Views of an Imaginary City 47: Cloud Oracle at Marikora

The earliest inhabitants of the region of Sensuka were water worshippers. They looked upon the clouds as constituting the genitals of the Great Divine Water Being, from which all waters originally sprang forth. It was water’s floating, condensed form that was thought to constitute the initial state from which the eternal hydrologic cycle—the prerequisite of all life—was first set in motion. Furthermore, the chaotic, ever-shifting clouds were viewed as the crucible in which individual clusters of water particles were assigned the particular shapes they would later manifest on Earth. Once they had been implanted in the ground through the life-giving rains, these waters would then re-emerge from the earth in a multiplicity of solid, animate forms. This process was thought to constitute the origins of all living things, including human beings.

This ancient belief in the role of clouds in determining human destiny lives on in Sensuka in the modern practice of cloud divination—the foretelling of future events through the observation of the shape, movement, colour, and position of clouds in the sky. (Also known as nephomancy, cloud divination is not to be confused with the wholly unrelated and notoriously inaccurate practice of meteorology.)

Owing to the number of variables involved, cloud divination is one of the most difficult of the prophetic arts. It is consequently the exclusive purview of a caste of specially trained priests. Though their “readings” of clouds can theoretically be carried out from any vantage point, there are certain sites that are held to be especially propitious to this purpose. In Sensuka, official cloud prophecies are always obtained from the cloud temple atop the hill of Marikora, at the city’s northwestern limits. The actual viewing of clouds takes place on a raised circular platform at the front of the temple, overlooking the Bay of Rilito. At an appointed time each day, a temple priest will take a seat at the centre of the platform. He will remain there for a period of up to several hours, dictating all significant observations to a scribe sitting beside him. These nephomantic annotations are then brought to the other temple priests, who set about properly interpreting them.

Because cloud divination relies on so much specialized labour, its use tends to be reserved to the imperial authorities and the very wealthy. For ordinary Sensukans, who will never profit from its prognostications, it appears to be just the general idea of the practice that is found to be oddly soothing. When, in the midst of all the day’s fretting and rushing about, people happen to look up at the clouds, and for a brief moment become aware once more of the marvelous, otherworldly spectacle that forms the backdrop of our lives, it serves as a reminder that the real game is elsewhere, that, ultimately, it’s all out of our hands. This month’s earnings, the coming harvest, the people our children grow up to be, the way our heart breaks, the hour of our death: Everything has already been determined; it is already written up there somewhere, in the tumbling battlements of the cumulonimbi or the rippled dunes of the altostratus. Our fates are sealed; there is no point in worrying about anything too much.

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Views of an Imaginary City 44: Bird Temple in Peleosti

The view is from a hill in the Peleosti district, overlooking a skyline dominated by the dome of the Chogyan Temple of Tofa, the Luck Goddess. Occupying the majority of the picture plane, however, is a close-up depiction of what is known as a dimadini—a “bird temple.”

Although Chogya is the official state religion, all faiths are tolerated within the empire, provided they do not proselytize. The ban on seeking converts was put in place by the empress Nanèh, whose reign saw the beginning of the empire’s deliberate inward turn. It is an injunction that presents a particular challenge for the few surviving adherents of the Liùkeh religion. Followers of this ancient creed believe that the qualitative conditions of the life into which they will be reincarnated after death is determined by how well they accomplish a specific set of religious duties, and these include securing a certain amount of converts to the faith.

Liùkhites have found an ingenious way around this problematic situation, however, one that takes advantage of the vagueness of the definition of conversion as presented in their sacred texts. Unlike the Chogyans, who believe the transmigration of the soul to occur only between human lives, the Liùkeh faith also countenances the possibility of humans reincarnating into animals, and vice versa. Since animals are thus included in the ever-turning wheel of existence, it makes sense to think that they too might take an interest in the cultivation of their eternal souls. Liùkhites, therefore, have set about proselytizing to animals. The hope is that the animal converts will later be reincarnated as human beings. These newly born men and women, it is thought, will then be naturally predisposed to spontaneously converting to the Liùkeh faith. Once this happens, they will in turn work to win more animal followers. And so on it will go, until the day that Liùkhism is the religion not only of all human beings, but of all living creatures on Earth. 

