Narouz breaks the Arab in the desert
(excerpt from Balthazar (1958))
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from Balthazar (1958)
(the second in The Alexandria Quartet
"The desert," said Narouz. "By the way, will you ride out with me to the tents of Abu Kar to-morrow? I have been promised an Arab and I want to break it myself. It would make a pleasant excursion." Nessim was at once delighted at the prospect. "Yes" he said. "But early, " said Narouz, "and we can pass the olive plantation for you to see what progress we're making. Will you? Please do! . . . Oh, Nessim! I wish you stayed here. Your place is here."
Nessim as always was beginning to wish the same. That night they dined in the old-fashioned way--so different from the impertinent luxury of Alexandrian forms--each taking his napkin from the table and proceeding to the yard for the elaborate handwashing ceremony. . . . At last, when sweetmeats and fruit had been served, they returned once more to where the waiting servants stood and washed their hands again.
. . . Smoking materials had been set out . . . [H]e sat with his chin in his hand wondering how he could impart his news, . . . and whether he should be frank about his motives in choosing for a wife a woman who was of a different faith from his own [Justine is Jewish. Eds.]. The night was hot and still, and the scent of magnolia blossom came up to the balcony in little drifts and eddies of air which made the candles flutter and dance; he was gnawed by irresolution.
. . . The little viol scribbled its complaints upon the text reaching back into their childhood. And now suddenly the singer burst into the passionate pilgrim song which expresses so marvellously the Moslem's longing for Mecca and his adoration of the Prophet--and the melody fluttered inside the brothers' hearts, imprisoned like a bird with beating wings. Narouz, though a Copt, was repeating "All-ah, All-ah! in a rapture of praise.
. . . As he stood in the doorway, Nessim said impulsively: "Narouz--I've something to tell you. . . . But it will keep until to-morrow. We shall be alone, shan't we?" Narouz nodded and smiled. "The desert is such torture for them that I always send them back at the fringe, the servants."
"Yes." Nessim well knew that Egyptians believe the desert to be an emptiness populated entirely by the spirits of demons and other grotesque visitants from Eblis, the Moslem Satan.
Nessim slept and awoke to find his brother, fully dressed, standing beside his bed with coffee and cigarettes.
. . . Narouz led now, . . . for the whole land existed in his mind like the most detailed map by a master cartographer. He carried it always in his head like a battle-plan, knowing the age of every tree, the poundage of every well's water, the drift of sand to an inch. He was possessed by it.
. . . Nessim watched him idly as he turned the bag over to tip its contents into the dank waters of the river. But he was not prepared to see a shrunken human head, lips drawn back over yellow teeth, eyes squinting inwards upon each other. . . . Narouz turned his brilliant eyes upon his brother for a moment: "More troubles with Bedouin labour could have cost us a thousand trees next year. It was too much of a risk to take. Besides, he was going to poison me."
. . . [A]t last they were on the edge of the desert. . . They rubbed a little chalk under each of their eyelids with a finger against the glare--as they had always done, even as children; and each tied a cloth around his head in Bedouin fashion.
And then: the first pure draughts of desert air, and the nakedness of space, pure as a theorem, stretching away into the sky drenched in all its own silence and majesty, untenanted except by such figures as the imagination of man has invented to people landscapes which are inimical to his passions and whose purity flays the mind.
Narouz gave a shout and the horses, suddenly awoken and filled with a sense of new freedom and space around them, started their peculiar tearing plunging gallop across the dunes, manes and tassels tossing, saddles creaking. They raced like this for many minutes, Nessim giggling with excitement and joy. It was so long since he had ridden at this wild gallop.
. . . How did one come to forget the greatest of one's experiences? . . . He was irradiated by the visions of his inner eye and followed Narouz blindly.
. . . Narouz started a slow tacking path, questing about for the ancient caravan route--the masrab which would take them to the Quasur es Atash (Castles of the Thirsty) where the Sheik's men were due to meet them before noon. . . . Once Nessim too had known these highways by heart . . . which steered the fortunes of men . . . taking spices and stuffs from one part of Africa to another or affording to the pious their only means of reaching the Holy City. He was suddenly jealous of his brother's familiarity with the desert they had once equally owned.
