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).

Although the odds of being looked at by this watchman at any given moment seemed extremely low, one could not rule it out entirely. In the beginning, and for a period of a few years, citizens became extremely self-aware of their behaviour at any time that they found themselves within sight of the tower. Cart drivers would scrupulously wait their turn at intersections, children would refrain from pilfering fruit from market stalls, rival gangs would go around to the other side of buildings to beat each other up, and lovers would draw their curtains—or perhaps leave them open, if the idea excited them.

A few skeptics pointed out that, even from so high up, the view down onto the streets would be obstructed in most places by the rooftops of the buildings. At the same time, the tower’s height is such as to place the watchman at too steep an angle to look through the windows of any nearby buildings.  As for the views through the window of the buildings on the three hills, even with the aid of a telescope, they would be too far off to make out in any detail. Furthermore, these same skeptics objected, even if the watchman were to espy something untoward taking place, it would take him so long just to make his way down the spiral staircase to communicate this information that, in most cases, it would be impossible for the authorities to then respond to the incident in time.

To counter the last of these points, it was conjectured that the sentinel’s orders were to rapidly mark the nature and location of any undesirable or suspicious activity on a pre-prepared form, which would then be placed in a cannister and dropped down a chute leading to the administrative building below. From there, mounted guards could be rapidly dispatched to deal with the situation. With regards to the obstructed view, proponents of the watchman theory pointed out that, wherever one goes in central Sensuka, it seems as though one is always catching a glimpse of the Orepi Tower from street level. This logically means that at those moments we are also in its line of sight. And as to telescopes, are they not used to pick out details on the surface of the moon?

After a time, Sensukans became so used to the idea that they were being watched that they rarely gave the matter another thought. Nowadays, it is such a given of city life that it does not even occur to anyone to object to it. On one occasion, indeed, the citizens could be said to have declared their insistence on the watchman’s presence. Upon his ascension to the throne, the Emperor Ojori I thought he would ingratiate himself with the populace by dispelling what he referred to as “the watchman myth.” In one of his inaugural speeches, he offered to open up the tower’s cupola to public visits by individuals or small groups. The proposal was met with widespread consternation, however, and soon retracted. Though Sensukans could accept the idea of being spied upon by an anonymous professional, the prospect of their neighbours or colleagues—or family members!—being given access to such a view into their private lives was cause for great alarm.

In the end, it may also be that Sensukans find a strange comfort in the idea that there is some unknown figure watching over their lives. When one looks up towards the Orepi Tower—perhaps, like the woman in this print, while having a solitary evening smoke upon one’s balcony—the tower sometimes gives the impression that it is looking back. This can serve as a reminder that one is never quite alone. One exists in the eyes of the state. One is a person of interest, even. A file was opened on one long ago, and one has not been forgotten. 

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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. The book monk 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. Retrinu now stepped back out into the world, filled with a determination to experience for himself the heady emotions that had inspired his latest 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. The neighbourhood was a fashionable address in the reigns of Bulodi II and of the empress Aritokéh, but it was badly hit during the great plague known as the Blue Death, 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 always thinks of with a sense of wonder, 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 which the oloturo (sea cucumber on a stick stuffed with ground pork and deep-fried) and kaudalki (shark fin candy) are the most 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 lend the night market a strange, magical atmosphere, an effect that is heightened by the contrast between the narrow, illuminated strip of the boardwalk and the dark beach and pitch-black water beyond.

We are at the eastern end of the boardwalk, near to where a small carnival is set up for the duration of the Totamontra. The little boy in the foreground is returning from this funfair, and he carries a stuffed octopus toy that he has won at one of the carnival games. This toy also has a symbolic value here, as the octopus is the traditional emblem of Tofa, the Luck Goddess, who indeed is normally depicted as a figure half-woman and half-octopus. The entrance archway of the temple of Tofa is visible just to the boy’s right. This temple (not to be confused with the much larger Tofa temple in Peleosti, see n. 44) is by far the oldest building in Jajapi, long predating the extensive settlement of the neighbourhood (which has taken place only over the past fifty years or so, with the expansion of Sensuka to the eastward). The first Tofa temple is said to have been built by shipwrecked sailors—or pirates, according to some accounts—who washed up alive on Jajapi Beach, and wanted to give thanks to the Goddess for their good fortune. Before lng, the temple had become a popular pilgrimage destination. It is this longstanding association between Jajapi and the luck deity that eventually led to the district becoming a focal point of the Totamontra celebrations.

At the very centre of the image, an elderly man with a voluminous Chogyan amulet around his neck is speaking to his grandson, or possibly his great-grandson. He is gesturing towards the seaside residences on the right-hand side of the print and is likely recounting to the boy how, when he first moved to Jajapi, there were no houses along the edge of the beach, and the Tofa temple stood in splendid isolation between the sand and the windswept trees. Then, a little later, as the old man may go on to explain, a wooden boxing arena was set up near this spot, directly on the beach. The fights held there there drew a lot of spectators for a time, but now the structure is long gone. There was also an amateur athletics club that had its headquarters not far from here, just by where the fairgrounds now are. The members used to organize extravagant parties by the water, until the clubhouse was destroyed in a fire.