In Sensuka, the Liùkhites’ conversion efforts are largely directed at birds, for which they build intricately carved miniature wooden temples. These structures are then suspended from the boughs of trees and filled with seeds, so as to entice the birds inside. The two men sitting cross-legged on a carpet and looking up intently at the dimadini are two Liùkhite devotees. They have been appointed with the task of determining exactly how many individual birds attend this place of worship on a regular basis. These they will then enumerate as official converts in their sacred records. To those amused Sensukans who point out that the birds are clearly only visiting the dimadini for the seeds, the Liùkhites reply that religion must always endeavor to meet individuals on their own terms.

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In Conversation with Charity Hill (Bright Wings Podcast)

I recently sat down (well, on Zoom, so I had probably already been sitting for a while) for a conversation with Charity Hill of the podcast Bright Wings: Children’s Books to Make the Heart Soar. Our exchange centered around the relationship between comics and poetry and the notion of beauty in comics, particularly as compared to the more traditional fine arts and to literature.

We had so much to say on the subjects that our conversation spilled over into a second installment of the podcast!

You can listen to both episodes here:

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Views of an Imaginary City 33: View of Orepi Tower

Orepi Tower is perhaps Sensuka’s most iconic building. Even those foreigners who know next to nothing about the city may recognize it as “that barber’s pole tower.” The tower was built under the empress Nanéh as a monument to her deceased predecessor, Bulodi I, the founder of Sensuka. This very narrow cylindrical structure is over 90 metres tall and decorated with two bands of marble, one white and one red, which wrap themselves in a spiral all the way up to the slightly overhanging cupola at its summit. The bas-relief sculptures that ascend along the white marble band depict the many exploits of the Eunuch Emperor through his rise to power and reign. Those on the red marble depict all of the native terrestrial animal species found throughout the empire, chasing after one another in a descending order from the tiger at the summit to the gnat at the base, in a kind of didactic illustration of the food chain.

From the time of its construction, however, the citizens of Sensuka have always suspected that Orepi Tower serves more than just a commemorative purpose. The tower is integrated into the corner of a government building at the northern end of the Orepi peninsula, near where the Juminta River empties into Sensuka Bay. It therefore stands on the least elevated ground of the city centre, and Sensuka’s three main hills, Labeosti, Labetachi, and Peleosti, rise at a more or less equal distance from it to the West, North, and East respectively. Given this fact, it is easy to see how a person positioned behind the narrow windows in the tower’s crowning cupola, particularly if equipped with a powerful telescope, would have an unrivalled view over the goings-on in the entire amphitheatre-like valley within which the great majority of the capital is built. Soon after the tower’s completion, word spread that the structure was manned by a watchman—or a rotating guard of watchmen—whose task it was to survey the city at all hours of the day (and even at night, taking advantage of any illuminated windows).

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Video of “Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town” by John Philip Johnson

Jim Avis’s video adaptation of my comics rendition of John Philip Johnson’s beautifully unsettling poem, “Stairs appear in a Hole Outside of Town.” The poem is read by the author himself.

Side note: I’ve recently become very intrigued by the aesthetic and psychological concept of “liminal space.” The term–from the Latin “limen”(threshold)–refers to those transitional spaces of modern life, such as corridors, stairwells, parking lots, shopping mall atriums, and so on, which we move through without really noticing them, but which, when seen in a slightly different light, such as in a photograph devoid of human figures, may fill us with a strange kind of unease. One may even get the feeling, when experiencing these spaces in this “slightly off” fashion, that they hold another kind of liminal quality, that they are hinting at some kind of vaguely apprehended transition point into a different reality. There has been quite a bit of interest in this concept on the internet in recent years, although (not surprisingly) I’ve only just become aware of it now. Anyways, it occurs to me that this poem is quite a striking demonstration of the uncanny pull of such liminal spaces.

You can find 24 other such “poetry comics” (including one based on another John Philip Johnson poem) in my recent book, Poems to See By: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry (Plough Publishing, 2020).

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Video of “Not Waving But Drowning” by Stevie Smith

Jim Avis has put together a haunting animated version of my comics interpretation of “Not Waving But Drowning,” a poem by the English poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971). The excellent reading is by Janet Harris.

You can find 24 other such “poetry comics” in my recent book, Poems to See By: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry (Plough Publishing, 2020).

