Babel

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Babel

The Lady and the Tramp

The Lady and the Tramp

RECOGNITIONS

Candles and shadows, whispers and echoes,
windows and mirrors, lit by the moon’s glow;
and on the card table, the hand that life dealt
you. Win or lose, living’s a gamble.
If you came from where I did, the odds are
against you. If you don’t like the odds, go
find a rainbow.
They say we have souls. Is that what the body
knows? They say life’s a dream. Ever hear
someone scream?

CONSTANT IS THE RAIN

Being and begetting, struggling and
enduring, all of it bewildering as time
passes and the church bells ring.
Like cold rain running through her
veins, the chilling feeling as Delphi
walks the ghetto streets each day,
shivering even when the sun is
blazing. While across the city
where the girls her age look so
pretty, strolling in their fashionable
clothes along the tree-lined lanes
and avenues, is where she prays
she’ll live someday, somehow,
someway.
Shadows stalk her shivering steps.
Life shifts through a freezing mist,
as gunfire crackles and sirens wail
and her fate is sealed with coffin nails.

FLESH AND BLOOD

A loaf of bread, a crown of thorns,
to make ends meet I sell my blood.
That “bank” is the only one I can make
a deposit in since the recession began.
“Take it all.” I told the blood lady the
last time I was there. “I can’t afford
to make anymore. The next time you
see me I’ll be in a morgue.”
The economic recovery is going slowly,
they tell me. Just enough jobs are created
each month to keep up with the population
growth, almost. The young and the
desperate get first dibs on the starvation
wage gigs that provide no benefits.
Old hands like me, doomed at fifty-three,
can fade from the scene. We’re just walking
dead letters, which the Republicans hope
will never be delivered to Medicare and
Social Security. A decade or so without
food or shelter or medical attention should
eliminate that budget problem.
The place in Jersey where I went to sell
my kidney got raided the day I was supposed
to get my surgery.
I need to find another body parts chop shop,
and quick.
Blood and guts are all I have left.

TAPS

Crawl for cover,
feel death’s finger
slide up your spine
as bullets fly and your
buddies die.
Think of your mother,
brother, sister, father,
lover, your Uncle Sam
who got you into this
jam fighting for your life
in Vietnam.
Tell the rosary on the beads
of sweat that run down your
face, neck. Turn a deaf ear
to the moans and groans all
around you that send shocks
through your bones.
Now you are alone, wasting
away in a back street cheap room,
shot to shit at sixty-six from all
the bad habits you picked up in
combat: drugging, boozing,
hiding from the enemy which
came to be reality.
You survived the ambush that
day and many more that came
your way.
But they made you pay.

CRACK POP BANG

Dirty rain and crack cocaine,
some in the cellar feeling for
a plump vein to puncture that
will shine an inner light on the
darkness of the ghetto night
and send a glow through the
body and soul.
“Come with me on my dream
odyssey.” Mother’s little
helper whispers. “Feel the glory
of being free from poverty and
misery, at least temporarily.
Beware, though, it will cost you
your life if you OD.”
If you could call this a life – drive-
bys and gang fights, poverty and
urban blight.
They were born into a combat zone.
More soldiers in Chi-town’s
conscripted army of the damned
would die each year than in Iraq
and Afghanistan.
“Come with me on my dream odyssey!”
At least they knew what they were
dying for. No more, no more.

DEVILS AND ANGELS

Curls of color crowd my work in progress.
They look like tear drops or rain drops or
the outlines of alarm clocks.
I squiggled one on the canvas and then kept
them going, for no reason I can fathom.
Maybe they are a code which holds
the DNA for the painting I am attempting?
A race with time? a nursery rhyme? an
ode to the sublime?
I stare at them through the smoke from my
breakfast of champions.
What’s next? Where am I going with this?
In this strange bedlam we inhabit, wedged
in between monkey and human (and being
stoned in addition) anything can happen in
my imagination.
I remember the story Henry Miller wrote
about the angel he painted when he was
loaded. I never painted an angel. Maybe
I’ll find one hiding in my canvas when I
connect the dots or tear drops or alarm clocks,
whatever is curled up?
An angel today, a devil tomorrow, nothing
unusual for an artist’s studio.
This is the sort of place one comes to ponder
good and evil and to confront that meeting
between thought and instinct, peace and
violence, greed and giving, which we all
share if we dare.

