The beginning of these present baleful times struck me with their resemblances to the world of the mad emperor Caligula. I began to retell his story using the phrasing of the news around us. Parallels to the modern ruling corruption threw themselves into the mix. Soon I had not a short poem but some 2400 words, and a title: Caligula Unbound. I sent the text to a dozen beta readers and their enthusiastic responses encouraged me. I thought to publish it as a paperback or as an e-book. But I dithered and some time has passed. I do want to make Caligula Unbound available to more readers. So I will soon be placing it on the WordPress Earth Tourist site at birdcreekblues.com.
They ask him one more time: Which Rock do you worship?
His answer chokes back when they draw their swords.
Not seeing them or him, girls walk small dogs.
A fly lights on his leg, points to one Rock.
A wave recedes and shows the Rock’s insignia.
Or was that shadow? He will get one guess
as to what’s accepted doctrine on this beach
so far from where he thought he’d started out.
He sees sky above the clouds above the swords.
Women washing windows of the restaurant
see him but not the fly. They see walking girls.
They see tiny jacketed dogs. They don’t see the men:
the men in mohair robes who point bronze swords
at approximately where he’s been told that his heart is
or was before he lost it on this beach
to a girl who walked small dogs that disappeared
when the tide rose and the brave Rocks in the shallows
became hidden, serving only to sink boats
like his that time he sailed here on his own
which is how he’s ending up. He hears, Which Rock?
‘There were squirrels the size of squirrels, and a rock-like rock.
I ran through a glade in the forest
like someone running through a forest glade.
The sun shone through wintry leave-stripped branches
the way light shines through tree limbs that have lost their leaves.
On the leaf-choked forest floor a burrowing squirrel
burrowed like…’ Enough. I get the message.
For those Mondays when the question is, ‘Why not a rhymed double sestina in iambic pentameter?’
The mermaid thought it strange he brought her clothes.
Scaled up, she had looked fetching in his nets.
But now, in port, this captain seems ashamed.
She knew he lied the way he rubbed his nose
when she inquired had he been placing bets
and he denied that he had used his phone
and every other implement she named
to signal to the harbour. ‘Why the crowd?’
she asks, reclining by him on the deck.
She cannot see his eyes: his head is bowed
and his mumbled answer brings to mind the moan
she’s heard each time her arms went round his neck.
The nights at sea when she had learned to neck
while breathing air, he had not mentioned clothes.
He’d shown no salty dog desire to deck
her out in any fabric more than moan.
He had been happy to explore and nose
around, not even asking what she named
the boat, the bridge, the cabin and the nets
he called his home. He’d said three was a crowd
and cloaked his parrot’s cage. She’d been ashamed
on finding Polly boarded up and bowed;
it had been Poll who taught her how to phone
Poseidon and the dolphins that take bets
that mermaids make. And mermaids hedge their bets.
Each time one surfaces she risks her neck
for destiny and fame, not for a phone.
Each mermaid has a well developed nose
for adventure, and this mermaid, named
Cassandra for her prophecies that clothes
will kill the fish, a fey forecast that nets
her ridicule, has been a bit ashamed
and hopes herself she’s wrong. The hours bowed
above a crystal ball sent her on deck
to catch a human and to make him moan
and take her shopping. She asks, ‘Why the crowd?’
The captain tries convincing her the crowd
is only tourists taking walks, and bets
her in a week she’ll see the shops she’s named
to him at sea, and will have learned to phone
her sizes through to Sacks. ‘You have a nose
for bargains,’ he says, setting Polly’s neck
and himself a task that leaves him bowed
untangling his so-shipshape lines and nets
a hundredth time. She asks, ‘Are you ashamed
to share your port with one who made you moan,
who believed you when your promised her fine clothes
if she would leave Dave’s locker for your deck?’
It’s more than sunburn makes his face match deck
in colour (teak). Reporters in the crowd
wave to them both. She reaches for the phone
which hangs above her head. She had been bowed
but now the crowd can see she wears no clothes
and some jump in the water, some climb nets
and one, the ‘Homo’ of his species, aptly named,
stays sapient and thumbs, she thinks, his nose
at her (his?) fickle captain who, ashamed
now treats her like an albatross whose neck
too close to his will probably cost him bets.
The ‘sailor’ boards the poop deck with a moan.
Reporters note her taut yar lines and moan.
The sailor swabs her fin tracks from the deck.
Ships’ doctors tug their stethoscopes and phone
their practices and lie that they have bowed
to some new flu that flew up each one’s nose
and felled them, so their every patient nets
no cures today: they have a sickness named
infatuation. ‘Mermaid, put on clothes!’
the captain yells. The sailor swabs his neck
but no one notices. The gaping crowd
can’t know how they are helping her win bets
she made that made Poseidon sore ashamed.
‘Poseidon, I may die. Aren’t you ashamed
to let me meet such danger while you moan
or let the sirens for you, those so named
because their songs have drowned out those who crowd
your lockers? I can’t fathom your stiff neck.
I bet you this young man was queer for clothes
and bet the sirens not, a hedge that nets
me nothing, but it’s scary being bowed
across the bowsprit which the sailor bets
will break beneath my bosoms. Pick the phone
up and answer me. I know you deck
the sirens in my absence; I’ve a nose
for your unfaithfulness. Your streaming nose
(you’re underwater, so don’t be ashamed)
distends whenever sirens are on deck
or up to bat (a pun). Pick up the phone!’
