignore.

The question is not how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see. The question is: how many times can he afford not to?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Kripya Prateeksha Karen

There's a point in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night where he points out that people, in general, have no repose.

Nowhere is this more evident, in my experience, than in the waiting room of a government office.

I was at the Indian embassy at New York this weekend, getting my passport renewed. The website says the time for depositing applications is from 9.15 to 12.15, so I, being my smugly punctual self, show up at exactly 9.12. I'll beat the rush, I think, then discover the milling hordes that have got there before me. I feel like stout Cortez when they told him about Balboa. Ah, well.

I walk over to the guy handing out little pink chits (this takes some ingenuity; the notice at the entrance says you need to turn left for passport renewal, so of course the guy handing out queue numbers is sitting on the far right, hiding behind a big unmarked desk - it wouldn't do if he were easily spottable now would it?). I get my number. I then eye the line of ten people or so standing at the entrance of the passport renewal section. I ask him what they're waiting for. Nothing, he tells me, there's really no reason to be queuing up. Just as I suspected [1]. I walk past the queue and enter the waiting area. I check the number flashing on screen against the number in my hand. There are some 35 people ahead of me. Sigh. I find myself a desk to perch on. I put Metallica on my iPod and turn up the volume [2]. I pull out the book I'm reading - Camus' Resistance, Rebellion and Death - and proceed to read.

Five minutes later I look up and realise everyone's staring at me. Evidently I'm guilty of a serious faux pas. Using the time waiting in a government office productively is an unpatriotic act. Actually relaxing while you're doing it is practically an act of terrorism. Hoary old uncle-jis are shaking their heads at the sight of such westernised decadence, such blatant disregard for Our Indian Culture.

The RIGHT way to wait in a government office, as strenuosly demonstrated by dozens of people around me, is this:

First, take all and any official looking papers you might have and hold them in your hand in a folder / envelope. Better yet, if you can find a polythene bag from a Karol Bagh saree house, put all your papers in that and hold that in your hand.

Next, stand as close to the application window as you can without actually standing in front of it. Be sure to leave just enough space so that an anorexic twelve year old can squeeze past you to the window while holding her breath - you don't want to be in the way or anything - but no more. You never know what invisible forces might be lying in wait, trying to steal your place in the non-line. Your position in this crowd is important, and you must prove yourself worthy of it. Hold a tense posture at all times. Stare intently at the screen on the off-chance that they've gone and changed the number system overnight and 94 now comes right after 81. If someone calls you on your cellphone, tell him you're really busy and can't talk now, but will call him back later (unless, of course, it's a friend / distant cousin, in which case feel free to have a conversation with him standing right there; make sure to talk loudly though, other people will naturally want to know about Tau-ji's operayshun).

Once you've perfected your stressed out pose, be sure to pay careful attention to everything that gets said at the actual counter. Never mind that the person submitting his application isn't talking to you and that you can't see the papers he / she has handed in. As a concerned citizen it's your duty to follow every detail of the case and make an independent decision on its merits and demerits. That's what democracy is about. If you feel the person is wrong and is wasting the official's time shake your head in sage disgust. If you feel the person is right and is being treated unfairly by the passport office, nod your head in vigorous support. If you find his / her case particularly moving, don't be afraid to go up and tell him / her so. Don't worry about holding up the line. Feel free to stand at the window trading complaints about the passport office. Sympathy for your fellow-sufferers is very important to building a spirit of national integration.

Just to be clear though - on no account should all this result in your being better prepared when you actually get to the window. Under no circumstances must you open your folder and take the time to put your papers in order. That's what the window is for, after all. Nor should you assume that anything the person behind the counter says to anyone else (or anything written on, say, an official notice board) has any relevance to you. It may be part of some elaborate practical joke. And besides, you're special - there must be separate guidelines for people like you.

When the blessed time arrives and you do get to the window, here's what you should do. First, remember that the person behind the counter may look like a sweet middle-aged lady, but she is NOT a human being and must under no circumstances be treated with courtesy. You wouldn't say 'good morning' or 'please' or 'thank you' to an airline stewardess, would you? Well, this is the same thing.

Next, always be sure to explain, in a loud, clear voice, what you're doing there. Sure, it's the counter for passport renewal, but that doesn't mean that everyone who comes there wants to get their passport renewed. Who knows what other people might be standing here trying to do. Best to explain the situation first (ideally starting with your birth, and taking it slowly from there) just so there's no confusion.