So many crowds, just like this one, gathering and then dissolving, like the waves upon the shore. What does it all add up to? The boy surely does not worry about such things, but the boy’s young father, who is also present, seems to be listening to the old man’s reminiscences with a certain degree of discomfort. Perhaps he is wondering what it is like to be that age, how one stands it, knowing that all one’s life is behind one, that almost everything we look upon stands in relation to one—if at all— only as a memory. It is no longer possible to imagine a future in which one’s disparate scraps of experience come together at last, coalescing into some grand meaning, some revelation of ultimate purpose.

To think this way, however, as the old man would no doubt remind him, would be to ignore the core concept of Chogya. One must never forget that one’s consciousness is only temporarily residing in this embodied life experience. In one’s next existence, one could theoretically find oneself living out any one of the other lives around one now, or a life from the past, or the future. Since the number of these reincarnations is infinite, each imaginable outcome is far from unlikely, and may indeed be a mathematical certainty. The old man knows that, eventually, he may very well find himself living the life of a champion boxer in that vanished arena, or of the teenage girl in the left foreground of the image who is heading to the carnival where a boy she fancies is working at one of the game stalls, or of the wealthy foreign tourist complaining about the water pressure in a high-rise hotel that will stand here a couple of centuries hence, or of a pirate washing up upon a deserted beach, infinitely grateful for the wet sand between his clutching fingers.

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Prufrock comes to Mumbai! “The Love Song of K. Anand Kak” by L K Sharma now available for purchase!

The above image by yours truly of J. Alfred Prufrock walking along Marine Drive in Mumbai is featured on the cover of a new book by the Indian author L K Sharma.

“The Love Song of K. Anand Kak” is the wonderfully poetic and impassioned account of a modern-day Indian Prufrock’s struggles to confess his feelings to the object of his affection against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic.

The book is now available for purchase as an e-book on as well as on Get your copy today!

Below is a brief summary of the book by the author:

“J. Alfred Prufrock is teleported to Bombay a century later. Old habits die hard. He is shy of women and craves for love. New Eliot makes him sing a Love Song to one who is anxious about the descent of India. So, doubt-stricken Prufrock makes no headway. A pandemic appears like deus ex machina and transforms Prufrock’s love life but only for a night. A new age, not imagined by T. S. Eliot, dawns. A Real Unreal City rises in the Pingdom of Love. AL (Artificial Lover) uses a smartphone with speech recognition system updated by LBL (Love Development Lab). Kissing through Zoom is not Prufrock’s idea of love. Mermaids stop singing to Prufrock who remembers
he has to drown.”

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Views of an Imaginary City 22: World Gardens in Rateliska Sesquicentennial Park

The Sesquicentennial Park on the island of Rateliska was created to commemorate the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the transfer of the imperial capital to Sensuka. In many ways, it represents the then newly-crowned Emperor Ojori III’s desire to outdo Cherufi Park, which had been laid out fifty years earlier by the empress Aritokèh to commemorate the centennial of the same event (See n. 14). However, whereas Cherufi had been intended as a representation and a celebration of all of the many diverse regions of the empire, Ojori wished for his new park to emphasize the empire’s role within a global context. The main portion of the park was therefore laid out as the “World Gardens,” in which each section would be themed around a different country. The area representing the empire, naturally enough, would be placed at the very centre.

Somewhat complicating the realization of this project was the fact that the empire had by this time been almost completely shut off from the outside world for over a hundred years. The committee of architects, artists, and gardeners assembled to design the park thus had nothing but very vague and incomplete notions about each of the featured countries. The result is that the World Gardens bear only the most tenuous relationship with any external geographic or cultural reality. The Italy Garden, for instance, is conceived around the premise that Italian cities are built on water, upon which the floating buildings move about like boats, forming ever-shifting urban configurations to best meet citizens’ needs throughout the day. This area of the park therefore consists of an artificial pond, in which various miniature buildings, including an impressive leaning amphitheatre, bob about amid the ducks and koi fish. The United States section is inspired by tales of a vast city made up entirely of castles, towering up against each other. A topiary representation of a portion of this city is fronted by a scaled-down replica of the many-horned green goddess setting a torch to the world.

The foreground of the print depicts one of the most enchanting sections of the park, the Russia Garden. These are built on a terraced hillock that is meant to recall the layout of Matrioscow, Russia’s capital city (According to reports, the first layer of habitations behind the outer fortifications of this city is followed by a second line of walls enclosing a second, slightly smaller layer of habitations, followed by another line of walls, and so on, all the way to the domed temple behind the innermost fortress, which owing to this position, as though at the core of an onion, is known as the Onion Dome). Running along the edge of each of the five rising terraces of the Russia Garden is a circular channel of water. The channels are populated with swans—a nod to the special place held by these birds in the hearts of the Russian people, who believe them to be the reincarnations of departed women.

(Side note: This particular vignette is largely inspired by the 1967 Montreal Expo as well as by the countless souvenir postcards of the event. When Montreal was still full of antique shops, I remember one would often come across whole boxes of these strangely flattened, orangey visions of an imaginary future.)

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Video of “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

Another brilliant “vidiette” by Jim Avis, based on my comics adaptation of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous villanelle, “One Art.” The video features audio and footage from a very spirited reading of the poem by Sophia Wilcott.

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