Friday, March 18, 2016

Anis Shivani, excerpt from Death is a Festival

                 The Discomfiture and Death of Piroz, Page from a Manuscript of the
                                   Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdawsi

Death is a Festival


Resembling a gladiator, as do the hounds:
there are no faces anywhere in the world, I
trust the burden and heat of the day at the
feast of tabernacles. Framed two alphabets,

the girt of the old tree, the number of square
feet produced, letting out the dry dusty moral
apothegms: to show the teeth in laughing,
his great elephants. It is an old house with

newfangled ideas of printers, neither knot
nor gut give way under the tremendous
strain: he’d burn your deaths for fear they’d
give him away, a more fluid method of

traffic control. I see a great many cloaks of
glacé silk, making me feel closer to people.


A wilder upright-growing shrub, mild head-
aches and chills, an excellent German band of
a dozen performers when she goes to bed, at
the bottom of the Jarman Ocean. Beaded urn-

rugs and chair-covers for steel pens, like men
drowning, the other women leaving her alone.
A ramshackle bus which smells of packed hum-
anity, his bloody head is set up opposite to

that of his fellow-sufferer in a splendid prog-
ram of the Rampur gharana. This tigress has
been the terror of the country, rendered more so
by the bluish light of the fire, a simple theme.

She praises the lovely breloques or gimcracks
thinking it is not the death of poisoning at all.


These fittings are made of thick hand-blown
glass, in order to apply dressing to his warp.
To wedge a hand in a death, trade hackwork,
is of course out of the question, like a pop-

ular air upon every street-organ. I fell upon
roast pork and a foaming half-pint, an extreme-
ly interesting magical text, while my husband
was reciting the Hadbalah. His other treasures,

the pineal gland, the phrase “To have, hold,
receive, and take,” a name given to the com-
mon conger. A thousand small wares to sell,
I opened a packet of H. and took a generous

sniff. Crossover is at 2500 Hz walking in the
garden, near the ha, in the month of haboobs.


He looked so neglected with his green tights
a conduit for the tumbling skies, his runneled
face a funnel, a small watercourse or channel,
setting out for the wreck, bringing back a

boat, to perhaps save me the expense of the
whole runlong. Rustle the things off that table,
in the old days I was always standing between
the dead and the rustiness: such as fox-chases,

horse races, &c. Equations are not mere rec-
ords of a chess opening: all hands to skylark,
a quicker breeze-up—never! Debt contracted
by little and little to raise a gallop. But hear

their absent thoughts with meets and run-
arounds, many a maid has no consistent idea.


Mother had invited him for his dexterity, left
hand a palette, a gorgeous performance, what
had been hitherto a single lordship: a maker of
parchment lace. Under milkwood a beer-tent

black with parchs and other difficulties, we
had monopoly, chinese chequers and what-
not. Dry, near the fire or in the oven, the nave
is separated from the tower. I might have

wanted to paraphrase a landscape, most deaths
need comment. A Freudian overinclusion?
Any map or draught, communities shaped
like the cavity of the vase forms the sponge.

They made experiments with shots or bombs,
a late-night snack for all production staff.


He was a beaver of a pronounced type, an eff-
ect produced on the clavichord. It was Jack
Kerouac who several years ago said, you know,
watch the progress of this wonderful little

beetle from Wolfsburg, two pairs of jaws
moving sidewise. With a knife and a bag, the
past as a new present, the yellow belishas
going on and off at the zebra crossings: the

most worthless of those who mount the
bema, which bears the brass escutcheon.
His rents, the successive bequeathings of
ages untold, neither does it imply coitus.

Dandelions that bestar the dead, we rely on
you to be the best-dressed women in the place.

When, through a certain recall of sensual perceptions, to which the senses have gone out, the soul inscribes in itself, as it were, an exemplum in memory, the entire attention of the soul, removed from the presence of the sensible objects upon which it reflects, seems to be suspended figuratively in the imagination of them just as even the lion does. When I saw her reddish complexion and her beauty unparalleled, I will find by careful count that I have employed a hundred rhymes in this poem, mirror and exemplar for desiring and doing all things good. And it is not an easy thing to understand but in this dream was nothing which did not happen entirely as the dream told it, it is she who excites thieves and wastrels to theft. Old, torn as if it had been among dogs, poor, and worn out and full of old patches, he was so elegant and full of grace, so well formed in all his limbs, that he looked like a painting. In her hand she held a mirror, nevertheless she made a very large wound, all together they were warm, open people, well instructed if you propose to write about persons. I thought I was truly in the earthly paradise. From a slender twig a great tree rises and spreads. The things contained here are trifles and bagatelles, he saw carols that will pass away, all those who dance them will disappear, and so will all the things he saw enclosed therein. Never will I be other than courteous. I want to lead a life which no worthy man wishes, but then I thought I might be able to venture safely to the fountain. Understand that I am not at all angry at you, for the sake of the method, she is indeed more clear than glass or window ever was, and her confident manner praised by all, her fine gain, her noble bearing, as the master teaches the child. Good love is a quality so fine that I understand in everything what to avoid and what to do, the beautiful vision inspires me to write it out in a book, if she were no more than a wooden image. I must not revolt against her will when I hear her speak calmly, so overwhelmed am I when I see her word.