Once you've got that out of the way and are quite sure the lady behind the counter understands what you're there for, open your magic polythene bag, fish around in it for at least one minute (careful, not too fast bringing things out of the bag now, you don't want to depressurise too quickly and end up with the bends) then pull out your form [3] and hand it over. Just the form, mind you. It's way too early to hand over any of the documentation that goes with it. A good passport application is like foreplay. You have to make it last. Wait for the lady behind the counter to ask for your old passport, photocopies of your visa documents, etc. Make sure you spend at least two minutes rummaging around in your bag for each one, just to build up that sense of suspense. See if she notices that you haven't signed the form - it's a good sign if she does. Once you've got past that you're practically in a relationship. Now you can feel comfortable explaining how you had no idea that when they said 'Paste a Passport Photo Here" they actually wanted you to paste a passport photo there. Of course you've got a passport photo. Rummage, rummage. See, here it is. You just don't have any gum. Oh, look, a glue stick. The joys of modern technology. What's that? Three more pictures. Yes, yes, of course you have those too. Rummage, rummage. One. Rummage, rummage. Two. Rummage, Rummage. Three. There.

What's that? All done now? But when should you come back to collect it? At 4.30? But when at 4.30? What if you come before 4.30? What if you come at 4.31? Will your passport turn into a pumpkin? Where should you come back to? Here? This window? Will the same person be behind the counter? Can someone else come to collect it for you? (you must ask this - even if you plan to come yourself - it's always good to know). Is she absolutely certain you'll get it today. Promise? God promise?

Right then, 4.30. Accha, okay. Oh, but madam, I also wanted to give in an application for my son. Yes, madam, my six year old son. He's right here, madam. Tinku beta, yahaan aao. Rummage. Repeat.

And these are just the general instructions. There are also the special instructions for people with wives, families, etc.

1) There is no playing ground more conducive to a child's physical and mental development than a crowded room full of strangers. If you're bringing your five year old brat along with you (mostly because you're too cheap to hire a sitter), be sure to let it romp around running into other people. Do not encourage it to apologise when it does so. This would be 'talking to strangers' - a definite no, no. On the other hand, encourage your brat to get in plenty of loud shouting in order to improve its lung power. Standing on the other side of the room from your brat and talking to it from there is a good strategy for this.

2) Under no circumstances must a woman be allowed to fill up her own form. Women can't fill forms. It's a biological fact. It's not their fault - it's just that their brains are smaller. This is why you must be protective and fill up their forms for them. It may seem, at times, that they actually understand the form better and the suggestions they make make sense, but this is misleading. If a woman is saying it, it's almost certain to be wrong, even if what she's saying coincides with the written instructions. Ignore her and trust your own instincts. Should it turn out that you're wrong, notice that the person behind the counter is a woman too, and clearly doesn't know what she's doing.

Ideally, you should do all the talking at the counter, even if the application is for your girlfriend / wife / sister / daughter. If that's not possible, and you absolutely have to let her talk, be sure to stand close behind her, expressing your willingness to muscle in at any moment and protecting her from the Evil Eye of Other Men. This is the true Indian way, as laid out in Upanishad 4 subclause 32 G.

3) A similar principle applies when dealing with your children. Never mind if your Raju is a hulking 6 foot something twenty-year old. Just because he has a college education doesn't mean he's capable of filling out a simple form. If you feel you have to let him do it for himself (because otherwise how will he learn) be sure to find at least four mistakes in what he does. And again, make sure that when you get to the counter it's you that does the talking, not him.

4) Any and all instructions you receive from the lady behind the counter are merely tentative, and not to be taken too seriously. Say, for instance, that she tells you that your passport will only be available after a week. This doesn't mean that it will actually be available after a week. She probably just said it because she wanted to see what it would sound like. It might be ready the same day. Or the day after that. Best to come back every day and stand in line to make sure. Oh, and when it turns out that she really did mean a week and your passport isn't ready, be sure to complain bitterly about being forced to come to the embassy everyday. Be sure to spend at least five minutes arguing about this at the window. Remember, it's your right as a citizen to get proper service.

Only after you've followed these instructions to the letter will you qualify as true citizen of India and have truly earned the passport you collect between 4.30 and 5.15 pm (be sure to check all the details in this before you leave the window, btw. Twice).