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Views of an Imaginary City 37: Inside the Imperial Library

The Imperial Library in the Kaduyorma (See n. 4) holds the largest collection of books in all of the empire. Indeed, it is supposed to house all of the books ever published in the imperial domains since the advent there of the first printing presses, some seven hundred years ago. For ease of consultation, most of the books are housed on tarotukeh (“book-mills”), enormous wooden wheels mounted with bookshelves. Each individual bookshelf is attached in such a way that, as the tarotukeh is turned, they always remain upright, in much the same way as the chairs in a panoramic pleasure wheel. Pulling on a chord that hangs at the side of each tarotukeh engages the gears that cause the wheel to rotate, allowing library users to easily scroll down from one row of books to the next, without even needing to adjust their eye level.   

The figures in the green robes are kimidatoki (“library monks”), men and women who have chosen to dedicate their lives entirely to the consumption of the written word. These permanent denizens of the Imperial Library will typically sleep under a specially designated awning that projects from one of the building’s exterior side walls, save during the winter months, when they are permitted to spend the night in the back vestibule. The whole of their day, from when they take their morning tea to just before they close their eyes at night, is devoted to reading. While it is generally acknowledged that getting through the entirety of the vast and, what’s more, ever-expanding collection of books in the Imperial Library is beyond the scope of a single human lifetime, the kimidatoki endeavor to arrive as close to this goal as possible.

Various kimidatoki take different approaches to how they work their way through the library’s holdings. They may alternate between subjects and authors or ingest all the volumes in one such category before proceeding to the next. Broadly speaking, however, the kimidatoki are fairly indiscriminate in their choice of reading material. Their aim is to arrive at as complete a knowledge as possible both of the external reality of the world and of the internal reality of the human soul, and they have determined that reading—all reading—is the most effective and time-efficient way to do so. Factually incorrect or poorly written texts, to their way of thinking, are scarcely less valuable than accurate and well-written ones, as this material, too, provides a perspective into how some people think and feel, or at one time thought and felt. Moreover, kimidatoki believe that it is only in relation to other texts—and, ideally speaking, all other texts—that the true value of a piece of writing can be judged. Kimidatoki are viewed as fulfilling a public service, since it is thought that many—if not the majority—of the books in the library collection would never be read otherwise. Furthermore, these devotees constitute a convenient resource when looking for fast answers to questions on any variety of topics. It is customary, therefore, for library-goers to leave a small donation in the alms bowls that the monks always keep set before them while reading.

The most famous kimidatoki was one Retrinu, who was born during the reign of Ojori I. At the age of twelve, Retrinu answered the call of the written word, and took up residence in the Imperial Library. Beginning with the first tarotukeh to the left of the main entrance, Retrinu proceeded systematically from there, reading every book in each successive book-mill. He continued in this fashion for several decades until he happened to reach the section devoted to love poetry. Retrinu was profoundly shaken by the what he found there, so much so that, midway through the section, he made the weighty decision to leave the library. The book monk now stepped back out into the world, filled with a determination to experience for himself the heady emotions that had inspired his recent reading material. One imagines his social skills were not the best developed at this point, but perhaps his vast storehouse of accumulated knowledge on the most disparate subjects rendered him an interesting conversationalist to some. At any rate, after a certain time he seems to have met a kindred soul, and the two were married. Shortly afterwards, Retrinu reappeared at the Imperial Library, now accompanied by his wife, who had decided to join him in the life of a kimidatoki. The veteran reader returned to the book-mill dedicated to love poetry, went through the last remaining volumes, and then moved on to the next section.    

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Views of an Imaginary City 32: Along the Tizabu Canal

The Nefirobe neighbourhood sits on a small hill at the northern end of the Lekaro district, just to the west of the much larger hill of Labetachi. In the reigns of Bulodi II and of the empress Aritokéhhe neighbourhood was a very fashionable address. The area was badly hit during the great plague known as the Blue Death, however, and never fully recovered. Its wealthy residents resettled to the east, in the Topla district, and their large and elegant former houses were subdivided into workers’ tenements. Despite the fact that it is located next to the extremely affluent neighbourhood on the western side of Labetachi Hill, Nefirobe is now a poor and more-or-less forgotten corner of the city.

