Category Archives: Directing

Claudius

This poem, based on the 81st Psalm, is inspired by the cinematic version of Sir Patrick Stewart’s opening scene in a Palm d’Or-winning performance as Claudius, in Gregory Doran’s 2008 production of Hamlet.

David Tennant stars as Hamlet, which is what drew me in. Rumor has it that if he hadn’t missed a few performances for spinal surgery due to an on-stage injury, Tennant would’ve picked up a Lawrence Olivier Award for this performance. Between these two hard-working actors, you could fill a trophy room to the point of clutter with television, film and theater awards…

The poem is in the voice of Claudius, of course. His opening lines set up Hamlet’s later quip about coronation fireworks being “more honored in the breach than the observance.”

Tonight we shall sing and give thanks,
to salute the strength of our realm.
Lift your spirits and move with the drum,
the tambour and pipe call the tune.
Bring forth the trumpets – the moon is new,
and our fortunes can only grow.
For it is the custom in Denmark,
to toast royal alliances well.
The manners are sensible here,
and this is no novel fashion,
none can remember another.
“A son need not mourn forever,
nor shroud himself in strange despair.
Your grief calls out – I would set you free.
I speak with a king’s magnanimity.
I admit, there is a test in this.
My court is your audience, prince.
I would have you soften your grief.
For how can a king command mourning,
when the queen’s new consort reigns?
I am the head of your royal house,
who names you the throne’s only heir.
Show me your needs and I’ll meet them.
Now you say not one word to us,
and ask no blessing, discontent.
I would give my wife’s son good leave
to take his own counsel, dear prince.
If our people are well moved
to settle on me a king’s cares,
with what alacrity I’d strike
to show our rivals our full strength!
Our enemies would be dismayed,
and back to hell their ghosts would slink.
Acknowledge, prince, my regency,
stay here, drink up the honeyed wine.”

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The Missing

The Missing showcases a side of Ron Howard I never expected to see, and brings a wealth of stunning performance moments from an all-star cast in an epic adventure about family, race, and survivorship. Starring Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones, Evan Rachel Wood, Eric Schweig, Val Kilmer, Aaron Eckhart, and Jenna Boyd, the story follows the long journey home of a homesteading family in New Mexico after a renegade Apache brujo and his men attack in search of girls to sell in Mexico. Along the way, the white women of this family learn the hard way that their ignorance of Apache values and Apache claims to the land where they live cannot continue to go unchallenged.

My favorite scene in this movie is still the very first one, but I won’t give that away if you haven’t seen it yet. This poem, based on the 79th Psalm, is in Lilly’s voice (Evan Rachel Wood), ruminating in captivity about her odds of being rescued by white soldiers.

What has become of my mother? Strangers
have fouled our ranch with monstrosities,
nothing is sacred to these traffickers.
Our homestead reeks of violation.
the men of our household are carrion,
unburied and impossible to mourn;
their witch cooked Brake alive to feed wild crows.
The land we called our own soaked up their blood
through leaves and snow, as naturally as rain,
and no one left behind to dig their graves.
Before we were the butt of townsfolks’ jokes,
but what we’ve been reduced to – I’ve no words.
How can this have happened to me? How long
will my life be dragged through the mud, how long?
Why don’t these catastrophes strike people
more deserving of contempt, know-nothings,
people with no curiosity,
those who would’ve amounted to less?
Are there not enough fools and laggards
to surfeit their dens of iniquity?
Am I to suffer for my father’s crime?
surely the army will come for us,
for without their help, we are done for.
Someone is bound to attempt to save us,
for we have been stolen from Christian homes,
and no one dare blame us for going along,
so long as we fight in our hearts for grace.
These outlaws and drunks mock our hopes and prayers.
But when cavalry troops come, they’ll turn tail,
eager to outrun avenging lawmen.
When the officers see us bound and gagged,
they’ll be quick to cut our ropes and help us.
They’ll show these shameless bottom-feeders scorn,
and drive home their regard with bayonets.
We here are all that remains of our homesteads.
what we pray for is the barest minimum.
In our mothers’ names we cry for revenge.

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Harriet

The conversation about critical race theory has gotten so overtly racist and fascist these days that I have to suspect that in the years to come, lobbyists will be trying to prevent gradeschool and even college students from learning anything about Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad. When this movie came out, it broke a lot of glass ceilings in the film industry. And like the message of Martin Luther King, I think it frightened and angered a lot of people who weren’t prepared to grapple with the history of their own country and region.

