Trying to describe Kathmandu is like making a cross-section of sky and clouds,
Indefinable as the mysterious blue, which hovers above our ancient memories.
Ever changing as the cloud forms advancing over the valley,
dreams of dragon claws dissolving like sugar in the oracular waters of oriental wisdom,
only to reform in great mushrooms of future holocausts.
Endless cycles of death and rebirth figure everywhere in the story,
Pagodas, Buddhas, statues of gods encrusted with orange puja powder, or brass figures shining like mirrors from the million hands which do daily homage to the cosmic spirit.
There, where the common greeting is 'Namaste' - I bow down to the god which is in you.
Where the dawn comes up over the peaks of crystal and ice, hastened by the sound of bells ringing everywhere, and the great turning wheels of the Tibetans keep constant rein over the balance of an errant planet.
Where even the most humble carrier in rags, walking over the icy moraines, demonstrates that true dignity is born of poverty, and can never die under an unlittered sky.
I remember ripped prayer flags flying in the mountain wind, and suddenly there was snow.
I remember nights full of candles burning on every doorstep and roof-ledge - and then the stones, every one of which has its own history.
Nor is there any flower without its place in the garland of giving.
If you spend any time in Kathmandu you will see a man wearing a brown overcoat, whatever the season.
Whose fingers are covered with cheap glittering rings, and who carries a rolled-up newspaper - out of which he will give you a picture of Krishna playing his flute, or Durga with a necklace of skulls riding resplendently on a lion - or it may be Shiva, the lord of beasts, sitting in meditation on a tigerskin - not unlike the sadhus who come to worship at the shrines of Pashupatinath, as part of their never-ending pilgrimage.
On the back of the picture he has written painstakingly in English the celebration of the day in honor of the god.
This will be the 'Global Emperor' - who, when he knew I was leaving for Europe, prepared letters for the political leaders of the West, advising them that 'Defense of Globe' is our main concern.
He will be endlessly on his way to the temple, where he will present a fruit to Lord Narayan,
Hoping that one day the fruit will dissolve there without being taken by monkey or hungry human.
For it is only when the untouched fruit dissolves completely that the Global Emperor will consider that true benefit may accrue to the human race.
Then it may be said that the god himself has taken it.
I remember I was just walking down the road and across the rice-fields,
Where people were working with hoes and pickaxes - all women in a row.
The old men could barely push their load over the bridge, and all the others carrying loads of vegetables or refrigerators on their backs.
I was past the road and on top of the hill, and the clouds they were carrying the sky, and we were dreaming of thunder.
I remember a detail of melting snow, and at the jeweled edges of brittle ice a brown faded flower shines golden in the sunlight at the top of a giant profile, like a broken nose cresting the horizon.
And then the young Newari girl was married to a tree.
I remember pretending to sleep, while outside a great slaughter was taking place - a hecatomb of water buffalos killed by the King's men, and the King's palms dipped in the blood of sacrifice printed on a white cloth.
I remember being assaulted by hostile radios, hysterical laughter in a babble of foreign tongues.
I remember the blood in the streets awaiting the last propitious rain, and then the sky full of kites repenting of such ill-begotten caresses.
And I implore the secret heart's rhetoric to spray this night with its golden sheen,
In the memory of parchment unrolled and the sound of muffled drums calling us to unspeakable acts - there on the shores of some fuming river, solitary and unknown, while pretending to fall asleep over the maps of future possibilities.
Imagine all this, perfumed with urine,
and then another busload of tourists appears as if dropped from the sky, with cameras trained on each other as they stand in the marketplace, afraid of the cows and what is hidden within.
For them it is only a stopover, a moment of reality between closing walls of industrial fantasy.
But for the one who stays long enough to know the god within.
For the one who learns to bow - if only once.
For that one,
The dream will never die.
Ira Cohen, Kathmandu 1974.
Ira Cohen was born to deaf parents in New York City in 1935, and at the age of one began using sign language as his first form of communication. Because of this he later developed a fluency of speech, which as a 'rap' is extremely intelligent, entertaining and uniquely poetic. In 1961 he took passage on a freight ship to Tangier in Morocco, where he lived for the next four years, publishing a magazine that introduced the work of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, and producing an album of dervish trance music recorded by Paul Bowles.
Back in New York in the mid 60's Ira began to create photographic 'Mylar' portraits that were distorted through reflective plastic sheets, becoming in the process a very accomplished photographer and filmmaker. His first films were "Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda", and "Paradise Now", which documented the Living Theatre's group tour of America.
In the 70's Ira lived in India and Kathmandu, where his Bardo Matrix imprint included the poems of Paul Bowles, Charles Henri Ford, Gregory Corso, Roberto Valenzo, and Angus Maclise. In 1980 Ira moved back to New York before returning to India to document the great 'Kumbh Mela' festival, which he produced in video format under the title of "Kings on Straw Mats." Since then Ira has released a steady stream of poetry books, and his photographs and readings have been exhibited and delivered at galleries in New York, London, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Prague and Brussels
I first met Ira and his then partner, Petra Vogh, in Kathmandu in 1973, when we were both living in the village of Kimdol near Swayambhunath. The eccentric personas of Ira and Petra were vivid, with their drapes, masks and totems, and the owl and eagle that Ira befriended as pets. Then at a poetry reading given by Ira in Kathmandu's legendary 'bakery' I realized the full poetic genius of the man, as he stood in his black cloak behind a table adorned with dripping candles and a skull, reciting poems like a biblical prophet from his overloaded notebook. It was one of those memorable experiences of life, and many times since then, alone or in company, I have had the pleasure to absorb Ira's spontaneous liquidity of speech. For I have always considered him to be one of finest living poets of our time.
Ira's above poem, "Kathmandu Dreampiece" captures the spirit of Kathmandu in the early 70's, and the prescient warnings of the 'Global Emperor', who even then seemed to be aware of the consequences of climate change as he diligently stalked the paving stones Durbar Square area seeking those with ears to hear. Ira's verses below continue this theme with his environmental poem about the Monarch Butterfly:
END OF A LINE
Must I read the Science Times to know
that the Monarch butterfly's migration is a fragile journey?
With a small amount of human negligence everything could disappear.
My last thought as I finally fell into a fitful sleep,
my first thought as I picked up the telephone to get the bad news.
Glamour will not save our wintering grounds.
Better to stay a caterpillar and munch leaves, than to risk all for the dazzling
moment of flight and the priceless illusion of freedom?
A butterfly's brain is only the size of a pinhead,
yet it knows how to get to Mexico,
hitching rides on winds and spiraling columns of warm air.
But the end of Monarchs as we know them is here.
I am learning to stay quietly in this apartment with my mother
waiting for my daughter Lakshmi.
We are dead souls on a cyclical journey.
Future tourists will come to marvel at our poems
festooning the gables of a broken civilization.
Motels will be named after us, and children
will parade in Monarch costumes when the season
of our return is remembered.
Hello Aids Virus.
Smaller is perhaps stronger after all.
My dreams were bigger than any whale and sometimes
I dove even deeper.
Ira Cohen. December 1990.