In this print, we are presented with a view of one of Nefirobe’s characteristically steep and narrow side streets, which descend towards the Nachilatizabu (“Tizabu Canal”) between high stone buildings. It is near nightfall, and a lamplighter is going about his duties. We see his aged-looking hand holding a horizontally placed ladder, which is presumably resting on his shoulder. In one of the artist’s recurring compositional strategies, these elements are placed in the extreme foreground, in such a way as to place the viewer in the role of a participant in the scene—in this case, that of the old lamplighter. Looking down towards the bottom of the street between two rungs of the ladder, we see that there is a young woman leaning against the stone balustrade bordering the canal. She would appear to be waiting for someone—perhaps, since she is looking towards the water, someone arriving by boat. Her body language seems to suggest a mixture of nervousness and impatience. In spite of the distance and the failing light, it is clear to us she is uncommonly beautiful.

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Views of an Imaginary City 29: A Schoolyard in Topla

In Sensuka, some very basic primary education is offered free of charge by monasteries and temple organizations. For those families who can afford the moderate fees, however, there is also the option of sending their children to a kadilu (from a word meaning “greenhouse”). At these schools, boys and girls aged six to eleven learn arithmetic, artistic and athletic skills, and the reading and writing of poetry. The largest kadilu is located in the Topla district, and it is this school that is depicted in the print.

Not only time but space too appears dilated when one is a child, and by a far greater factor than can be accounted for simply by one’s smaller size. In this view of the schoolyard surrounding the Kadilutopla, the artist alludes to this childhood perception of the world by wildly distorting the scale of the depicted elements and of the distances between them. The main school building in the background is so far away that its ground floor is partially hidden under the horizon, while the drystone fence around the perimeter of the schoolyard soars towards the sky like a mountain ridge. For the child in the foreground of the image, from whose vantage point we are observing the scene, this far corner of the schoolyard constitutes a curious little world unto its own: The beaten earth surface contains a variety of interestingly shaped pebbles offering themselves up for solitary play, and there are several species of ants to watch deftly weaving their way through the uneven terrain as they scuttle about their inscrutable errands. The patches of moss in the moist and cavernous recesses visible at the base of the stone wall are redolent with mystery, and the mind boggles at all the countless unknown realms that must lie hidden in between the cracks of this seemingly endless escarpment. As for the trees whose lowest branches overhang the wall, they are so tall that it would not even occur to one to try to look and see how far up they go.

The schoolyard is subdivided into sections for different age groups. We are in the area reserved for the youngest children, in the vicinity of a separate, smaller school building (not visible in this view) where they receive instruction. Before us, variously-sized clusters of small children can be seen forming, dispersing, and reforming, in ever-shifting embryonic manifestations of fellowship and rivalry, collaboration and combat, idolization and ostracism, love and hate. Out in the distance, beckoning tantalizingly, stretch the glamorous lands of the slightly older children, those aged eight to nine. And far beyond that, completely out of sight, on the other side of the main school building, is the region reserved for the oldest students, those who have ceased even really to be children anymore. It is a place one thinks of with a sense of wonderment, but also with a certain suspicion, one cannot quite say why. One knows one will go there oneself some day, but for now, that knowledge is something purely abstract. It is a time so far away one can barely imagine it.    

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Views of an Imaginary City 25: Night Market on Jajapi Beach

The Totamontra festival takes place over the course of a week at the end of summer. The series of ceremonial and festive events that comprise it were originally intended to propitiate a good harvest season, but they have long ago come to be associated with the hope for good fortune in all spheres of life. In Sensuka, one of the most beloved features of the Totamontra is the Jajapi night market. The market is held every evening for the duration of the festival along the boardwalk of Jajapi Beach, at the city’s eastern limits. All along the walkway, vendors set up tents offering everything from cheap jewelry to foot readings, and above all, a vast assortment of snack foods. Of these the oloturo (sea cucumber on a stick stuffed with ground pork and deep-fried) and kaudalki (shark fin candy) are especially popular. From the awning of each tent hangs a glass lantern known as a lolitopi, which are blown into a variety of amusing shapes, usually that of an animal. The play of colours and the refracted light through the irregularly shaped glass of the lolitopi give the night market a strange, magical feel. Aslo contributng to the peculiar atmosphere is the contrast between the narrow, brightly illuminated strip of the boardwalk and the dark beach and pitch-black water beyond.

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