The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Kathleen Balma

Snubbed: A Motion-Picture Ekphrasis

 

                                               —after a documentary by Xi Zhinong

 

                Snub-nosed monkey (genus Rhinopithecus), also called snub-nosed langur, any of four species of

                     large and unusual leaf monkeys found in highland forests of central China and northern Vietnam.

 

                                       —Encyclopædia Britannica

 

 

 

Spring in the Himalayas. A monks’ valley. A tribe of pristine monkeys. Monkeys or movie stars or wingless tree seraphs. To describe them is to crow what should only be whispered:

 

an absence of nose, as in a skull. Lips rotund and parasol pink. You couldn't buy better lips from a surgeon. You couldn't buy worse lips from a surgeon. Venus hyperbole—the  jolie laide  of Darwin's catwalk—every one a Tilda Swinton, Zsa Zsa Gabor, or Brangelina.

 

Oh monkey, monkey, why art thou monkey?

 

Your true name: the Langur for cloud.

 

~~~

 

A husband is chosen and accepts

 

his brides. Two get pregnant. One resigns her mothering post as soon as baby can climb on his own, makes the aunties raise him. The other wants her son too much.

 

Prince and Pauper—to thrive they must

 

be each other.

 

Only, look how the father cares for his Pauper, cuddling and grooming him for hours! While all around, a club of snubbed men gathers

 

mating intelligence. Feeling feckless (read: fuckless), the bachelor band won’t make a move until King tells them. Happy homes are only safe behind a curtain.

 

~~~

 

Happy homes are only safe behind a curtain. Your true name: Snow Cloud in Bloom. For now it’s still spring, and boys will be monkeys. Men will be monkeys. Women, be monkeys.

 

~~~

 

Here come the monks of May, trekking with yaks—from urban monastery to mountain hut for the season of butter—while our snubbed Pauper, ever hungry, makes do on sips from this teat or that. Milk scraps from pitying mothers.

 

~~~

 

With loneliness comes trance, grit, a paws-on education. Pauper climbs and slips in turns, ventures back along a branch that, for all its solid hush, might as well be bucking bronco. He falls that much.

 

But for the occasional pitch and catch of this baby by his elders, no one helps him travel. He fends, he fails. And yet—a grand plié to his spring and stretch—he trains himself to dance. His brother

 

Prince is love-stuck, unadventured. Consummate guest: sharing zero, learning zip. Until the hours he’s loosed to play, and when the brothers play, oh, the Jade Ballet is on!

 

~~~

 

Monks, monkeys. Yaks, tea. Yak’s butter, monk ease.

 

Five little monkeys jumping on the bed. One fell off and broke his head. Called the doctor and the doctor said,

 

No more monkeys jumping on the bed!

 

(The doctor? Not the vet?) The curtain’s raison d'être: if no one sees who keeps you

 

warm, none come knocking, knocking on your tree.

 

~~~

 

To monkey paradise!

 

Tête-à-têtes

 

between buds and birds: a color cacophony.

 

Sunbirds speak red to rhododendrons, who answer with

 

shades of Yes in blue-violet tones.

 

Monkey fleece

 

pads the nests of Scarlet Minivets: luxurious mountain homes. (Only the best for the Minivet.)

 

June. Prince and Pauper have survived, travelled miles

 

for food with the tribe

 

to the land of fir trees draped

 

in lichen drapes. (Curtains, loves. Curtains!)

 

But there’s one who makes them all afraid:

 

The King of Bachelors.

 

~~~

 

Might women have loved His Majesty

 

sans cicatrices?

 

One scar adds mystique; two, he’s ugly. And the hole that rests below his eye like a jailhouse tatt by Picasso, that one makes him ogre. Mated or not,

 

King doesn’t care,

 

so long as his men are on guard, watching the trees for a single incongruous tail.

 

~~~

 

Pickety pick, lice to lip. Prince with his mama, Pauper with Pop. Prince with his mama, Pauper with none. Prince with his mama for milk on tap. Pauper tossed from aunt to aunt. Prince with his mama, Pauper aloft. Poppa’s lap: best of all. Pickety pick, from lap to tree. Tree to lap, snackety snack. Prince with his mama, Pauper abroad. Prince amok, Pauper a monk.

 

~~~

 

To be always on guard duty. To keep lookout while the young romp and prance; while the mated adults finger-comb, cuddle, fuck, and nap. Misanthropy de rigueur: the life of a bach.

 

Memorize the landscape. Now go three miles, pause, memorize it again. Know each plant as well as every face you’ve ever met. Know mountains as you know forest, and the neighborhoods in that forest. Do this without words, without camera or canvas. Scan and re-scan the tree line. Make a map with your eye. Who dares lay claim to the world who cannot do this?

 

