The extinction of the mermaids
By Ravi Shankar
18 March 2016
Maritime, Tahrir’s Square, Laloo & other poetic snapshots
The Extinction of the Mermaids
No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.
– National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Remember the timbers of the burning galleys
of the Trojans turning into the flesh & fin of green
daughters of the sea? They joined with the crones
inaccurately thought to have been cast in a scene
for the Romanian stage or out of Ireland by Saint
Patrick. This was Girl Power before the first wave
of feminism. They picked up Jullanar the Sea-girl
with eyes bordered with kohl & undulant hips,
skin smoother, the Arabs said, than the curved
inward surface of a conch. Another clutching comb
and mirror had loosened her tail from a coat
of arms to join the ranks next to a Finnish Nakki
playing a silver harp o’ night & the scaly daughter
of Ravana who had fallen in love with Hanuman.
Everyone followed the glinting jeweled fish shape
of Atargatis of Assyreia who had once made love
so fiercely that she suffocated her shepherd lover
to death & in mourning cast herself into the ocean
only to find her beauty too great to turn entirely
fish. One by one, they each joined the procession,
oscillating like a sine wave of such charmed speech
& wriggling song that no one seemed to remember
that their spawn of eggs were externally fertilized.
Their hair flowed in the sun & their scales purled
as they moved together, a braid unbraiding over
the horizon, leaving behind just manatees. Like that.
One after another. And then they were all gone.
(for Julie Batten)
You in a church-pew with half a sandwich wrapped
in wax paper – sprouts, red peppers, half-moons
of avocado – that you offer me, a near-stranger
arranging himself in dim air to the resolute awareness
a reading requires, concentrating on the chancel
but distracted by the somatic magnetic field pulsing
lines of flux from remanence to saturation, an ancient
heat strumming invisibly on thin chords of nerves
radiating between your lines and my peripheral vision.
The yet-to-appear utterly luminescent spray of stars
must have considered us then with ghostly hymns
of glory once sung from breeched knee on the railing
where our feet rather conspicuously do not brush.
In the hush before a finger stammers on the mike,
I imagine you hear me hear yourself hearing my heart
hurry, a crease to ripple a brief dune across the brow,
a primordial isotope that quickens in half-life as fate.
How the facts of our lives do not tally! But even at first
meeting, before the harmonica, horns and handclaps,
Stevie Wonder, before we were blessed by Amida,
the Buddha of Infinite Light, before the first time
from snowdrift-high streets to puddle in comforter,
turned newly blind by keening, I read a dancer’s history
on the Braille of your body. Before finding the perfect
channel that flowing you fit in a previously unknown
estuary of clavicle. Before sharing the Impressionists,
countless run-on texts, a car ride in the Adirondack
foothills, a staph infection, mix CDs, road trips,
before the Super Bowl was interrupted by a solar
flare of a red belt buckle that begged to be liberated,
before I knew the names of your kids, before even
the mere fact of us, in that nave full of studied glances,
I did not need to look over to feel you next to me.
Rising heat of downtown Cairo, a traffic-choked plaza
teeming with people carrying banners, sitting cross-legged
in the road, chanting slogans that resound as far as Gaza,
adopted from the Tunisian poet al-Shabbi who once begged
the tyrants of the world to leave his country once & for all.
An Arabic Keats who died a century ago at 25, his words
come alive in the throats of a hundred thousand in shawls
or trainers, a chorus more rhapsodic than a flock of birds
perched on a telephone wire & there’s more power there
than in tread of tank or a crude plank pierced by nails.
The will to live & live freely is as natural as breathing air.
When the tear gas is released, some child’s mother wails,
Inflecting the unmistakable cry taken up by the crowd:
Irhal! Irhal! Leave! Leave!
Entreaty in Alteration
(for Julie Batten)
Weighed in the shell of a palm a blade
of grass whetted by dew possess a ratio
of mass congruent to our own relative
weight with respect to the turning axis
of the stars that illuminate the night sky
with so many scintillating reminders
of vast spectral promise, the vanishing
puniness of day. Stay. For just one more
hour. Until I read the blind meadow’s
elegy from the braille upon your cheek.
Frayed in the pell-mell of a bomb a glade
turned to char the motes hover around
in shafts of sunlight in which we walked
hand in hand in a dream, the winnowed
world orbiting the rings of fingerprints
that form the links of the chain that knots
us through one another’s friends & families
to each other. We are out of time, messy,
unmistakably the incarnation of unbridled
wildness, tethered in the feeling of being
recognized so deeply we cannot turn away.
Stayed by the swell of this balm we sway.
Laloo, the Handsome, Healthy, Happy Hindoo
was my given stage name but a misnomer
because my twin brother, that wrinkled,
parasitic, brainless mass of cock and balls,
would spring a boner and sometimes tinkled
when I was wearing a tux, trying to impress
the bodices and bustles out for a laugh,
the cutaway jacket with a gleaming watch-
chain eager to indulge himself in a penny gaff.
Attached to my shoulders, sprung misshapen
from my stomach, he was me, a living tumor,
and in medical textbooks, I was the monster.
Yet he was not me, an unsubstantiated rumor
that Allah has a cruel sense of humor. For see,
I was not even a Hindu but a Muslim from Oudh,
the second of four siblings, discovered by George
Gill, a British opportunist, who misunderstood
me as a freak to be exhibited in Germany, sent
on a steamship The City of Berlin, the fastest
liner on the Atlantic, then sold to P.T. Barnum
to tour with the most eclectic and the vastest
“Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome”
known to man. I was at home, if you can call
it that, with the Camel Girl and the Dog-Faced
Boy, my brother sometimes clothed in a shawl
to appear a dame. He became my great pride,
my greatest shame transformed. I chose to stay,
even embraced my name, because I was a star,
unique, a creature who common folk would pay
handsomely just to stand there to be marveled at.
I even helped found an early advocacy group,
the Protective Order of Prodigies, for a time
convincing the circus and its fans that to stoop
to call us freaks was beneath them. Didn’t last,
but still. I have no regrets. Even held a side gig
letting doctors examine me and married one
of your kind. My personal fortune grew big
as a dirigible. Then the new century turned.
I was busy touring the Pacific Coast for Norris
& Rowe when the sleeper car I was riding on
derailed. Pulvis et umbra sumus, wrote Horace,
we are but dust and shadows. That day five
flat cars were crushed to smithereens, six sea
lions smashed, yet somehow Frank Lentini,
just a three-legged boy then, survived. Not me.
31 years young, yet I had seen more in my life
than the entire succession of Nawabs of Oudh.
Was I happy? Healthy? In the end, only my blind
and mute brother can say how I was viewed.
~ Ravi Shankar is an award-winning poet, editor, translator and teacher of writing. He founded the international online journal of the arts Drunken Boat [http://www.drunkenboat.com] and has published 10 books and chapbooks of poetry, including the W.W. Norton’s anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond, and most recently What Else Could it Be, a collection of collaborative and ekphrastic poetry. Among many other venues, he has appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and on PBS, NPR and the BBC. He currently teaches in one of the first Asian MFA programs at City University of Hong Kong.