As for the guy with the headphones and the book who - amazingly - seems to have got his new passport too? Chhi! chhi! This is what comes of living in a permissive society.


[1] Isn't it amazing how people will join a queue just because it's there. It's the one thing Beckett gets wrong in Waiting for Godot. If it ever really happened, what's the bet that Vladimir and Estragon would be standing in line?

[2] I'm not in general a huge metal fan, but I find that standing in a crowded place with metal blaring from your headphones means that people give you more personal space. Plus it's the most reliable way to drown out all conversation around you.

[3] This is the New York Consulate Passport Renewal form. Not to be confused with the Washington DC Consulate Passport Renewal form - which looks different and has different documentation requirements. Apparently, what you need to be a bona fide Indian citizen depends on where you live.

Are you there?

[Poem Request #8]

Are you there?

The question like a doorbell
hanging in the air.

A thing to ask a difficult pupil
or God, if God were a telephone line,
shouting "Are you there? Can you hear me?"
when what you really want to know is:
"Will you listen?"

Are you there? you ask.

But do not specify where there is.

Where is the line between caring and presence?
Answer and echo?

What does being there mean
when absence makes the heart grow fonder
and the troubled mind is occupied?

The real turns out be a dream
and the nightmare has a way of coming true.

The look in your lover's eyes tells you
he has been somewhere else.

But do you care?

I shall go wherever my daydreams lead me
or the sleeping pills,
or the drowning air.

Call me how you will,
say that you need me -
I will be


Saturday, April 14, 2007

Pointless theological speculation # 27

As April 15th approaches, I can't help wondering - does the Devil have to file taxes? Is he required to pay, say, 15% of all souls he makes in a year back to God for giving people souls in the first place? Is it true that the unbaptised count as grants and are therefore exempt? Does the Devil get a standard deduction?

Put another way: is there a chance that you die, get all the way up to Pearly Gates, and are then sent down to Hell - not because of something you did wrong, but as a refund?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

I loved a certain blogger

[Poetry Request # 7]

Might as well get all the Dickinson out of the way.

I loved a certain blogger
but never knew his name -
as subtle as the seasons,
as intimate as rain -

as various as the clouds
that change with every eye -
as clear as the sunlight
as constant as the sky.

Full-hearted as a summer
that ripens all it touches;
gentle as the autumns that
surprise the tree with blushes.

Deliberate as winter winds
that pluck their leaves with care
his words like foliage tremble
anticipated air.

Necessary as shadows
proclaiming the self's height;
anonymous as windows
that vanish in the night.

Plain Old Death

"And even if wars didn't keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death"

- Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Visionary, war-opponent, poet of science-fiction and one heck of a funny guy.

Kurt Vonnegut finally caught the shuttle to Tralfamadore last night. No one deserves to be on a planet with five sexes more than Vonnegut, but I can't help thinking that we're going to miss his world view. I wonder what Earth looks like from Tralfamadore. It could hardly look any quirkier than it looked to him while he was still here. Or any clearer.

Not that Vonnegut's likely to be paying attention. After all, as he put it himself:

"People aren't supposed to look back. I'm certainly not going to do it anymore."

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


[small intermission - poetry requests continue soon]

Just got back from a performance of Cinderella by the Moscow Festival Ballet.

The characters I always feel the most sympathy for in Cinderella are the mice who get turned into footmen. Think about it. One minute you're happily nibbling away behind the wainscotting, dreaming about cheese; the next you're wearing patent leather shoes (with buckles! forsooth!), the most dreadfully uncomfortable livery and a ridiculous wig that makes you look like a magistrate in drag. For a while you're depressed about this. Then you figure, why not give this whole being human thing a shot. It turns out to be not half bad. You get to kick cats, and farmer's wives look a lot less threatening. You discover canapes. You stand at the window peeping in at the ball, and because this is the first time you've heard it you think The Blue Danube waltz is really rather pretty. Then, just when you're starting to get the hang of walking around on two legs that silly point-y circular thing up there goes ding-dong twelve times and it's back to being a mouse for you. No fairy godmother to come and rescue you. No prince with a foot fetish to come and carry you away in triumph. As for that little slip of a girl you did so much for - you think she's going to care what happens to you afterwards? Forget it. Ungrateful little bitch. So there you are, left with the nagging memory of everything you're missing out on by being a mouse, and the regret of knowing that you could have spent you time as a human buying cheese and hiding it away under the floorboards for later. Talk about life being unfair.