~~~

 

True name: Tree Snow.

 

One day King’s men spot not one new tail, but hundreds

 

swinging toward them. They sound the alarm: all monkeys stop, drop, and run!

 

~~~

 

Dozens of strange Langur men now appear at a distance, many with faces scarred worse than King’s. They gallop a brazen tree terpsichore, gaining even at moderate speed. Hideous frontrunners, potbellied and strong, some limbless from the elbow down. King takes quick count: his eight households

 

and thirty odd men are no match for a nation. These are the rules that cabobble the gods:

 

stop fleeing your neighbors and bow, then smile

 

your terrible smile. The time is only ever half

 

past a monkey’s ass, a quarter to his balls. As quickly as you flew before, break bread

 

(bamboo). Change sides!

 

~~~

 

Swing into savings with discount prices on Monkey Party Supplies! Monkey Party Supplies feature cute and playful monkeys swinging from vines.

 

We've gone BANANAS finding the best monkey games and decorations! Our monkeys are practically climbing out of the fun barrel!

 

Combine Monkey Party tableware and favors for the most adorable party around. What's a bash without a few party animals?

 

~~~

 

No battle but a meet and greet! A snubbed soiree then adieu:

 

surprise fête over, a Langur city bids farewell to a Langur town. Members are exchanged, populations remain

 

constant. Rare as Noble Rhubarb, these monkeys cast their votes for the gene pool and go,

 

but always with surplus célibataires. What's a bash

 

without a few party animals? Your true name:

 

Paw Print in Snow.

 

~~~

 

A monkey bachelor is part of a brotherhood,

 

living communally and devoted

 

to a discipline prescribed by his order.

 

His discipline is to watch. Watch and teach elementary.

 

Prince and Pauper have the King’s eye.

 

While families sleep upright in a row of spoons, the brothers chassé from branch to branchlet. Each week this pas de deux ventures higher. A foot in the face. A nip on the leg. Their saltation lasts until parents wake. Then Pauper forages

 

under the guardian gaze of the brothers’ future tutors. To forage is to taste and trust

 

tongue more than eye. Pauper is dainty and brave, synched with his senses. (Nibble, wait. Gorge on what doesn’t bring malady, ague.)

 

Other days the brothers’ play keeps everyone awake,

 

so when boys follow baches

 

to farther treescapes,

 

no one complains.

 

The Order of Bachelors: a school of travel and mimesis.

Go, monkey. See, monkey. Do.

 

~~~

 

Oh snubbed baby. Cumulonimbus puff of fur with pointed leaves for ears and rosé lips! Starless, whiteless, deep space eyes. Happy homes are multi-mothered, fathered, curtained, rainless. Your first monsoon is here. Snuggle in. Weather it.

 

~~~

 

Sing late summer. Pull back the portiere on these river-canyoned, rain-fed peaks.

 

Mounds of moss cushion rocks: virid pillows arranged like miniature mountains—a nod to pinnacles around them.

 

A cobra lily poses: hood spread, tongue extended from gaping head.

 

Pink pendant blooms

 

hang in clusters on festoons. From a distance they are feathers; closer, toy lanterns with metallic, roseate chords.

 

Blue succulents bear yellow coiffures.

 

The maroon phallus of a tragically inedible Rheum: impossible erection in midair. Lonely yet proud.

 

A valley in bloom means food: fruit, berries, beetles à gogo. Last-minute monkey feasting! All the world’s a salad.

 

~~~

 

The deeper you go, the higher you fly. The higher you fly, the deeper you go. Everybody's got something to hide except babies and monkeys.

 

September. Season of curd, season of cheese. Rounds of it. Orange leaves. Monks pack up, peregrinate

 

to the lamasery, humming Major Lance. Monkeys mind monkey business, baby monkeys on their backs. Cold already, too cold to dance. Now showing:

 

Frozen Plateau, starring antelope, yak, and wild ass.

 

~~~

 

First snow!

 

Second snow.

 

Third snow.

 

Might-as-Well-Be-Forever snow.

 

Hunger snow. Thirst snow.

 

Roof snow. Floor snow.

 

Not-Quite-a-Curtain snow.

 

Your snow. My snow. His snow. Her snow.

 

Lichen with a side of snow.

 

Family snow. Bach snow.

 

Prince snow. Pauper snow.

 

Poppa snow. Mama snow. Auntie snow. Brother snow.

 

King snow.

 

Scream snow.

 

Fight snow. Teeth snow. Baches-on-the-Prowl snow. King-Leads-the-Pack snow. Pop’s-Falling-Down snow. Pop’s-on-the-Ground snow. Dead snow.