TICKET TO RIDE

The moon was gone. Black clouds closed
over the city like the lid of a coffin.
Thunder boomed and the winds picked up,
blowing through the windows of the inferno
below him like an angel’s breath, soothing
the body, not the soul. That would always
stay trapped in Hell.
Tim sat on the roof of his sweltering tenement.
He watched the tiny, hobo fires shivering by
the tracks beyond the slums, that dark jumble
of buildings falling down.
He imagined himself running along side a
freight car as the train slowed to make
its turn, grabbing a rung and climbing on,
another lost soul on a ghost train, going
nowhere, going anywhere, ghost town bound,
maybe not tonight but soon.
Staccato images of hardscrabble slum life
flash before him with the lightning,
a battle no one can win, or survive, not without
becoming more dead than alive.
“Nowhere” was better than here.
Anywhere was better than here.
Anything was better than nothing, and here
nothing was all there was for him.

SLEEPWALKING

Remnants of wreckage tangled
together, Franklin Foster wanders
the downtown streets in tatters.
Mouth open, feet dragging, pale
eyes staring, horns blaring, as he
ghosts across the busy intersections.
Franklin remembers falling, screaming,
howling in his nightmare, arms
flailing, legs kicking, clutching,
grasping, plunging. Finally he
awakened. Nothing was clear,
as Franklin slowly picked himself up
from the gutter, neither the past
nor the present, nor the future.
The future? Franklin almost remembers
a line by Shakespeare, something
about day to day in a petty pace?
Other memories emerge, shadowy,
fleetingly – faces, places. All gone
with those winds of time that life
erases. The crowds bustle past.
Like a ghost in a dream, Franklin Foster
shadows through the flow, a step
at a time, although he has nowhere
to go.

LIFE LESSONS

Dead bodies never look like the persons they’re supposed to resemble.
There’s something missing in them – no matter how you make them
up or clothe them.
Kristy’d been to her share funerals, although she was hardly eleven.
No wonder everybody’d be all shook up and crying at them, before
and after they’d be buried in their plots – despite the elaborate decorum.
Dead ain’t pretty. Sure ain’t nothin’ you’d want to be.
Sure ain’t no redemption nor salvation.
There’s a livin’ dying which is more disturbing.
She’s see’d that too, over the years, since they moved from the bayou
to Uptown Chicago, after the big storm hit them, and they had to relocate,
as her parents put it, and find shelter with their relations, when she was
hardly going on seven.
But as soon as they were hunkered in another storm struck them,
the recession; and they were as bad off as they were in Louisiana only
now there were more of them, and all turning into corpses together,
with no hope whatsoever, more dead than living.
Her spindly legs dangling from her perch on the El train’s railing,
a little hooded nonentity in her raggedy parka of faded denim, Kristy
rivets her pale blue eyes on the flow of pedestrians, streaming along
the busy street, toting their shopping bags, pocket books and purses.
It’s just like hillbilly hand fishin’, Kristy thought, wade in and snatch
a catch, run like hell and you’re survivin’.

THE MACHINE

At the factory, Ramon and me would
slit boxes, all night, on treacherous
machines. A run of long oblongs and
then a run of squares, and then the other
way around, then vice versa; to be loaded
on conveyors for the crews down the line
for printing and strapping, to pass on in
stacks to the fork lifts who hauled it all
to the trucks on the docks.
Feeding the slitters and clearing the jams
was the main challenge. The machine
settings were merely simple adjustments.
But fingers could be lost in the operations –
not exactly the job of choice for an aspiring
artist and classical guitarist.
“What you humming, amigo?” I would ask
Ramon. “Is that a new composition, or is
your stomach growling?”
“My stomach was OK, my friend, until I
saw your new painting.”
Somehow we managed to get through each
shift without being mutilated, although many
times we were both high on the stimulants
we took to keep us awake, after classes all
day. “Maybe you paint better with no fingers,
my friend? Maybe you don’t paint no worse?”
“Your music sounds like machine noise, amigo.
Can’t tell the difference.”
Ramon got killed in Vietnam. I got drafted as
well; but I was spared the danger of that big
slitter the politicians keep running to maim
and murder each generation, which they
operate so well.