Oh, another thing, I'm so sick of the prince always being the best dancer. What I'd like to see is a ballet where Prince Charming, kind, handsome and rich as he is, can't dance to save his life. It would be such a moving story. Guy meets girl. Girl is all delicate ballerina type. Guy is clumsy clod whose big heart is matched only by his two enormous left feet. Girl lets herself be dazzled by Other Man who is dynamite in tights and leaps about stage with the grace of a young stag. Prince Charming is heartbroken and tries to learn how to dance but only ends up injuring himself. Eventually Girl realises that there's more to a relationship than jumping four feet in the air and managing to turn about three times before your feet hit the ground. She gives up her dancing, kicks Other Man off stage (he leaps effortlessly into the third row, landing perfectly on his toes, a fixed smile on his face) and settles down to a life of pirouette-less married bliss with Prince Charming. The End.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Squishy soaked shoes

[Poem Request # 6]

Here you go. Squishy Soaked Shoes in the style of Gerard Manley Hopkins (with a dash of Plath thrown in for good measure):

Soggy squelching O! squishy soaked shoes
Damp tramp of the cramp'ed feet, cleats
mud belching, dragging the stamp of their jackknife beat,
chanting Daddy Daddy you do not dos
through gagging laces; the tongue undone, unloosed
runs bragging through the rain sagging streets,
and the sound of running repeats, repeats
ample warrant of the lagging angels, whose footprints ooze
through swamp and heath, leaving beauty unstumbled.
Sacred variety of heel and toe, slip-on, velcro, laces
and here buckle! Bare or stockinged, white or black as coal
all reduced to the same defeat, squalored and humbled.
And Thou! walking in grace through these secret places
crushing - as though a twig 'neath thy sole - my soul.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Hornet's Nest

[Poem Request #5]

Not quite an ode I'm afraid, and not perhaps what 'umble fan had in mind, but well.

There was a hornet's nest inside the slab.
A current of rage beneath the weight of things.
Not a hive, you understand, nothing
sweet and dangerous like memory;
just the wings of doubt drilling
away at the drab walls, finding the gaps,
making indignation their home.

You were afraid. "Leave it alone", you said.
But I knew how the lie repeated
becomes an established thing, the insistent flaw
in a summer washed white, the sting
of the tongue behind clenched jaws.
So we filled up the crack. Poured cement
like complicity. Learnt to ignore
the truths buzzing in the brittle air.

There was a hornet's nest inside the slab.
Now the sense of disappointment is everywhere.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Ask me if I'm happy

[Poem Request # 4]

Okay, so if you folks won't ask for verse forms, I'll impose them on myself. And since it's apparently triolet season, I might as well try my hand at one.

Ask me if I'm happy
I'll be happy if you do.
My day has been quite crappy
but ask me if I'm happy
say it soft or make it snappy
and my night won't be as blue.
Ask me if I'm happy
I'll be happy if you do.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Closing once, closing twice, closed

Number Three of the poem requests.

Not quite Nash perhaps (despite the ridiculously long third line), but a comic take on Dickinson none the less, and one I can't help feeling our man Ogden would have relished, if only for that final pun.

My life closed twice before its close
It yet remains to gauge
If the small business savings bank foreclose
My pizzeria's mortgage.

As huge, as hopeless to break even
As those I ran before
Toppings are all we know of heaven
And all we knead is dough.


Okay, here's the second poem. (requests still open here).

CSM: sorry I can't do Kabir - the dialect is beyond me. Hopefully this is compensation enough.

Dekhte dekhte andhera bhi darkhashaan ho gaya.
Tu mili nahin, tera tasavvur hi nashaa ho gaya.

Kitni hai rahtein dekho, yon gum bhulaane ki
Bujha sooraj to jalwa-e-kehkashaan ho gaya.

Chehra dekha hai kisne meri is majboori ka
Dil mera toota is tarah, ki sheeshaa ho gaya.

Peete the khwab hum, ummeed se dil behlane ko
Ummeed mit gai, to peena hi peshaa ho gaya.

Madhoshi andaaz bhi hai apna, illat bhi,
Nahin kehte kehte dekho, hameshaa ho gaya.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Splog with a Blog

The first installment of posts requested by you (see here for details)

I have to admit that my familiarity with Dr. Seuss is fairly low, and what little I've read was a long time ago. I suspect this little piece has vocabulary that's a little advanced for young readers, but it's the best I could come up with. (I've also changed the title a bit just to make it more Seuss like.)

