As is often the case with the enigmatic culture of the desert peoples, their poetry has remained a mystery to the outside world for millennia. It was only thanks to the unfavourable conditions of the city of Pollnivneach that led one of its residents to the court of King Roald III many summers ago. Like the rest of that city, he was an Ali by name and there was nothing to suggest the man was any different from the rest. This particular Ali was granted the epithet ‘the Poet,’ and came to my King’s court in search of patronage.
Unlike most of the poets of the court, Ali was no romantic halfwit. The fashion at the time, though neither I nor the King approved much of it, was to write of love in terms so convoluted they appeared to have been manufactured, verses so artificial that they inspired nothing but a cold disapproval, and sentiments so lofty they could have passed as speculae principum.
At the time of Ali’s arrival in court, the most popular poet was a nephew of the King’s, a certain young gentleman by the name of Bouvard. Though intelligent enough, especially in the realm of politics, he was a veritable vagabond, interested only in the art of procuring women, for which purpose he composed his stuffy verses. I am sure my King patronised him only because his verses were popular with the rabble; pretending to share their interests and funding whatever arts they enjoy is an easy way of ensuring one’s popularity with them.
Ali and Bouvard could not have been more different. The former was short and dark skinned, unshaven upon arrival at court, middle aged and slightly hunched, usually attired in a dirty set of robes; the latter was a dandy in every sense of the word – vain, superficial, but admittedly handsome – and it was for this reason, I presume, that Bouvard was quick to speak ill of possible poetic competitors (as I said, he was a consummate politician). This underestimation of Ali was widespread among the courtiers.
Ali arrived one morning, bright and early, just as the affairs of court were beginning for the day. By all accounts he appeared to have been traveling all night – large bags had formed under his eyes, which watered slightly from time to time, as is the case when one neglects sleep. For hours he waited patiently in the forecourt, cross-legged, while the King dealt with affairs of state. Others would have left, in search of some other patron, but Ali seemed prepared to wait. Once the political affairs of the day had been resolved, the King admitted the disheveled man of the desert into the court. At first the King recoiled at the sight of him – he looked more like a pauper than a poet, after all – but soon regained composure, no doubt in the interest of his reputation. Ali explained his reasons for coming to Misthalin: he was fleeing the civil strife in his native Pollnivneach, torn between a local bandit group and fundamentalist Menaphites.
“I owe money to the bandits, and my soul to the Menaphites,” Ali remarked in his cryptic manner during the course of our conversation.
The King and I soon warmed to this humble man, and, as the King asked the usual questions, I sketched the figure that sat before us, enthralled by his charisma. I am no artist, but, nevertheless, I feel I have accurately captured the mystique of this poet.
Upon being asked to give an example of his work, Ali took from the hem of his robe a small scrap of paper, and presented it to my King, prostrate on the ground. It consisted of but four lines, written in an elegant hand.
I, Ali, whose poems shine before the blind
And give music to the ears of the deaf,
Trekked here for forty moons to leave behind
The feuds: all too often they end in death.
The King commended Ali on his verse, but I saw in his eyes some misgivings: I now know that my gracious King was merely unaccustomed to this new form of verse, and later admitted that he was impressed by the verse (I hasten to add that I shared this opinion). Being a generous man, the King gave Ali a modest sum in exchange for the verse, alongside a promise to pay for any other compositions Ali might feel inclined to ask patronage for. Ali thanked the King and left.
That evening the King opted to dine with two of the poets he had given residence to at the court, and whose opinions he trusted on matters of poetry; one was Felix Ambrose, the young versifier of the King’s best moments and chief opponent of the aforementioned poetic traditions, and the other was an older man by the name of Johann, a stubborn goat determined to uphold the hegemony of romantic poetry. Into the early hours of the morning these men vied for influence with words more often shouted than spoken, the former recognising in Ali a talent for panegyric (even if it was directed at himself), the latter unwilling to see yet another Felix Ambrose work his way into the court.
As I passed the King en route to my quarters that evening, he confided in me that he had been “utterly confused” by the evening debate. I humbly commended the King for following the line of their arguments, claiming that such a feat was beyond me (I must point out that this is not the case).