When I was a kid, visiting Savannah, Georgia, I smiled to see so many statues of horsemen in the parks, merely because their horses were handsome and the bronze was nicely done. In hindsight, I am shocked at how oblivious I was at that age about the use of symbolism to prop up myths about Southern heritage that are totally out of touch with the reality of American history and the Civil War.

One of my favorite children’s authors, Richard Adams, wrote a book glamorizing the life of General Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveller, and I remember getting in trouble for bringing that book to school because it showed a confederate flag on the cover. I reacted defensively, because I saw it as a neutral horse story, and I saw the civil war as an uncontroversial backdrop to that horse story. I didn’t appreciate how distorted Richard Adams’s description of the civil war was at that age. He gave all the standard excuses for the insurrection – none of them were valid, but I bought the story hook, line and sinker. I didn’t believe that slavery was the root cause of the war.

Now that I know more about American history, I can see why people are fighting to suppress the truth. It may have been true all along, but to a lot of Americans, the fact that the Civil War was about slavery is news – and unwelcome news. It challenges what they learned in school. It challenges a lot of their assumptions about themselves and their heritage. And it raises a lot of questions about why that information was suppressed for so long after the war was won.

This poem, based on the 78th Psalm, is about the parable of the Exodus as a story told both among slaves and among freedmen and women, before and after the Civil War, to give context and inspiration to slaves and the children and descendents of slaves. For those who don’t know the movie Harriet or the story of the underground railroad, Harriet Tubman used the name and the legend of Moses when she traveled to the south to free slaves by stealth and by force, both before and during the Civil War.

Come near to your teachers, children, listen.
Open up your minds to history.
What I have to tell you has been passed down,
generation after generation,
and those who learn this story come to know
what our parents, and theirs, and theirs, went through.
We would not have you live in ignorance,
or raise your children without having known,
what wonders our own people worked for God.
They fought so you and I could be born free!
We, too, are descended of Moses;
his teaching was passed down to slaves,
and our ancestors raised up their children,
in secret they taught the commandments,
so that, in their hearts, they would uphold real laws,
for the sake of you children, their yet unborn,
that you might teach your sons and daughters
to place their trust in justice, truth and love,
and not forsake the miracle of freedom,
abiding by the righteous laws of God.
That they not join the lost generations,
rudderless and headstrong motherless boys,
as listless and as feckless as the damned,
and stripped of all religion – naked bones.
Such courage as they had in petty crimes
availed them little in the bitter south,
for they had no higher laws to live by,
and never thought to fight against Jim Crow.
And they forgot the war their parents fought,
and never looked on Moses as their own.
Before their ancestors were taken slaves,
another Moses led the way to freedom.
To part the sea that held his people back,
God held the waters fast – the waves stood still.
Beyond the land of Egypt, by a wisp
of cloud by day, a flame by night, He guided them.
This Moses showed them where to find cool springs,
when they believed themselves undone by thirst.
He shattered a great stone deep in the waste,
and water gushed free, clear as mountain streams.
And even then, his people challenged him,
unable to believe in a just God.
They mocked his gratitude for miracles,
demanding whether next, it would rain bread?
Among themselves, they bantered about God.
They joked, “Can He lay a feast in this desert?
If indeed we should thank him for this drink,
and He alone gave us this gushing spring,
why does He not serve bread at our table?
Where is the meat He has roasted for us?”
And God heard them well, and He answered them,
His people felt the heat of His wrath,
and their children, and theirs, paid a price.
For without belief and trust in providence,
they placed no value on their own salvation.
As easily as clouds scoot through the sky,
God brought to earth the bounty of the blessed,
a grain as fine as coriander seed,
for bread as white as hoarfrost, just for them.
This was a feast fit for Pharaohs and kings,
and it covered the desert surrounding their camp.
He drove the flocks of wild birds forth on storms,
the wind whipped from the east and from the south,
and pheasants and wild geese collapsed, exhausted,
and feathered feasts spread everywhere among them,
all the camp was littered with fresh meat,
and Moses and his people dwelt in plenty.
That day, they stuffed themselves without scruples,
for God had gratified their appetites.
They hiccupped, bellies strained against their belts,
when, even as they chewed the last morsels,
the force of God’s reproof struck in their midst,
and strong men in their prime were robbed of breath,
the flower of their youth snuffed out as one.
Yet even then, they heckled bitterly
against the thought of miracles and fate.
Thus in exile, without lands or laws, they went
their ways, remorselessly cynical, lost.
At times, at the point of the sword, they prayed
for help and looked to this God of old.
In these moments, they remembered their roots
and the works of Moses and Abraham.
These things tripped easily from their tongues
and they they spoke not true – although they prayed,
They made other pacts on the side, spread their bets,
and paid short shrift to the covenant.
Even so, the Lord had mercy for them,
curbed His anger toward them easily,
And sought no retribution in the end.
for He did not forget man’s frailty,
a creature born to die unrecompensed.
For men who have been slaves know only hate,
and cast into the wilderness, they doubt.
Of God they knew but little, trusted less,
and seizing freedom, cast aside all yokes.
What did your forebears know of miracles,
of holy intervention in men’s crimes,
of wonders done in Egypt, or on Sinai,
of water churning with slaveholders’ blood,
and poisoning the Pharaoh’s great estates?
Their Moses stole through riverbanks by night,
the cries of frogs and crickets masked her calls.
She led her people north, and left their crops
to feed the birds and wither in the fields.
If God had struck their cotton down with hail,
and sickened their moss oaks with mistletoe,
had robbed them of their livestock with a plague,
and bled their wealth, he could not have done more.
She roused freed slaves to fight the southern states,
to burn with the indignities they’d borne,
and raised and army to confront the whites.
Was Egypt’s Moses more war-like than theirs,
who called the wrath of God down on his foes,
and watched the seven plagues denude their wealth?
The Civil War, too, claimed the slavers’ sons,
a generation died on those bleak fields.
and Harriet, their Moses, led the way,
shepherding her flock to Canada.
She listened to God’s signs and quelled their doubts,
and led them where no enemy would find them.
And she delivered them up to freedom,
far from the slave-holding southern states.
And when they went south again in arms,
they fought for the right to their own land,
and won the right to see their kin again.
Yet the whites would not be reconciled,
and the terms of the peace they rebuked.
They went back to their old ways at once,
like a rifle that always misfires.
Their fiery crosses offended God,
these men who idolized whiteness and hate.
And the God of Moses reacted swiftly,
cutting off the Jim Crow whites from grace.
God withdrew from their homes and their hearts,
the spirit no longer shared their travails.
He turned His back while demagogues and crooks
assumed the reins of power in the south.
Even those He had freed felt him absence,
for his wroth no longer made distinctions.
The youth of their cities burned out, took drugs,
children had children, unmarried, alone.
The statesmen who fought for justice were slain,
and their legacies died with them, unmourned.
Now you must stir yourselves from this stupor,
like magicians freed from an evil spell.
You must fight the corrupt, pandering shills,
bring the ignorant poor out of their thrall.
The old ways will not serve you in your task,
the hesitancy of the middle path won’t work.
You must take new vows, invent new values,
true to the past, but not bound by its errors.
You must retake the commanding heights for love,
before the earth and all that’s in it burns.
Be able to lead those who only follow,
a shepherd to the lost, not the lucky few.
For if you cannot lead manind, the rest
will go to ruin from their ignorance,
and the elect will go without in turn.
Do not silence your conscience in this task,
but do it well, with statecraft and with nerve.