The Splog with a Blog

"It's a regular slog",
Said the Splog of his blog
"It's like keeping a cat
or a very big dog:
you have to remember
to feed it each day
whether the month is September
or April, or May,
and even if you find
you have nothing to say,
you can't lose your temper
or quibble, or be rude,
can't whine, can't whimper,
can't boast, can't brood
can't prance or simper
or spew platitudes.
You think it's just writing,
it'll be easy, exciting,
but you haven't a clue
just what you're inviting.
There's so much to do
it'll make you queasy,
there's a template to pick
(nothing too cheesy)
and links to click
to make browsing easy.
And as for the posts
well, where shall I start?
One a day at the most -
even that takes heart -
they say it's empirical
but really it's Art.
You'll be clever and lyrical
you'll provoke and foment
but it'll take a small miracle
to make someone comment
and he or she will turn out
to be a silly loud mouth
who'll rant and prattle,
who'll snigger and shout,
it's a regular battle
just not to burn out.
You think you'll be famous,
well-known, renowned,
but it'll take a shamus
to track you down
and as for impact
you'd better forget it
you'll make a wisecrack
and no one will get it,
your posts will be graphic,
your writing seraphic
but even after that
you won't get any traffic;
and you'll flirt and flatter,
be bullied and battered
and find in the end
it didn't really matter:
you're a plant in the lobby
an egg in the nog,
another warm body,
a machine bound cog,
so if you want a hobby
or just something to do
I suggest you jog
or collect a stamp or two
or dig in the bog
or whistle in the fog,
anything", said the Splog,
"but keeping a blog".

You provide the details, I'll provide the devil

Blogger informs me that this is my 666th post on 2x3x7.

*fiendish laughter*

To mark this important occasion, and seeing as it's National Poetry Month, let's try an experiment. You provide the title / first line of a poem you want written (just type it into the comments space of this post) and I'll write it.

Feel free to specify a verse form if there's a particular one you'd like. If you want a translation, mail me the original, along with a literal translation if it's any language other than Hindi / Urdu, and I'm happy to do that too. I'm also willing to take requests for poems in the style of a particular poet, as long as it's someone reasonably well known (no, Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex does NOT count).

Only one request per person please, and requests by anony-mice will be ignored, unless they happen to catch my fancy.

I'll undertake anything as long as it's reasonable (requests for haikus starting with a 18 syllable first line will be ignored, as will requests for translations of Dante's Inferno or an epic poem in 15 cantos on the theme: 'Who framed Beowulf'?). I don't promise that it'll be particularly good poetry - it's more likely to be doggerel (especially if you specify a verse form) - but, as Browning puts it "What if I fail of my purpose here/ 'It is but to keep the nerves at strain".

I'm waiting.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


The stars are illicit, the moon garish. Raising the beer to your lips you taste its disappointment, its tepid defeat. Suffocation presses against your chest like a seatbelt. You stop at the gas station, top up your tank, but the slot for the payment is right there, part of the machine. No need to step into the building and have the girl behind the cash register smile at you, no reason to strike up a conversation with the two boys lounging by the screen door.

Even if you could get someone in this town to acknowledge your presence, what would it mean? They would only greet you in that automatic way we reserve for strangers. The casual glance, the quick nod. The person seen and not seen, like a milestone passed very fast on an open road. Compared to such indifference even hatred would be a relief. Passing through a town the local restaurants taunt you with their simplicity - their formica tabletops, their one page philosophies. The people inside laughing, content.

They, unlike you, have nowhere to get to.

Desperate, you shove a tape into the stereo, let the music whelm you. The sound of The Who singing Won't Get Fooled Again pushes your mood into a higher gear. You sit up. You feel as though you were trailing the great bulk of the music behind you, a sixteen wheel trailer, its momentum rushing you forward into the desert night. Blood accelerating in your veins, you push yourself just a little over the speed limit, experience a sense of liberation in breaking the rule, feeling dangerous, feeling free.

A little further and you see something dark on the road. Instinctively you take your foot off the accelerator, swerve wildly, realising too late that if someone were behind you it would mean an accident. But the road is empty. You breathe a sigh of relief, turn down the music a little, crack open the window to clear your head.

