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desmond kon

New Poetry

mont de piété :: mount of piety

by Desmond Kon

“You’re overthinking this,” Gigi says. “He threw himself into his own sacrifice, didn’t he? It seemed Samkhapala knew what he was up against, and going in for. Why he chose an ant hill? Who knows?” Gigi knew a pair of historians, how they travelled to archaeological sites together, to assist in research. They lived in tents, quite happily, cooked over a fire they made every day. There were only two meals a day, breakfast before the sun had risen and the air was still cool, and another very late when all the archaeologists returned. They were efficient, would have packed their equipment on the ride home, and jumped off the back of the pickup to make for supper. Usually lots of white rice, sometimes cooked with ginger or garlic. Everyone liked the garam masala. A treat would have been a dash of butter, lime or coconut. The vegetables, Vietnamese lettuce or bitter melon leaves, tended to be overcooked. And there was no meat, only protein pills, kept in the same carton as the water purification tabs. Everyone ate from their laps around the fire. Gigi remembered the historians once telling everybody that all the work they ever did amounted to simple writing, nothing nobler than literacy. There was nothing more to it, it wasn’t fact or truth they handled, but something speculative, and something quite relative. To stay on, in the trade and profession — that was a barter they had long decided for themselves was the way to go.

in statu pupillari :: in the status of a pupil

The mendicant comes into the porch only for the shade. He’s usually seated under the big tree across the street. He seems deep in contemplation. What are his thoughts? What is the next lesson he’s prepared, once at the end of every work day, so people simply stop on their way home, to listen and gain a bit of wisdom. Once, he spoke of Steve Smith, whom he called the Quaker in the Zendo, then made up a small play where he converses with Teruyasu Tamura, the Zen Buddhist who shares his encounter with Quakerism. There was the sneaking in of Sissela Bok’s “Early Advocates of Lasting World Peace: Utopians or Realists?” It spoke of Erasmus and Kant and their hope for perpetual peace. If Tao Qian’s short story about discovering utopia and then losing it could be spliced with Rudyard Kipling’s poem on the self, what kind of story would emerge? The mendicant still has the box of pens Gigi gave him, as a gift, when he asked for one. And she assured him that if he ever needed more, she would be happy to provide.

varia lectio :: various reading

There’s a more authentic manuscript of Aesop’s Fables called the Valerius Babrius Version, said to be remarkable for both their rawness and untouched elegance. Superior to the staid Latin verses. Of Phaedrus. It is poetic pathos, the Wangs claim, showing everyone the rare book like a trophy, no one ever allowed to handle it, much less leaf through it or read it. “It was only discovered by Minoïdes Minas,” her lover says. “In a heap of rubbish, thrown away clearly by someone so ignorant as to not recognize its historical significance.” He puts his pen into his shirt pocket, slanted, the tip shoved into its deep valley. He points to the mendicant outside the window, resting on their porch, then gesticulates towards the world map on the wall. “Some time during the 1800s. They unearthed it in a monastic community. Mount Athos, I think. Yes, definitely Mount Athos, which seems poignant and accurate now that I’ve mentioned it.” The parchment manuscript contains 123 fables in Greek verse, and in it is a rare fable, “The Spotted Lizard,” the only one in the book about a lizard. “I kept the first two lines, but crossed out the next two in the quatrain. Penciled in my revision in the margin. Something that went ‘The gecko embalmed in spider’s web / cocooned in a coffin spun of jewel net.’ Deciding to stay true to the end rhyming wasn’t a happy choice, but I was feeling whimsical that day, I think.”

lieder :: songs of the Romantic period

“What were the original lines?” Gigi asks, not really interested in the answer, but she thinks it logical sense to interject with such a remark. She says this in such a way that throws doubt on the whole idea of an alternate manuscript, and the idea that one could replace or negate poetry through a blunt act of revision. “It wasn’t impressive,” her lover says. “Two short lines. Predictable. ‘And from the wall with rapid stroke / He cut himself a fine-spun cloak.’ Completely unmemorable, like last week’s reading of Baudelaire at the community club. But there, I managed to recall it after all.” He looks around for a book that isn’t there, as if there has been one in front of him all along, and he’d been reading from it. “What happened to The Pro Forma Salon uptown, near the Eastern district? Did they eventually tear it down and build the apartments they had planned for it? Did they gut the beautiful storefronts and stone pavements? Did they succeed in removing one more bit of creative space for the real estate?”

nisi :: unless

“Unless it’s been moved downtown, to where even the archangels fear to tread,” Gigi says, her loud laugh uncharacteristic, and at odds with her small frame. “We wouldn’t have been told of that. Not because we wouldn’t have paid the Wangs a visit but because it seems too much trouble to go to, us being friends and all and completely aware of each other’s neuroses, and threshold for anything excessive.” Gigi has never thought of the Wangs as friends before, and this notion suddenly surprises even her. She shrugs her shoulders, as if it matters little now. She has knobbly shoulders that sink into low clavicles, and up a long, slender neck. Her necklines are high, chosen deliberately, to conceal the paleness of her skin, but her jewellery falls nicely against its architecture. The Wangs used to compliment her on how lithe she looked walking across the gallery, like a leg of chiffon. She remembers being tickled by the comment, thinking it over the top but liking it nonetheless. The rest of it – the palaver, the gowns, the crepe and crostini – is always a posture, a kind of grandstanding. Showy, and quite vulgar. Especially in a town when the next person is living on five dollars a month. To feed an entire family. “Unless you make a trip down to say hello!” Her lover exclaims suddenly. “So we can go somewhere. Have us some tuna rolls and apricots stuffed with that walnut cream, bring our own box of Ritz crackers for the incredible dips. Remember the ginger root salsa? The creamy clam sauce they make with Chilean wine? It’ll be summer in a week. When all the others will have gone home, and we’re stuck here. Cooped up like chickens, clucking about the things we don’t do. Unless that.” Her lover has walked from his chair to the sideboard to retrieve his book of sutras.

