At the Imperial Court

The emissaries had been warned
to watch their tongues
for what was said in jest
during a visit to the countryside
or to the stables
where the imperial thoroughbreds were kept
would soon enough be relayed back.
Now word had leaked
that an emissary from a distant province
had spoken lightly of the imperial line
and even hinted that the emperor
might not be divine.
His tongue had been ripped out,
his body flayed,
and he had been sent home
with an order to his province
to double its tribute in rice and in wine.
Ever since the emissaries eye each other warily
whenever they congregate in the court
or lift a glass in drinking
to the emperor’s eternal health.


If kings of yore were prone
to adorn their courts with ceremonial rites,
what is one to make of the lot
who have since taken their place?
They seem so much in love
with the ornate trappings of Versailles,
the Kremlin’s dizzying spires,
military parades,
assembled press corps waiting on their every word,
one half expects the skies to open
and a voice to cry out,
“All hail, these earthly gods!”
Puppeteers are hard at work
pulling at the strings,
and as before mere mortals
are meant to marvel at their craft.

The Mayan Route

(Banampak, Yaxchilan and Palenque)

To wander amidst these ruins,
grandiose each in its own way –
stelae sketched in the immortal ink of stone,
the ruler of a city-state,
his lineage in hieroglyphic script,
frescoes rescued from the elements,
trumpets, drums marking a ritual event,
blood offering to the gods
with spirits from the underworld
speaking through a serpent’s mouth,
mighty walls and endless hewn steps
that meld into the mountaintops,
a playing field
where mastery of a rubber ball
determines life or death,
captives prostrate at a ruler’s feet,
the head of a beheaded king –
is to recall old lessons
regarding rise and fall,
antiquity’s hubris that ends in cruel defeats,
the jungle ever-ready to reclaim its own,
vicissitudes of fate that weigh us down.

Port of Call

What do we know about each other,
the British tourists on a yacht
who stop to swim in the cove,
briefly step on shore,
and then take off to their next Aegean mooring;
the French couple here for a week
to consummate their vows;
the Serbs who like Damouchari
because it isn’t Croat
and the fault line between Orthodoxy and Rome
runs deeper than the postmodern set might suppose;
Israelis who come in droves
because Greece is close
and there aren’t places in their immediate neighbourhood
to feel at ease;
northerners who love the beaches
and the pace of life of the Mediterranean south
but would not trade in their GDP
and ordered lives
at any price;
the restaurant staff,
mostly Albanians here for the season
with the odd African
who has slipped in between the cracks;
disco jockeys and hotel operators on the make,
local fishermen and cultivators of olive groves,
the gypsy vendor with his fruit,
kayakers churning the waters of the coast
like would-be Argonauts
in search of the golden fleece;
and you, unofficial scribe,
treating this port of call
as a writer’s retreat?