    How Alexander Pushkin used fairy tales to deal with a lack of free speech

    June 6 is Alexander Pushkin’s birth anniversary.  This article looks at how Pushkin used fairy tales to make political points.

    As well as being recognized as a great writer during his lifetime, Alexander Pushkin was also a successful civil servant. He graduated from the Imperial Lyceum, an elite educational institution established by Tsar Alexander I, and went on to work in the Russian Foreign Office. However, despite working at the heart of the establishment, Pushkin had a social conscience and began attacking the government in his writing. He joined the clandestine Union of Welfare and wrote a series of political poems that were widely circulated in manuscript.

    Brilliance in exile

    In 1820, Pushkin was summoned by the governor general of St. Petersburg, Count Miloradovich, to explain his epigrams and revolutionary poems that were circulating at the time. Initially, the authorities were planning to exile the poet to Siberia, but thanks to the intervention of his influential friends, he was “only” banished from St. Petersburg and sent into exile in the Caucasus, Moldova and Crimea. This period turned out to be one of Pushkin’s most productive times, during which he wrote many romantic poems and his brilliant work Eugene Onegin.

    Pushkin’s controversial poems resurfaced in 1825 when they were linked to the failed Decembrist Revolt to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I, but the tsar allowed the poet to return from exile the following year, believing that he had abandoned his revolutionary sentiments. In fact, Pushkin had simply decided to be more discreet. By this point he was already renowned as a great poet and was aware that the tsar himself was closely scrutinizing his works. However, if we read the series of verse fairy tales he wrote in the 1830s in the political context of their time, we find that there is often more to them than meets the eye.

    A reformed character?

    One Pushkin’s first fairy tales, “The Tale of Tsar Saltan,” published in 1831, tells the story of a tsar who chooses the youngest of three sisters to be his wife. However, her elder sisters become jealous of her status and when she gives birth, they arrange to have her sealed up in a barrel and thrown into the sea along with her baby son, Prince Gvidon.

    The pair wash up on a remote island, and the prince, who grew while in the barrel, goes hunting and ends up saving an enchanted swan from a predatory bird.  The swan creates a city, where the prince rules successfully. Eventually the swan turns into a princess and marries Prince Gvidon, who is finally reunited with his father, the tsar.

    This story of separation and reunification can be seen as a thinly veiled allegory of Pushkin’s own situation and was perhaps designed to convince Tsar Nicholas I that the writer truly was reformed.

    A veneer of conformism

    Whether or not Nicholas did see the parallels between Pushkin and Prince Gvidon, he allowed the writer to continue publishing, and even commissioned literary works from him. In 1833, Pushkin wrote “The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish,” which is about a fisherman who catches a golden fish that promises to fulfill any wish in exchange for its freedom. The old fisherman and his wife have been poor their whole lives, and the sudden opportunity to get rich sparks an intense greed in the wife. First she asks for a palace, then to become a noblewoman, then to become the provincial ruler, and finally the Tsarina. Eventually the couple loses everything when the woman wants to become the Ruler of the Sea.

    Robert Chandler, a renowned Russian literary translator has argued that the fisherman’s wife is a caricature of Empress Catherine the Great. The empress deposed her husband Peter III, effectively usurping his power in the way that the fisherman’s wife does. She also fought two wars with the Ottoman Empire to gain dominion over the Black Sea – fruitless campaigns that wasted a great deal of money and lives.

    Pushkin as a political tool

    Other fairy tales reveal different and more politically compelling stories. Pushkin was an atheist, which was unusual for the time and the circles he moved in. “The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda” is about a lazy priest who tries to exploit a cheap worker. Russia was highly religious at that time, and the attack on an Orthodox Church priest would have been seen as blasphemous. The fairy tale, written in 1830, was published posthumously in 1840, and the character of the priest was replaced with a merchant to avoid a backlash from the powerful Church. However, the priest was reinstated in Soviet publications of Pushkin’s fairy tales – the government of the new Russia had its own political ax to grind.