 

Dead snow.

 

Bach-Gets-to-Mate snow.

 

Take-the-Dead’s-Place snow. Ah,

 

cherie. Your true name:

 

~~~

 

Snow.

 

~~~

 

Your inside is out, your outside is in. Your outside is in, your inside is out. Everybody's got something to hide but the dead and the monkeys.

 

~~~

 

Pauper felt alone before. With his father’s death he is isolate. And such a father! Both babes are stricken. Prince takes his milk with a cowed stare. His mother strokes his head in acute repetition. Nouvea widows

 

are divvying and being divvied. The bereaved ménage is large; two baches

 

can get hitched. Pauper’s mother,

 

once present yet remiss, now exits.

 

The aunts, newlyweds to a foe, draw curtains against their orphan nephew. And still that snow.

 

~~~

 

How long can Pauper wander through winter, solo and slight as a wisp of mist? How keep warm? Other children spend chill months nestled in a parent huddle.

 

Heads bowed and touching, backs to the wind, shoulders hunched; the adults form heart-shaped havens with their bulk.

 

But hark! Pauper knocks! A strangers’ door opens, a door made of arms. Yes,

 

there is room at this and every Langur inn. He may come and go. Somewhere miles below

 

a monk rings a bell.

 

~~~

 

Mama jumped up this morning. Sat on the side of the bed. She said, I’m leaving you baby. Then my Poppa fell down dead. Well, I can’t make you stay if you want to go, but it’s high time, Mama, that you should know: one monkey don’t stop no show. She left me at three in the morning. I got another house by four. One monkey don’t stop no show. One monkey don’t stop no show.

 

~~~

 

Brash monkey! Has the pity of so many

 

made Pauper bold enough to test his luck with a killing king, or does freedom make him fearless? Look at him, sidling up to his father’s slayer! Of course King owes the lad, but does King care

 

for Pauper’s welfare? Unorthodox for one so infantile to join The Order, though all boys must pass through

 

bachelorhood in the course of time. Whether Pauper is naif or pert,

 

King abides.

 

~~~

 

March. Flowers blossom through blizzards; long lost loves appear.

 

Pauper’s mother sits on a branch of blooms, the black and white center of a violet bouquet. He springs for her. They embrace.

 

A tender scene until

 

the light beyond yonder treetop breaks, and she is gone

 

again. And again he aches!

 

Alone on that limb with her redolence, longing to be a corsage at her waist, Pauper cries in screeching bursts.

 

Quick as a krait, a hulking bach leaps

 

straight to the baby’s bough

 

and succors him.

 

~~~

 

King watches, sees. Why does a dead man’s son follow him? No bother; a curious thing. As though this baby were collecting a strange kind of debt. Spirit rent. All April the bairn is too near, shadow and prospect, would-be apprentice, cheeky

 

adoptee. King selects an impossible tree.

 

Regard! Pauper follows

 

high as he can. Slips. Cries. Slips again. As determined as he is stuck. When suddenly

 

a stately hand

 

lifts Pauper up to the alpha’s arboreal thrown. King and Pauper survey the world.

 

~~~

 

Five butter monk teas brewing on the fire. One boiled over and now there’s quatre. Four butter monk teas brewing on the fire. One boiled over and now there’s trois. Three butter monk teas brewing on the fire. One boiled over and now there’s deux. Two butter monk teas brewing on the fire. One boiled over and one’s for you!

 

~~~

 

May. A year has passed and first birthdays, marked with cerulean poppies.

 

June. The many-nippled snow lotus

 

gives suck to honeymakers, while mindful butterflies take steps

 

to save their wings from mountain winds, hiking—not flying—over land.

 

Pauper slurps nectar from a flower, chucks petals on the ground. His erstwhile family across the way, he spies on them.

 

What ails that brother of his? Prince behaves as though a giant bee has stung his bottom; he flails his head in a royal boutade, claws his mama, caterwauls.

 

Prince wants to nurse! Mother doesn’t. She grips the varlet by his ear, gives him the look. All he needs;

 

Prince gives up. Turns. Brother!

 

One vault and a pounce:

 

they are together.

 

~~~

 

The brothers’ first balletic scuffle in months: too short.

 

Pauper gets a bug in the eye! Blind for the nonce, he feels his way along and wobbles. A drunk old man on a tight rope.

 

Prince runs home with impetus. Someone new is there. Someone Pauper doesn’t see yet. A sprig of a thing, half Prince’s size. No wonder Prince is being weaned! Too old for milk, too green to leave—more than anything,

 

Prince wants to hold New Baby. Five little monkeys jumping on the bed. Wants it so much he won’t go out to play. One fell off and broke his head. Almost patient; he harries, hovers near the nursling, quits his fits. Called the doctor and the doctor said. Until his soft mother gives in. No more monkeys jumping on the bed! No harm in this: big brother toting and doting on newborn sis.

 

