For a Better Man Than I: Six Poems for Kipling
Your waistcoat pushes taut
against your watch chain. Your moustache
executes a double curve above your lips
is that a smile
you're wearing, Rudyard?
You stare at me
from the end of the avenue that joins us.
Your eyes glitter with the confidence of your mission.
But tell me Rudyard
of the trip-beat hammering that grew in your chest
in the silent hours.
Of skin growing slippery with sweat of excitement
under a buttoned waistcoat.
Rudyard, tell me,
what woad-daubed, hide-clad shaman
lurked beneath your skin?
I’ve seen monkeys playing wild
only in early childhood in the mountains,
and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an elephant outside the zoo.
But to you these things were ordinary. To you
they were the currency of your commerce,
your stock in trade, from which you garnered
your daily profit of words.
In your north, in Lahore
(where the subcontinent began; where invaders paused
by the banks of the Ravi, assessed
the kingdom’s defenses
where the last invader found his way
from the wrong direction,
leaving the river unforded and the fort
could the setting not be
Descendant of druids who ate raw beef
and roared for beer served in the skulls
of enemies—Rudyard—in Lahore,
Japanese cars with tinted windscreens and stereo sound systems
outnumber the tongas we knew.
And the Ravi itself runs lower.
The Civil and Military Gazette was finally closed down
some fifteen years ago
but the gun you claimed for Kim
still stands at the end of the Mall Road.
Does you shaggy, blue-painted spirit wander that city,
carving runes of contempt
on the steps of the Engineering University, shaking
a rattle made from the skull of a sheep
in the middle of a scooter-thronged street?
Rudyard, where I live now—
this southern town of Richard Burton and Bartle Frere
pulsates with the throb of a commerce
different to yours.
is frozen prawns and colour television.
The noises and odours are not
of covered spice bazaars
or bubbling samovars of jasmine tea.
The noise is of jet planes and motor cycles
and the clang of a bellbuoy on the swell;
the reek tells of diesel oil and the fish harbour
and food cooked in the shacks
of the poor.
This is a loud
city of palm and cactus,
where a beachless sea is shut behind
a wall of unrounded rocks.
Below my balcony, flat land beyond three rows of houses
runs down to the sea.
A train is being shunted somewhere, bogies crashing
in detonations of sound. The salt flats,
beside which the track meanders on its way to the harbour,
drain dry in the outgoing tide.
In the distance, a ship’s horn and the faint
faraway clang of a warner...
Far beyond the harbour lights
another spark of light. Manora lighthouse,
whose circling beam threw into relief
the fleet of buccaneer Napier
forging towards the lights on the shore.
It was destiny, you wrote,
your kindís appointed burden. But the tides changed.
The tides receded, leaving
empty shells and curious objects
for boys to ponder...