Age is indeed used as a substitute for the mummies of the legend,

so the fourteenth-century audience would have seen a good deal more

of the supernatural in the tale than we do today. It is sometimes

helpful to know that a nightmare is shared, than to be told that it does

not exist. The three young men gladly run off in pursuit of a death

whom they hear personified as a thief because a defined figure is easier

to deal with. In reality, the pity, resignation, longing, consolation were

not unexpressed. There is a certain universality in such a rueful confront-

ation with one’s own end, but each age, Huizinga notwithstanding,

develops its own mental shorthand to deal with its own problems, and

this shorthand, for the people who used it, implies all the things that lie

between. Clearly, the prevalence of so many faces of death would seem

to argue for the obsession that so many historians have seen in the late

Middle Ages. And yet, was it really an obsession? When the human mind

is faced with the incomprehensible, with chaos or destruction on too vast

a scale to be absorbed, the natural impulse is to make the concept more

familiar so that it can be dealt with; paradoxically, the closer a thing can

be brought, the more it can be distanced. Death is a symbol of blind fate,

very different, apparently, from the individualism of danses macabres. The

death of the triumphs comes without warning. And in this sense, another

image of death, the dreary death who stands crowned and alone, grinning

out of the frame or manuscript at the viewer, is a logical extension of the

triumph. In shows up in the hunt, it hovers over the grave, and, as in The

Hours of Rohan (1420), it may even enter the sickroom with a coffin on

its shoulder. In almost all these cases, there is a one-to-one relationship:

the individual facing his own end. Now that the soul is alone among a

crowd of spectators who cannot apprehend his grief—a motif that will

reach its apex in Calantha, dancing as her heartstrings crack in The Broken

Heart. One is frightened, another puzzled, a third resigned, still another

indignant, and so on. In some pictures, the mummies are holding musical

instruments; in others they carry the many weapons associated with death;

spears, arrows, spades, rakes, scythes, and maces. In all the pictures the

dead seem to have more energy than the living. Later, during the first

decades of the great plagues that swept across Europe (ca. 1340-80), folk

dances called the death dance or dance of the dead became popular

throughout Europe. In these dances, one member of the dance would act

as corpse while the others danced round him or her, pretending to mourn

but actually taking liberties with the “corpse’s” person. In some cases,

naturally, the dance was used as an occasion for horseplay and practical

jokes; in other cases, even more naturally, it was used as an excuse for

kissing and fondling the “deceased.” Oddly enough, the dead, naked

except for their crowns, do not hold weapons, but keep their hands crossed

modestly over their genitals. Third, and perhaps most important, the

figure changes from a warning about the future to an immediate danger

in the present. Part of the fresco in the Campo Santo shows three young

men who have come upon three coffins lying in their path. The question,

then, is not why the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were more concerned

with death than was any other age, but how they chose to cope with a

perennial problem: the hundred percent death rate of humankind.

The description of Leeds in 1845 exhibits a rate of mort-
ality, unprovided with any form of under-drainage or
convenience or arrangements for cleansing: the privies
are few in proportion to the rich man in his castle, the poor
spirits and opiates. Tomorrow! Tomorrow! Didn’t I pray,
O what bread! What a feast! He has gone before tomorrow,
a phase—one of many—and Mrs. Merdle’s husband would
have incurred clouds of black plumes, solid and magnificent
oak respectability, a letter of 1848 stating that there can be
no impropriety. Those high-sounding Victorian passwords—
propriety, modesty, distinction, style, providence—chime
like bells, with me into the quiet tomb, and the warm leaden
sheet, is it, and so on, or not? Very well, feathers! The whole
black job of jobs, flowered memorial cards and languishing
epitaphs, three fair sisters glided out of the depths of the
wood and floated upon the lake. Such objects as a marble
cross set in mauve velvet and carved by her mother’s hand,
a black sedding dress worn in memory of a father, photographs
set in jet, the beloved’s hair formed into a ring, a bracelet, a
necklace, a watch chain, the family dogs: the very Colossi
of grief, pregnant definition of the role of imagination.
Tolling of the bell, raising a black flag solely of conduct is
not inconsistent with the rubric in her own natural state.
She formed a sort of Coat of Arms grouped with a smelling
bottle, a handkerchief, an orange, a bottle of vinegar, Flander’s
sister, her own sister, Flander’s brother’s wife, and two
neighboring gossips—all in mourning, where the thing is
performed upon the very best scale, reviving a little.