Half an hour later you see a motel with a sign saying Vacancy in bright neon letters, so you pull into it. The silence when you turn off the engine cuts you back to size, restores the night to its proper distance. For a minute you sit marooned, as if loneliness had flooded the world and you were afraid to open your door because it would fill the car up and drown you. Then you grab your bag from the backseat, make your way to the office to check in.

Later, lying in an anonymous bed in a too-familiar room, watching a TV program you recognise even though you've never seen it before, you think of that animal in the road. Was it worth saving, you wonder, worth taking the risk for? What would have happened if you hadn't missed it? Was it even really alive?

Monday, April 02, 2007

April Fool?

[When I posted that story yesterday I really meant it to end with the guy killing himself (it was that kind of day) but now that the suggestion's been made I can't resist playing around with it a little. In fact, just to prove that my creativity really is all peter-ed out, I'm going to provide not one, but two alternate endings]:

Miles away, on the other side of town, a lone figure is sitting in his darkened apartment, staring at the phone. Eventually, he stops waiting, goes over to the window. Opens it. Steps out. Lingers on the ledge for a minute, staring up at the moon. So Wendy isn't coming back. Pity. Not that he minds, of course, but the boys will be upset. They really miss having a mother around. Ah, well. He checks to make sure his shadow is still there, then, with a loud cock-crow to lift his spirits, leaps into the air, turns right at the second crossing and goes straight on till morning.


Miles away, on the other side of town, a lone figure is sitting in his darkened apartment, staring at the phone. Eventually, he stops waiting, goes over to the window. Opens it. Steps out. A quick flick of his wrist and a long web shoots out from his hand, attaches itself to the building opposite. Peter Parker is on his way.

It doesn't take him long to get there. Five minutes later he's hanging upside down above Mary Jane's bedroom window. He'd told her he would be working tonight, but it was only a ruse. What he'd wanted to tell her, what he's been thinking about all these days, is that he's going to give up crime-fighting and settle down to live a normal life. After all, all the old villains are either dead or safely in prison. The police can deal with pickpockets and drug dealers. They don't need him for that. No, he's been living a lie these last few months and it's time to give up the heroics. Just like she's always wanted him to. He's waited until April 1st to tell her because he wants her to doubt, wants her to think he's playing a prank on her, and then watch as she slowly comes to realise that he really means it. He imagines them joking about it to their friends, years later.

Only now the lights are out in her bedroom. Could she be asleep already? He lowers his head just enough to peek in. The room is dark but that doesn't matter to him. She's in bed, all right. She seems to be restless though. Tossing and turning under her blanket. Maybe one of the old nightmares coming back. He's about to jump in and comfort her, when a head bursts from the covers. Harry! But he thought that was all over! She TOLD him it was all over.

Stunned by this revelation, Spider-Man scuttles back up to the roof. His mind is in turmoil. How could she do this to him? For hours he swings back and forth over the city, never stopping, never resting, trying to forget. Eventually he ends up back on top of her building. It's no use. With great love comes great heartbreak. His career as a superhero is over, and the love of his life has turned out to be a sham. Even his beloved Aunty May is dead. He might as well end it. He walks to the edge of the roof and jumps. Every arachnid instinct in his body cries out for him to shoot out a web, save himself. But with one last, heroic burst of self-control he manages to resist the urge. His body falls 47 stories, shatters on the sidewalk.

Next day the headlines read: "Did he fall or was he pushed? Web of mystery surrounds Death of Spider-Man".

P.S. Okay, nobody move. The first smart-alec to make a comment about how I need to grow up gets it. I'm warning you.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

April Fool

The voice on the answering machine sounds distraught, desperate.

"Hi. It''s me. I was hoping to talk to you. guess you're not in."

Long silence.

"Look, I really need to talk to you" (panic in the voice now) "I can't take this anymore. I'm afraid I might do something terrible. Please call. Please."

The pleading tone terrifies her. What could have happened? Leaving her shopping bags on the table she rushes over to the phone, starts to dial his number. Then she notices the calendar on the wall. Of course! It's April Fool's Day. How silly. Trust him to come up with a childish, predictable prank like that. And to think she almost fell for it. She shakes her head, amused at her own gullibility, then puts the phone down. She'll call him tomorrow. Just so he can't claim his prank worked.

Miles away, on the other side of town, a lone figure is sitting in his darkened apartment, staring at the phone. Eventually, he stops waiting, goes over to the window. Opens it. Steps out.