    This fairy tale is also about exploitation, which was very prevalent in a society where serfdom was still legal. At the end, the priest is criticized for “rushing off after cheapness,” and this was also something that the communists exploited a century later. The first Bolsheviks looked back over works by Russian 19th-century writers to find acceptable messages they could use in creating the new socialist culture, and Pushkin’s work proved brilliant in this respect. His views on serfdom, the Orthodox Church and the oppressive tsarist state fitted neatly into the communist outlook, so the writer was promoted and revered from the first years of the Soviet Union – even more so than in the 19th century.

    Pushkin’s last fairy tale in verse, “The Golden Cockerel,” was written in 1834, three years before his tragic death in a duel.  The story, which was based on “Legend of the Arabian Astrologer” from Washington Irving’s “The Tales of the Alhambra, was not political in any way. However, when Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov adapted it into an opera in 1908, he turned it into a satire on the waning Romanov dynasty and the Russo-Japanese war, which was one of the most humiliating events in Russian history. “The Golden Cockerel” was Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, initially rejected by the censors and only staged after the composer’s death.

    This article was first published by the Russia & India Report 

      Constant is the Rain

      Constant Book
      Praise for Constant is the Rain

      “Relentless pessimism about the state of the nation infuses Sexton’s … accomplished poetry and short fiction … The title piece, about hard life and untimely death in the ghetto, introduces the book’s dark atmosphere: ‘Being and begetting, struggling and/ enduring … as gunfire crackles and sirens wail/ and her fate is sealed with coffin nails.’ Sexton’s characters – Nowhere Men as much as Everymen – are war veterans, hobos, sex workers, and blue-collar employees facing job losses … His settings are urban wastelands. In ‘The Penworn Papers’ an impoverished artist recalls his degenerate life … in ‘The Gift,’ a Jewish satire redolent of Shalom Auslander, a young man reverts to emptiness in his old age … The palette is Edward Hopper’s, the ironic tone O. Henry’s. ‘Our Town’ playfully affirms Thornton Wilder’s morbid vision through gloomy imagery. The poems (are) rich with alliteration, internal rhymes, assonance and puns … They have broader application, universalizing human depravity …Sexton’s talent for social commentary and character sketching marks him as – in a title he gives a character in ‘Chop Suey’ – the Modigliani of the Mean Streets”

      Kirkus Reviews

      “Earnest and emotional, Constant is the Rain embraces desperation in tone, subject, and even in diction. A yearning for meaning in a nonsensical world comes to shape much of the text, forming the image of a people and a country existing without any defined meaning.
      “Sexton’s poetry generally forms isolated scenes of hardship and makes up the bulk of the work. ‘Like crucifixion crosses dangling weary ghosts,/ the telephone poles along the lost roads of America/ flash past me.’ These images, producing small segments of reality, combine to show the complete picture of a fragmented people looking for solace in a world of hard truths. From the individual seeking understanding to the drug addict seeking a reprieve from existence, the characters are … easily recognizable and empathetic figures.
      “Complimenting Sexton’s poetry is not only prose but his artwork … most impressive about the prose … is the continued attention to detail in diction and syntax … the result is a work accessible to all … that imparts a feeling that is for the people rather than simply about them.”

      Alex Franks
      Foreward Reviews

        Immigration is not a crime

        I am fortunate enough to live in a country that has made rapid strides in poverty alleviation over the last few decades, and if I wanted to move out of India, the reasons would be no different from why Western expatriates (a posher word for short term immigrants) look for jobs in emerging Asian countries. It would essentially be a combination of better pay, an opportunity to learn a new language and be a part of a new culture, and just to experience some new kind of adventure.

        However, I will be the last person on earth to judge those who are trying to escape poverty, strife and violence and start a new life in another country, even if they are going on rickety fishing boats. Sure, mass immigration to a country with large unemployment and depleting resources is not the best scenario for either the immigrant or the host nation. But then, these people whether they are Latin Americans trying to sneak in to the United States, or Africans and Arabs looking for a better life in Europe or Burmese refugees trying to reach Malaysia, essentially what they’re doing is no different from what Europeans did for centuries.