Poseidon knows how sirens cover bets:
Ligea wants Cassandra tarred and bowed.
Leucosia wants her smothered in wet clothes,
and Parthenope to date has not named
the part she’ll take if winning, probably neck
of mermaid. Poor Poseidon gives a moan
and gets stuck in, his trident helps, a crowd
of sirens seeing mermaids in their nets.
Cassandra’s crying’s futile but it nets
the interest of a preacher whose blue nose
her breasts put out of joint the while he bets
her finny tail’s those Marimekko clothes
the Finns have been promoting. He’s ashamed
of his own responses to the crowd
of pulchritude he’s read about and named
an ignorant myth. He prays with bald pate bowed,
his lowered eyes afraid to seek the deck
if anyone is watching, but his moan
comes to the mermaid’s ears. Her pretty neck-
idness has made his holiness take phone
in hand, let’s say, for surely that’s a phone,
and wring it till Poseidon in his nets
looks through Cassandra’s ayes along the deck
and, when he sees the man of cloth, ’s ashamed.
The sea god sends tsunamis toward the crowd
but slow enough that they can save their clothes
and close the sea gates which the town has named
Rhea and Chronos, also hedging bets
about which gods it’s prudent to be bowed
to, and so, prostrate and every nose
flat on the quay, the visitors all moan
and fear this time they’ll get it in the neck.
‘Cassandra, silly mermaid, save your neck!’
Poseidon calls out. ‘I don’t need a phone
to say come home. Don’t fear the siren crowd
or listen to yourself. Your flaking nose
should tell enough. Old Helios is ashamed
for burning you. He’ll cover all your bets
and given half a chance he’ll also deck
half the congregation while they’re bowed.
The sailor will be thrilled. The captain nets
more than a deck hand’s worth: a suit of clothes
of pure asbestos. Let the sirens moan
henceforth, for, for your bravery I have named
this port ‘Cassandra.’ Tawny mermaid named
a fool for thwarting Helios who would neck
a redneck mermaid, throw away that phone
and come back home. Hecuba’s not ashamed
nor should her daughter be. Dive down and deck
Dave’s locker. Let the sunburned lubbers moan
about which man or mate has won the bets
and who’s lost what in that tumultuous crowd.’
Cassandra dives and feels a dolphin’s nose
gently nudge her past the harbour nets
beyond the breakers, past where yachts have bowed
their prows to her. She laughs, ‘I need no clothes.’
Poseidon, saviour of her neck, I’m bowed
in admiration while the crowd on deck
laughs at the part that’s named the parson’s nose
as the other actors, sore ashamed, now phone
the constable who nets a tip for clothes
he’s fined them for their making, moan, false bets.
It had been a normal mid watch for the crew of the Windchill Attic
until Dante had sent them selfies from Circle Seven
and they noticed that behind him in the gore
stood a laughing jackdaw miming ‘never more’
or something. ‘Won’t the Chaplain be ecstatic
when we show him this?’ the Mate said. ‘This proves Heaven
must be real too. I can’t wait to get ashore
and show him this.’ The Captain woke and swore.
He sat up in his captain’s chair and grumbled.
He scrutinised the photographs. He demanded
that the communications officer come to the bridge.
They found said person by the wardroom fridge
and told him. He said, ‘I’ll be there,’ and mumbled
‘toot sweet’ or something. He came up empty handed
and saluted. ‘Look at that jackdaw on the ridge
behind Dante,’ said the Captain, ‘and abridge
that stream of what in the selfie seems invective
that the bloody bird is spouting.’ The corpulent COMMO
saluted again and asked the O.O.D.
to authorise a light so he could see
better all the pixels in the reflective
speech if it were that. The selfie seemed a promo,
he thought, but of what? My lip reading skills won’t be
any use with a bird. Is that jackdaw mocking me?
Sometimes when the jackdaws are absent on more productive errands I am visited by strange characters who I pretend call themselves ‘Durac’ (a made-up name with loosest of allusions to Paul Dirac, who applied relativity theory to quantum mechanics and predicted the existence of antimatter and the positron) and ‘Slynog’ (another made-up name).
They somehow get into stories here. Durac is by himself in Dizain for Durac 7. Slynog is by himself in Politicising the Slynog and in The Slynog’s Cure, a mishmash of poems and snippets from being in France one September, which, if I ever get to writing it as I want it to be, will be a riff on something.
Durac and Slynog appear together in some poems/stories already posted to Facebook and here on Earth Tourist: Non-U Socialising, Mad Helmut’s Tea Party, and Cat and Pig among the Pigeons. And in this one:
Slynog and Durac Study On
‘I am old,’ said the Slynog, ‘and addicted to grief
which I feed on by reading the news.’
The Durac replied with a stitch in its side,
‘Your debilities always amuse
the que vivre in me, though my nebulous glee
gets dispersed by the whiff of compassion
that your sighings evince – they don’t half make me wince –
as they spread in lugubrious fashion
a comradely gloom that fairs poisons the room
and we each go into our brown studies
pretending to be what we aren’t yet, you see,
a twain of twinned old fuddy duddies.’