Kurt Franz hit upon the idea of transforming the platform where the convoys arrived into a false station. Ah, why should the gentle farmer not enjoy the prospect of resting in the midst of the field he has cultivated? It was reached from the bank of the Seine through a triumphal arch consisting of three equal gates. These coffins of the poor were piled up in sevens, in long, parallel contiguous lines. Burial was still common under Pericles. Throw earth three times on my ashes, and pass on. Others proposed quite simply to manufacture fertilizers with the remains of the dead. To Lupasco’s question, Charon responds that in the course of billions of years the electrons that make up our minds have amassed information. All things are full of gods. He then took out the heart which was replaced by a stone beetle. Nelson’s body was brought from Trafalgar to London in a barrel of brandy. This world of ghosts, closely bound up with our own, is the world of souls without houses. If death has found, during the last ten years or so, its historians, its philosophers, it psychologists, its sociologists, its semiologists, it has only too seldom been studied from the point of view of architecture, urbanism, and decoration. In eastern Bosnia, a region covered by forests, these small, stone, funerary houses imitate planks and beams, and their roofs are carved in the form of shingles. It is a sort of Disneyland, and its artist-

inhabitants “originals” and “primitives.” The dog cemetery set up in Paris on an island in the Seine is neither a modern anomaly nor a modern caprice, since, at Thebes, monkeys had their own necropolises two-and-one-half miles long and one-and-one-quarter miles wide. The Danse macabre remained a curiosity until 1669: it was then destroyed in order to widen the street. Among his invisible cities Italo Calvino describes one underground city, which he calls Eusapia. The space of death is also that space of passage between the space of the living and that of the dead. Is it that the corpses of the rich will rot only in silk? There are fewer writers in Montmartre than in Père-Lachaise, but it contains nevertheless Theophile Gautier, Dumas fils, Heine, Stendhal, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Renan, Alfred de Vigny (in his army greatcoat), Labiche, and Feydau. But they also express a taste for melodrama, for the fine gesture, for the bawdy song. We know that they were made up of amarant, immortelle, asphodel, violets, narcissi, ivy, myrtle, laurel, and olive. What need have we to imagine another hell? Primitive Egypt had no hell. “The earth is in the heavens. There we are in heaven. There is neither up nor down in the universe.” All were dragged into a saraband of bones. One can see by this list that there was a wide range of activities in this public space. The dying Louis XIII had funeral music

of his own composition played. As for the music, it was beyond description. The four arts—painting, music, eloquence, and sculpture—were in tears at losing their protector. Between 1730 and 1770 these candles of the rich became enormous, weighing between two and four pounds. This immense procession was unable to arrive at the church of Saint-Eustache before 8 o’clock. He had to deliver the death blow according to the rules, otherwise the crowd might turn against him. Every village festival ended in brawls, often involving death. Execution is no longer an urban spectacle. No doubt it fixed the useless age rather too late. The dead are men who have ceased to function: they no longer produce or consume. Death is a delinquency, a deviance. The good patient is cooperative, conforms to the regulations. Your moods are no concern of mine. I am—I would not dare to tell you: my age is terrifying. Man’s essential organs—kidneys, heart, lungs—are today bought, stockpiled, and sold. The first prize was given to the architects Aldo Rossi and Gianni Braghieri for their project entitled “Sky Blue.” One says that one is afraid of “waking the dead.” The dead continue to live as long as the living know their names. Before the void, she gambles her mortality.

—Anis Shivani

Anis Shivani is the author of several critically acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, including Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012), Karachi Raj: A Novel (2015), Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems (2015), and Soraya: Sonnets (2016). Books forthcoming in 2016 include Both Sides of the Divide: Observing the Sublime and the Mundane in Contemporary Writing and the novel A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less. Anis’ work appears recently in the Yale Review, Black Warrior Review, Western Humanities Review, Iowa Review, Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, AGNI, Denver Quarterly, Volt, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. He is the winner of a Pushcart Prize, graduated from Harvard College, and lives in Houston, Texas.