        Europeans invaded North America and built the country on the enslavement of one race and the genocide of another. Where was the legality there? Or for their invasions of South America and Australia? Was colonisation legal? Did the British, Dutch and Portuguese ask the Indians, Indonesians and indigenous people of Brazil for permission to come in live, loot and oppress?

        The present world order was set by the very same people who broke every tenet of decency when they dominated the world.

        I am of the firm belief that African people should overthrow their Western-backed dictators and focus on building their own nations. Right policies can lead to a revival in Africa, much on the lines of what happened in Asia. But, labelling everyone who is in search of a better life as a criminal simply disgusts me. If we’re going to use this as a yardstick, we might as well stop glorifying people like Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

        Tailpiece:

        Asia was doing fine enough before the Europeans came here on a “civilising mission” and introduced the concepts of identity cards and the nation state.

         

         

         

          Russian hospitality needs to be experienced to be believed

          A family I once knew in Sakhalin (an island in the Russian Pacific Coast) spoke to me about the first time they hosted a couple of foreign business associates for dinner. This was in the late 1990s when the country had just begun to recover from chronic food shortages and a few years after people had to queue just to get some bread. Despite not being very well off, the family managed to get the best local seafood, good Bulgarian wine and other delicacies to make their English visitors feel comfortable. The guests, who were on lucrative contracts with oil giants, gifted the family two packets of biscuits!

          Before judging these guests from the UK, it’s important to understand that there are strong cultural factors behind this kind of behavior. Russians tend to have more vivid and meaningful relationships with friends and excessive individualism hasn’t largely swallowed Russian society outside of Moscow. In the so-called West, for many, an emphasis on this individualism has made them thrifty. This is also reflected in the way, Europeans tend to be far more conservative spenders while on vacation compared to the Russians.

          Just like Indians believe in the concept of Atithi Devo Bhava- the guest is God, Russians traditionally consider guests providers of good luck. There is certain logic to this kind of thinking as in most cases guests bring enthusiasm and positive energy. I particularly enjoy taking my guests around town since I always get some fresh perspective on where I live and manage to see things in a different light.

          Russian society is very much open and people are often curious to know those from strange and exotic lands. I could fill up hundreds of pages writing about experiences on interactions with hosts and even strangers on long-distance trains that led to meaningful and long-term friendships, but one particular experience stands out.

          It was the summer of 2003 and I decided travel with two friends from Sakhalin to St Petersburg by (ferry and then) train. We had around 21 hours of transit in a town called Vanino in the Khabarovsk territory. The small town is pretty and is surrounded by hills with views of the Tatar Strait, but we felt there was little else to write home about.

          In the afternoon, while sunbathing by the river, a friend of ours went to have a conversation with a local. He asked the lady whether there were any waterfalls in the nearby hills. After laughing at his question, she asked where we were from and when he mentioned that it was two Sakhaliners and an Indian (all of us in were in our early-20s at that time), she offered to show us some places in the town and its outskirts. She drove us up hills from where there were the most stunning sea views and then took us to a local outdoor sports club, where she giggled as she introduced friends to a visitor from India out of all places. We were honestly overwhelmed with the hospitality and the kindness of the person who was a total strange hours earlier.

          Of course, this was in “another world,” a place where the Internet was still developing and there was no social media or smartphones. We did manage to stay in touch for several years after this chance encounter. Vanino and nearby Sov Gavan turned from pretty yet unexciting towns at the end of the Russian mainland to beautiful and cultured places where people lived quite but interesting lives.

          Contact with strangers comes with its own risks in this day and age, but then sometimes your own intuition can be a great guide.

          I also witnessed great hospitality when visiting cousins and grandparents of friends in smaller Russian towns and cities. What was really touching was the way the family members of these warmly embraced me like I was one of their own.

          One of the keys to really enjoying a more unique Russian experience is to learn the language. English is not even close to being widely spoken outside of Moscow and St Petersburg and there are generations of cultured, well-readand sophisticated people who know so much more about India and its traditions than many of us know about Russia. Of course, I have seenfriendships conquer the language barrier with people somehow finding a way to communicate despite not being under the influence of alcohol.  Being fluent in Russian is the best way to really build strong relationships in the country and also to be part of a society that is open, welcoming and embracing.

          A version of this article was published in the Russia & India Report

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