. . . [O]ut of the trembling pearly edges of the sky there swam slowly a high cluster of reddish basalt blocks, carved in the vague semblance (like a face in the fire) of a sphinx tortured by thirst . . . rode into the embrace of arms like dry sticks and the thorny clicking of an unfamiliar Arabic in which Narouz did all the talking and explaining.
Nessim waited, feeling suddenly like a European. . . . He surprised himself by seeking in his own mind the memory of a painting by Bonnard or a poem by Blake. . . . The great corded muscles of [Narouz's] hairy body were tense with pride, for he, a city-bred Alexandrian--almost a despised Nasrany--could out-shoot, out-talk and out-gallop any of them. . . . [T]hese delightful desert folk were automata. . . . [He] wondered where the British had found the substance of their myths about the desert Arab. The fierce banality of their lives was so narrow, so regulated. . . . He watched his brother handle them . . . as a showman handles dancing fleas.
. . . They rested for at least an hour, for the heat of the day was full, in that brown darkness. Narouz lay snoring upon the cushions . . . the magnificent set of white teeth showing through the pink rent in his upper lip. . . . [T]he headmen of the tribe called noiselessly, taking off their shoes at the entrance of the tent, to enter and kiss Nessim's hand. Each uttered the single word of welcome "Mabubbah" in a whisper.
. . . "Now for the colt." . . . Nessim was glad to recline and watch his brother moving quickly across the dazzle of sand towards a group of colts which had been driven up for him to examine.
They played gracefully and innocently, the tossing of their heads and manes seeming to him "like the surf of the June sea" as the proverb has it. Narouz stopped keenly as he neared them, watching. Then he shouted something and a man raced out to him with a bridle and bit. "The white one" he cried hoarsely and the Sheik's sons shouted a response which Nessim did not catch. Narouz turned again, and softly with a queer ducking discretion, slipped in among the young creatures and almost before one could think was astride a white colt after having bridled it with a single almost invisible gesture.
The mythical creature stood quite still, its eyes wide and lustrous as if fully to comprehend this tremendous new intelligence of a rider upon its back, then a slow shudder rippled through its flesh--the tides of the panic which always greets such a collision of human and animal worlds. Horse and rider stood as if posing for a statue, buried in thought.
Now the animal suddenly gave a low whistling cry of fear, shook itself and completed a dozen curious arching jumps, stiffly as a mechanical toy, coming down savagely on its forelegs each time with the downthrust. This did not dislodge Narouz, who only leaned forward and growled something in its ear that drove it frantic for it now set off at a ragged plunging tossing canter, turning and curvetting and ducking. They made a slow irregular circle around the tents until at last they came back to where the crowd of Arabs stood at the doorway of the main tent, watching silently. And now the poor creature, as if aware that some great portion of its real life--its childhood perhaps--was irrevocably over, gave another low whistling groan and broke suddenly into the long tireless flying gallop of its breed, away across the dunes with its rider secured to it by the powerful scissors of his legs--firm as a figure held by ringbolts--diminishing rapidly in size until both were lost to sight. A great cry of approval went up from the tents and Nessim accepted, besides the curd cheese and coffee, the compliments which were his brother's due.
Two hours later Narouz brought her back, glistening with sweat, dejected, staggering, with only enough fight in her to blow dejectedly and stamp, conquered. But he himself was deliriously exhausted, dazed as if he had ridden through an oven, while his bloodshot eyes and drawn twitching face testified to the severity of the fight. The endearments he uttered to the horse came from between parched and cracked lips. But he was happy underneath it all--indeed radiant--as he croaked for water and begged leave of half an hour's rest before they should set out once more on the homeward journey. Nothing could finally tire that powerful body--not even the orgasm he had experienced in long savage battle. But closing his eyes now as he felt the water pouring over his head . . . his mind was a jumble of sharp stabbing colours and apprehensions--and he, lightheaded with joy, . . . as unsubstantial as a rainbow.
(Excepted from Balthazar (Penguin) pp. 80-91.)