~~~

 

A curtain of women blocks Pauper’s view. His aunts from another life. Gathered around a trouble thing, faces dazed. Prince enters the circle and grabs. A mother arm knocks him back.

 

Pauper peers from a watching spot. What’s wrong with them all?

 

Your true name: Nonpareil.

 

~~~

 

 

Your true name: Nonpareil. What’s wrong with them all? Pauper peers from a watching spot. A mother’s daze takes him aback. Her arm around a trouble thing, face slackened in a trance. Aunts. Another life, gathered. Pauper’s view: blocks, a curtain of women. Newborn sis, newly dead. No more monkeys jumping on the bed.

 

~~~

 

Prince’s mother toting and doting on newdead sis.

 

No one plays.

 

Three days of this.

 

Until his soft mother

 

gives in,

 

lays her limp

 

parcel on some leaves. Quits her grief.

 

~~~

 

Notice: The Weaning of Prince is Postponed.

 

No play dates, no tantrums. Sorrow nursing.

 

The mourners canoodle each other and adulate. July. Pauper—peerless, on a limb—waits.

 

~~~

 

snub (snŭb)

 

tr.v. snubbed, snub·bing, snubs

1. To ignore or behave coldly toward; slight.

2. To dismiss, turn down, or frustrate the expectations of.

 

n.

A deliberate slight or affront.

 

adj.

Unusually short: a snub nose.

 

~~~

 

Iris. Primrose. Orchid. Azalea. Prince

 

grooming the world’s most languorous flower: his Step-Poppa.

 

Pauper

 

sleuthing Prince. Prince sidles to his Mama, angles for milk. She declines.

 

Weaning time again!

 

The tantrum this time: spectacular, a heroic conniption of Olympic leaps. His fury a fabulous show

 

for Pauper alone. Everyone else elects sleep.

 

Frailty, thy name is Prince.

 

Get off with you now, child. Go tussle with your tailing brother in the trees.

 

 

 

 

Notes on the Text: 

“Snubbed: A Motion-Picture Ekphrasis” is based on The Mystery Monkeys of Shangri-La, a documentary produced by Xi Zhinong, written and edited by Mark Fletcher, and directed by Jacky Poon and Wuyuan Qi. Both the documentary and the poem make strong allusions to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. The poem also consciously employs allusions to Shakespeare, The Beastie Boys, fire safety instructions, common idioms and sayings about monkeys, and a number of songs (including children’s songs), many of which are elucidated in the notes that follow.

 
Five little monkeys … The first of many uses of the popular children’s counting song “Five Little Monkeys” in the poem “Snubbed.” The song dates back to at least the first half of the 20th century and is still commonly used for entertainment and early math instruction in American schools.

 
Swing into savings … A revised excerpt from a sales website: <www.birthdaydirect.com/kids-birthday-party-supplies/monkey-party-supplies/>. 

monkey bachelor A revised definition of the word “monk” from The Free Dictionary, this sentence offers it as a definition of “monkey bachelor” instead.

 
The deeper you go … The first of two revised excerpts from the Beatles song “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.”

 
Major Lance [5] (1939-1994) was an American R&B singer. His many hit songs in the 1960s made him a musical icon in
Britain and elsewhere. He is perhaps best known for his song, “The Monkey Time.” 

Your inside is out … The second of two revised excerpts from the Beatles song “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.”

 
Mama jumped up … Contains revised excerpts from the song “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” written by Charles Singleton and Rosemary McCoy.

 
One butter monk tea … A revised sampler of three children’s songs: “Five Fat Hot Dogs Frying in the Pan,” “Five Little Monkeys,” and “Patty Cake,” with echoes of the French children’s song “Frère Jacques.” 

snub Excerpt of the definition of the word “snub” from The Free Dictionary.

<https://www.thefreedictionary.com/snub>

 

 

 

KATHLEEN BALMA is a librarian, teacher, and translator. Her poetry has appeared in Hotel Amerika, The Journal, the Montreal International Poetry Prize Anthology, New Orleans Review, Prelude, Rattle, Spillway, Sugar House Review, and elsewhere. Her awards include a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright grant in Spain, and a Writer-in-Resident Fellowship from Rivendell Writers' Colony. In 2018 she was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. Her first chapbook, Gallimaufry & Farrago, is available from Finishing Line Press.

 

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