Uncle Skallywag by Shiv Mirabito – Review

The poet carries the Universe on his shoulders (p 20).

Thus, Shiv Mirabito, in his beautiful and provocative new book, Uncle Skallywag, published by Shivastan Press in Kathmandu, Nepal, on handmade paper, leaps bravely into the fray – outsider art, renegade artists, poems and poets gone before, Ginsberg, Ira Cohen, Janine Pommy Vega, Corso, and many others.

Shiv Mirabito Uncle Skallywag

This book is a nifty sweep of poetry influenced by Whitman, the Beats, Buddhism, Anthropological travel, thousands of movies, and rock n roll. Let’s peruse some of them.

AMERICAN VALUES, sharply satirical, is all about freedom becoming synonymous with amassing money and adoration of Self.

“I know I am the crown of creation
I have dominion over all that I see
I am totally sure
because I saw it on TV” (p13)

The eponymous UNCLE SKALLYWAG defines, outlines, and reinforces the fiercely compassionate persona of Skallywag, the friendly Outsider, the goodhearted, renegade rascal.

“I am a fiercely independent participant observer
an anthropologist at heart
I am an outsider artist
making art from the discarded detritus of mankind”

Both humorous and revealing is a section between pages 28 and 31 dealing with the nature of modern poetry, the poet’s role in society and what Skallywag’s expectations are. From REMEMBER WHEN POETRY WAS FUN?

“remember when poetry was a catalyst
for hope & change
& everybody hoped to have a good time
& when it wasn’t fun
we made it fun?
remember when poetry was fun?” (p 29)

SABU ALMIGHTY is an ode after me own heart. How excited I was when Sabu entered my imagination on The Buster Brown show. He was so cool! Not anything like me or any of my friends. Mirabito’s elucidation of this phenomena is to the point and heartfelt. When we were kids, sometimes we were racists & jingoists without knowing it. And sometimes we were charmed.

“we will always love you Sabu
Jungle Book’s noble savage raised by wolves
Elephant Boy saving the British troops
Cobra Woman’s loyal sidekick
Confused naughty prince riding a pony
Black Narcissus Army & Navy perfume sniffer
“but Sister don’t you think it’s so common to smell like ourselves?”
Sabu – 80 years ago you broke the color barrier of the American silver screen
& Sabu you broke our hearts too” (p 24)

ROYAL MURDER, as one can imagine from the title, is heavy. As an American who spends much time in Nepal dissecting and analyzing “but we all know royal murder & intrigue/ in a military oligarchy/is an age old tradition”, a historic reminder of the fate of a state that has lost its way, only to be schooled by a military coup. Though in a very different world, it behooves us to take notice.

“& the young middle class students & intellectuals
will protest & march for change
for the fall of the old ways
just like what happened in Russia
Kathmandu is Burning!
& the murdered king & queen
dance as yab yum skeletons in heaven
between Shiva & Parvati
& Vishnu & Laxmi
& look down on their shocked subjects”

In the poems NAG PANCHAMI, GHANTAKARNA FESTIVAL, and MACCHENDRANATH JATRA FESTIVAL (pp 40-45), Mirabito celebrates the religious and spiritual fervor of the Asian/Hindu/Buddhist culture he loves so much. Steeped in ceremony and festival, the Nepali people worship the gods and goddesses in the streets, with flowers, effigies, costume, and intense color, in rituals that have continued since ancient times. NAG PANCHAMI honors Naga, Snake spirit, “as gods of ponds, streams & rivers/ as the embodiment of water/ springing forth like a fountain of cool life giving liquid/companions of Shiva & Ganesh/wrapped around them in all your phallic glory” and speaks of the Greek traditional “rod of Aesclepius” that represents healing & medicine, and “the caduceus intertwined with two snakes/ writhing in a perpetual dance of love.”

GHANTAKARNA FESTIVAL describes the ceremony of the burning of the demon of “ignorance, hatred, greed & violence”, the building of the demon, the traditionally blacksmith caste boy who is driven out of the village carrying these negative aspects and then the handmade demon (not the boy) is burned.

The ancient worship ceremonies, in MACCHENDRANATH JATRA FESTIVAL, have come down almost unchanged for thousands of years, and the Giant god cart, which carries the effigy of Macchendranath, “god of compassion/ god of rain/ god of springtime blossoms”, the wheels taller than a man, is pulled through the street by many young boys and men, who are “all trying not to be crushed under the ancient wheels of time”. But

“… I was swept into the electric crowd pushing with all my strength
& almost run over by the huge wheels
to die in this way is considered very auspicious
as he rolled away I realized how lucky I am to be alive
to drink, to love, & to worship the divine in Kathmandu…” (p45)

One thing for sure about our bohemian Uncle, he is not an advocate of those who see War as an answer, PASSIONATE PROGRESSIVES UNITE, DO YOU REMEMBER? & WAR IS A VIRUS (pp50-55)

“ arise aware of the unsustainable horrors of humanity
consider this continent, this land of plenty
stolen by the oppressive oligarchy
the insanity of the profanity
the insanity of inequality & murder
the profanity of profit over compassion
passionate progressives must unite for our rights” (p 50)

“ inequality is reality
life is death
war is peace
a virus is a virus” (p55)

Mirabito is not trying to impress the academy or salons with obscurant ambiguity & syntactical ploys. He writes as he speaks, in the common vulgate, but never loses the compassionate observer willing participant Scallywag set out to be. The book ends with MANIKARNIKA GHAT, a real inside look into the “soul” of India, the Life and Death, and the burning of bodies in the sacred city of Varanasi India:

“… then immediate families
heads shaved
wearing only seamless white cloth
mourn silently
watching the flames devour ears, fingers, toes, arms, legs
sweaty men use bamboo poles to poke & prod
the burning body’s wayward limbs
& sometimes fold them in half
to keep the burning blob contained
& finally as the ashes are pushed into the Ganga
dark men slosh around in the thick black primordial ooze
looking for gold jewelry or stray coins of the dead… “ (p64)

He brings all this into the modern era with references to the British occupation and the India travels of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. So many centuries have passed, people and governments have come and gone, yet

“… on this sacred mandala
countless thousands of mahasiddhas & yogis sat still
& meditated on the temporary nature of life
& every year in monsoon time
the mighty green Ganga swells
& rises 100 feet
sweeping away all the ashes
all the lives
& the eternal flame must be carried
in a copper pot
up to the top terrace
where death still takes place every day
rain or shine” (p65)

These vivid flashes of the spiritual life of Nepal and India may be the beating heart of the work, the opulence of tradition and worship and the inescapable presence of poverty, ignorance, and death.

The penultimate poem, FIREFLIES, a nature poem, morphing into an allegory on human happiness, doubles down on this nod to impermanence and the human condition:

“they live & they mate & they die
life goes on
turn your love light on
while you can” (p 66)

and, lastly, a paean to the late, great Gregory Corso and the author’s sometime meeting with him, as he was spirited by Corso into a high end, $100 a plate dinner “the Beat queen bee amid a swarm of busily anxious American drones.

Throughout the book, traditional and ancient artwork graces the pages and highlights the words so piquantly crafted. The juxtaposition of this gripping art with the quirky musings of our irrepressible “Uncle Skallywag” make this book, the construction of which is a work of art in itself, difficult to put down.

–review by Andy Clausen & Pamela Twining


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