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The poetry critic of The Boston Globe could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. For his plane had landed at LAX, after a smooth flight in first class with a Dan Aykroyd (very funny, very funny) movie, bourbon over some chips of ice, unexampled views of the night sky and a vivacious blonde sitting next to him, smelling wondrously and exhibiting a good deal of powdered flesh and muscular tensions in elastic multiplicities of form (he had read that somewhere, in a colleague's discussion of Howard Nemerov's formalism, that was the title of it, Formalism, or something like that) but, alas, completely absorbed each minute of the flight in Michael Jackson's arrival at the Canary Islands, where his PR men had arranged to have the former child soul singer greeted by two offspring of the local inhabitants, dressed in traditional costume and bearing flowers, right there on the tarmac. The stewardesses whisked along the aisles and the movie ran its length and he stared out the window at the strange clouds and vapor trails and cities and constellations, smelling the powder and chewing gum and quiet inoffensive perspiration of the eager fan beside him, and drank.
The approach to Los Angeles is always exceptionally beautiful, if you have lived there for any length of time and return by air. The white desert gives way to the orange heat of the avocado half L.A. sits in like a crabmeat mixture, and its warmth and radiance, like no other city, spread out before you as you settle into it and the plane angles in for a landing.
He was being paged in the terminal. His name sang invisibly in the loudspeaker system with a woman's voice. He was exceptionally sensitive of hearing, and liked to quote the famous choreographer's remark (having studied his sister art and mastered the piano) that, being a musician, he gets killed through the ears, which always reminded him of the Murder of Gonzago, somehow. The gleam of linoleum and tile and the curves of Formica and stainless steel escaped his attention, his complete attention, as he crossed the terminal outside of which stood or lumbered a fleet of large and small airliners like the one inside of which he had dined on lobster and enjoyed a comedy. The smog was repulsive today, but not excessive. Mr. Harold Dickerson, the woman's voice was saying, Mr. Harold Dickerson, please go to some counter or other.
A car was waiting for him, a variety he had seen real people in close-ups advertising as a blissful dream of reality unbroken, an ecstasy unbounded, a joy unparalleled and good for the country. Poetry, he considered, ignoring the chromium paint on the door's plastic knobs, is not a métier, nor a craft. Nor an assembly line. What is it?
She had won the literary prize that merited an interview in person, and he was going to interview her. West Coast poetry was a dismal affair, after the great loss of nerve in the Seventies (he felt, this Boston æsthete), but he was fortunate to find in his generation a poetic movement in its spring, though perhaps each generation experiences that reawakening. Perhaps not, he couldn't be sure, look at Pound. From nothing and Idaho to pommes de terre at the Savoy and ignominy while he yet lived, and after he died as forgotten as J.S. Bach. The streets of Los Angeles whirled past, a city undergoing a major renovation, a city abrogating art as a useless and untimely interference in business and governmental affairs. The sterile sculptures grew like mushrooms, the studios were bought by shadowy companies and began to produce parodies of parodies with a nasty turn of mind, something hard, bitter and senile that made you afraid, leaving the theater, of the city you lived in. Los Angeles, where the poetesses practiced horrible, insane tortures on the word in their hands, and poets dreamed of raping it with power tools and foreign objects. But Susan Rhodes was an exception, though her work lacked the audacity of some of the rimesters springing punning rhythms with perfect ease and tension, hers was an imagisme so lascivious it did not raise an eyebrow but calmly effected its glorious surprise, as it were by accident.
The air had changed in Los Angeles. Where San Francisco crackled and fizzed and hissed like an electric power plant driven by steam, he had found Los Angeles a flat city, a city sobered perhaps by the very grandeur of its artifice, that hid in studio warehouses the icons and images of several generations. Indeed, the activity was so overwhelming that it was hard to practice any other form of art, for any activity that attracted attention was quickly subsumed into the studios, either directly or by imitation. But it was different now, that studio commissary uf sur le plat du jour sans le plat sans le jour had been smashed in a real dædalian furor, whose mystery was that it had none. The city sprawled helplessly tormented in nightmares, while amateurs in doctors' masks practiced frightful and obscene operations day and night.