katzenjammer :: cats wailing

Living in the tropics saves electricity and water. Boston and New York were a bitter cold in winter. Her lover used to draught-proof the windows with insulating tape. The rattling stopped too, which helped them sleep at night. The bottom of the front door had such a large gap, it needed an excluder, which Gigi made from a used broom after she sheared the bristles to shorten them. The sounds are different back home. There is traffic at all hours, even at four in the morning. The shutting of doors, then gates. Shoes down steps. A mother shouting down the corridor to her kid to remember his lunchbox and coat. Here, nights bring on a thick silence. It has a solidity to it, like the black it inhabits. And slowly, if you listen hard enough, it takes on a shape of its own, which morphs innocuously, but it feels insidious, like a hidden crack in a wall that has begun a leak. The silence is a chronic silence, and you expect it every night, a few hours after the sun goes down. All the families have closed their doors to the outside world. Their windows are shut because the rest of the world here is nocturnal. Most village houses have holes in their roofs where light comes in. At night, it’s an airshaft that cools the rooms. Some homes house twenty people. They sleep on straw mats, in what looks like a mess of zigzags. But everyone knows where they belong, and everyone commits. One longhouse is reserved for the drunks. It’s also a kind of thrift. To keep their vice contained, and the bawdiness in one place. We call it “katzenjammer.”

table d’hote :: host’s table

Gigi knows playing the language games of the academy and technocracy helps loads. In getting actual work done, that is. She sees bridges being built because of a report that had all its sections properly drafted, and then fell into the right hands. She’s heard the sound, reasoned thinking. That there are altogether eight path factors. And they may at once function at each concomitant stage of the Gramodaya Path. This same dynamic is seen in the eight facets of ‘Personality and Group Awakening Through Shramadana,’ which include loving kindness and compassionate action, which impressed her most of all. There was sympathetic joy and equanimity too. Right down to the details of being willing to share, using pleasant language, adopting constructive action and equality. “This solid social agency,” her lover once exclaimed, holding up another village’s application of these tenets like a proud father. His eyes brightened when he saw such actual progress, when language moved the heart and soul of a people, and swept them into something like a theatre of democratic purposefulness. Not a theatre of cruelty, or bad faith. Gigi knows this man, her lover, the boy in college, the man of great principle and humility and stature. She brings him his breakfast of two half-boiled eggs in soya sauce. His coffee without milk, three sugars with ice. French toast sometimes, with frosting sugar and maple syrup straight from the bottle.

disjecta membra :: scattered fragments

Gigi was actually in Asia when she turned 47. It was the early 1970s, and there were no malls, no supermakets. No black and white television. She read her bible conscientiously, with a separate booklet. There, she would pen psalms and proverbs for the day, instead of writing a diary. Scripture seemed to headline the day, and didn’t seem to date it but allow it to resonate with another day that shared the same verse. Ecclesiastes still seems confusing. So much counterpointing. So much irony, too much sometimes for an old woman who’s accepted being stuck in her ways. “Being stuck is another word for inertia,” her lover says. “It’ll drag you down, and along with you, me as well.” They still watch the new movies. A warehouse is numbered 47 in the movie “SUPER 8.” It reminds Gigi of the whole Sci-Fi explosion back then, what with “ET,” “Star Wars,” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In another J. J. Abrams’ film, “Ghost Protocol,” the train car is numbered 47, as is the team’s final meeting place at a pier in Seattle. Tom Cruise has aged considerably since “Top Gun.” Jessica Lange too, since “King Kong.” 47 is not just a prime. It is non-palindromic, and the atomic mass of titanium. And there’s the whole cultish following associated with Donald Bentley’s mathematical proof. It was 1964, and Bentley stated that all numbers eventually equal 47. It’s a bit of jest, a proof that doesn’t prove anything. And then there’s “Star Trek,” where 47 is everywhere, like a key into another secret world.

Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé has edited more than ten books and co-produced three audio books. These span the genres of ethnography, journalism, poetry, and creative nonfiction, several edited pro bono for non-profit organizations. Trained in publishing at Stanford, with a theology masters (world religions) from Harvard and fine arts masters (creative writing) from Notre Dame, he is the recipient of the PEN American Center Shorts Prize, Swale Life Poetry Prize, Cyclamens & Swords Poetry Prize, and Stepping Stones Nigeria Poetry Prize, among other awards. Desmond is an interdisciplinary artist, also working in clay. His commemorative pieces are housed in museums and private collections in India, the Netherlands, the UK and the U.S.

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