Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My first sestina

[For the uninitiated: A sestina is a highly structured poem consisting of six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet. The same set of six words ends the lines of each of the six-line stanzas, but in a different order each time. This is the structure:

Stanza 1: A, B, C, D, E, F
Stanza 2: F, A, E, B, D, C
Stanza 3: C, F, D, A, B, E
Stanza 4: E, C, B, F, A, D
Stanza 5: D, E, A, C, F, B
Stanza 6: B, D, F, E, C, A
Tercet: AB CD EF]

A: Camden
B: school
C: Spring
D: walking
E: wandering
F: rain

It was a rainy morning in Camden.
People hurrying in haste to school.
Thor had forwarded monsoon to Spring.
All around with stoic expressions, walking
Thinking, brooding and wandering;
Were people, pelted by cold rain.

It is easy to lose yourself in the rain;
I found myself meandering away from Camden.
It is easier to not think and just go wandering
With no destination, last place in mind being school.
Easiest, maybe, is to fool yourself that you are walking
When all you are doing is wait for eternity, for Spring.

It was an ironic season, this year's Spring
When you expect sunshine, you get rain.
When you want to stay still, you see yourself walking.
When you need homely warmth, you receive the frigidness of Camden.
When you feel yourself drawn back East, you move toward school.
Mentally, physically, perpetually wandering.

I saw a drenched warbler wandering
In the sky - a subdued daughter of the Spring.
The songbird flew high over school.
I could catch her faint lament, through the sonorous rain.
The cry of the songbird in Camden
Seemed louder than the garrulous talk of the crowd walking.

It seemed to me ominous that amongst the masses walking
With individual purpose, I was the only one wandering.
I could see in the distance the outline of Camden.
The clouds had set in, in true nature of this year's Spring.
Bombarding us with the austere force of his guardians, the rain,
Thor struck his hammer not far from the school.

I could not remember the direction of my school.
I had finally stopped walking.
Ultimately muted, was the scream of the rain.
The idle blur of the surrounding was the only thing wandering
In my mind. The last season I would witness was this year's Spring.
The last place I would stand on, was meant to be Camden.

On my mind was neither Camden, nor my former school.
It was the ephemeral image of a real Spring, and me with joyous step walking.
There would now be no more wandering, no more clatter of mirthless rain.

Friday, January 29, 2010


"Never wash your hands with soap - always use fern and honey."

He said this with so much conviction, I had to laugh. Later, whenever I would wash my hands I would always be conscious of this little detail. It was a confirmation of the oft-unverbalized adage I had come to acknowledge without reserve over the months - people will believe anything said with the right amount of passion. I am surprised how so many people (I'm sometimes guilty of the same sin) lend credence to anyone claiming authority.

Anyhow, with that declaration he started to cross the street, unmindful of the honks, while I hastened behind, pacifying the drivers with elaborate hand gestures and receiving quite unelaborate finger gestures in return. Reaching the other side, he appeared bemused as I reproached his flippancy toward such trivial matters as life and health. I said goodbye and we went our ways.

We met at the subway station. He was a lanky man, probably nearing sixty, dressed like he never grew out of the 60s - long hair, scraggly beard, intensely colorful T shirt, the works. I was listening to Jimi Hendrix's 'Manic Depression', murmuring an awful impression of it with even more terrible air guitar gesticulations. He looked over inquiringly and notified me impishly that he had lost his virginity to that song. Well, that was believable - it was a heady song. He told me he was there in Woodstock when Hendrix played. Unsure whether to believe him, I nodded appreciatively and offered the elaborate, all-occasion adjective - "Nice". I wasn't sure why I was reluctant to believe him. He looked the part. Perhaps what made me wonder was the fact that he was sitting in a padmasana position on the bench and had three cigarettes just chilling in the wild locks of his hair.

We made small talk for a couple of minutes till we heard the prolonged chime of the train in the distance rising in intensity. He got up and asked me why I didn't come along and have a hoagie with him. Well, why not. I had nothing in particular to do in Philly anyway, except get a couple of books and maybe catch a nap in the park bench. Maybe it was because I somehow sensed a stark, implicit intelligence in the man in the way he talked, in spite of his appearance and quirky mannerisms. It might have been misplaced intuition, although I later discovered my hunch was spot on.

Half an hour later, we found ourselves in South Street - hoagies and hot chocolate in hand, sitting in the cold on the sidewalk, giving a street performer moral support. I learned he was a painter by choice, dropping out of college in the early seventies. Divorced twice with children he could not support. He took out a couple of crumpled canvasses from his sling bag and showed me. They were some of the most violently emotional pieces of art I had seen, in person. It was a riotous convergence of bold colors into abstract pieces brimming with primordial passion. I was awestruck.

He then said, "I painted the last one in 1995, after a gap of 3 years. Then, I just stopped. When you're a struggling artist, there comes a point in your life when you are creatively spent and you realize that you threw all the eggs in one basket, or in my case, all the paint in one canvass. Then it hits you that your entire life has been nothing more than a sordid catalog of bad choices. But as they say, life is too short to be anything but happy."

We talked for quite a long time that day. I sat near the window of the train, coming back home, in a pensive state. Passengers around me had vacant expressions; a conditioned impassivity brought about by routinized lifestyles. I listened to the muted undulation of the train, anticipating every curve and turn; a skill learned again out of the consistent drill of daily modus operandi. Routine makes you captive to the mundane.

The man's words seemed to ricochet around my head. His life was a substantiation of a fear many harness, but seldom admit. Reaching a point of no return. A stagnation no mental thrust could overcome. A crisis of inspiration. And what happens when the crisis does not elapse over time? I used to consider existential angst as an overrated condition, in the insouciance of earlier years. But of course it is real, as I was discovering for myself. As is its nature, you come to a time when you start dreading the freedom that you have. The all too familiar insecurity about the future and the overbearing feeling that only you are responsible for your choices. In case of my old friend, he seemingly overcame it by making a choice with an unassailable conviction. He was great at it and produced according to me, some very good representations of Dionysian art, but his distrust of the system and lack of ambition stopped him in his path. Now he was compelled to do odd jobs while living with the fact that his kids barely recognized him anymore. In spite of everything, was he happy? He certainly seemed to be, but of course, I have no way of knowing. I suspected strongly that this was merely an outer appearance. A mask concealing a regret he was too scared to come to terms with. They say life is too short to be anything but happy. Wouldn't that conversely mean that if you are not happy, life goes on forever? I do not particularly like the idea of time prolonged by misery, and this chance encounter did not help much.

A week later, getting off at the same stop, I paused for a minute and looked at the number I took from him on my phone. I smiled, remembering one of his many quips ("The difference between an asshole and a pussy is like asking the difference between McCain and Palin. One gives you shit and the other is a pleasure to screw"). I stared at it for quite some time, before giving it a ring. Apparently the number did not exist. I chuckled wryly.

I pulled my jacket closer and started to move back home. Behind me, I could hear the chime of the train, fading in intensity and moving away fast.