Yet Susan Rhodes had flourished in all this carnage of the mind, and he was going to meet her and interview her in her home in Topanga, that home which would never appear in Architectural Digest or be featured on Robin Leach's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. She was not rich, nor especially famous, she had not yet, in spite of Philip Levine's epigram, been made the bard of Los Angeles (on analogy of his position in Fresno, no doubt, snickered Mr. Dickerson) by mistake, as Robert Frost was made the bard of New England and Carl Sandburg of Chicago. Hadn't Frost written a great California poem? Didn't Sandburg know the farm as well? But they had you in their sights and you were pigeonholed, unless, as Robert Altman said, you were no pigeon.
And there was something inexplicable in her poetry, some odd enchantment that did not proceed from the words, but was there. He could not explain it, he worked for The Boston Globe, it was not his department. But he longed to meet her, to see if there was some reflection of her personality in the work he might discern and understand in spite of the weakness of his analysis.
Sun and earth in the lapse of time since its days of fashion met you in Topanga, but its overbearing solicitude had softened with age and, he noticed, cautiously opened its eyes as if for the first time, and he thought of Ozu who had found it so difficult to make his way as a man and an artist with so heavy a burden of genius that when he finally did so it was as if a pair of claws scuttling etc. had opened its shell to peek out and lifted the ocean with it. Not that Topanga looked very different, but the individual leaves were no longer blurred and fearful (nor frozen in memory) but focused and distinct in manifold combinations that only an artist's muse, not even he himself, could number, though the sun had not harmonized with the earth and an odd detachment, a sort of stoic movie Indian pride covered the hills, and the quotient of water vapor had not been adjusted that makes a Leonardo da Vinci horizon occur reliably.
But these are professional matters, admitted into the house by a butler in a white coat, black pants and also white gloves, he was alone in a quiet room clean and comfortable with sofas and tables and chairs all soft upon a yellow carpet that ran over wood floors to the glass doors facing the patio and woods, eucalyptus, beyond the wooden railing of the sunporch. There were pictures, Van Velde, Lichtenstein, small prints here and there, and it was very quiet. He crossed the room and saw out of the corner of his eye a boy playing in the hallway with a white ball like a soccer ball, and a small black and white dog bounding after it. As he continued, he had the curious feeling of shadowy interferences in the room, as though a dark surface were passing on the other side of a pane of glass you are looking through, suddenly creating reflections. He opened the glass door, slid it back and went out onto the sunporch. Eucalyptus roared into his nose as he stared at the sunbleached grass and a sunbather under a wide hat oiling her buttocks with the ends of her fingers on a large towel, her back to him, preparing to read a book, perhaps, next door.
Susan Rhodes appeared through a doorway and offered him a drink. She was blonde, not tall, her eyes were a green that verged on blue, her hands formed interesting shapes as she talked, but it was her voice that struck him, as it were violently. It was like the sound of the voice of his mother when she was reading to him, it was like seeing a person with whom you happen to be in love no matter how many other persons are present, and it was like something else he could not define clearly, a curve of light against a dark background.
The tensions roused in him became almost too great to bear, and when she inadvertently touched him for one moment with those generative hands, he could no longer control himself but turned away to relieve his anguished spirit all at once, leaning upon her piano with a copy of Goethe beside his hand, ironically enough.
He excused himself and left hurriedly, in quite a fluster, driving straight for the airport, where he cashed his return ticket and bought another one for Las Vegas, checking into a superbright hotel, and ordered lunch and drinks. He borrowed a typewriter and a fax machine, and in forty-five minutes and forty-five seconds his interview with the poet Susan Rhodes was in Boston. He sent his suit downstairs to be cleaned and pressed. Showered, calm, the poetry critic of The Boston Globe, Mr. Harold Dickerson, sat nude in the hotel's chair and stared out through the glass patio doors at the desert and at the city. He sipped his drink and meditated the velocity of travel and the instantaneity of communications, until a knock on the door announced his coat and trousers.
(Christopher Mulrooney is a critic ironically living enough as it were in Los Angeles and poet appearing unedited or something like that translator too in Poetry Life & Times, The Ear, Del Review, can we have our ball back?, Aught but the first time here exactly as originally from not quite Atlanta but close.)
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