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Phantom of the Opera

Though I’m not normally one for musicals, I thoroughly enjoyed Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s masterpiece, The Phantom of the Opera, starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum. I cringe at Gerard Butler’s signature move in shoot-em-up’s of shooting his adversaries dead when they’re already down, but this role won me over to his fandom. Emmy’s turn as Christine is angelic, and I would definitely go to see another musical adaptation if she were in it – fans should check out her YouTube channel for original music videos, including Christmas music!

This poem, inspired by the 75th Psalm, is in Madame Giry’s voice, an almost omniscient narrator of the story of the cursed Parisian opera house and its melodramatic demise.

We sing for you, the Phantom – we take heed,
and know your voice, who summoned us, comes near.
The people are enthralled, and doubt you not.
“The point of no return is now at hand,
and I shall cast the lots – who lives, who dies.
This Opera house would fade from memory,
if I had not raised up its brightest star.
I warned the circus dancers, brutes and clowns,
and their inflated diva, not to sing.
Seek not to rob my prottégé of rank.
Your blithe disdain for art does not daunt me.
For nowhere else will you obtain the means
to move the soul – my music is the key.
The Phantom you abhor will have his due,
for only he can make or mar on cue.
At his fingertips the music sheaves,
mute with possibility – his dreams.
He will break his silence, and in song,
unwind his fell designs for the pompous throng,
and all will come to ruin at one blow.”
And I, though I keep faith, will always know
whose music moved the firmament that night.
“And all the fools who hunted me recoiled.
Christine alone held fast, and met my eyes.”

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The Missing

So the 64th Psalm turned out to be a dead ringer for Val Kilmer’s cameo in The Missing – pretty tickled to be able to write this poem. I really enjoyed Kilmer’s short appearance in this gem of a Ron Howard movie, opposite Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones.

I haven’t seen his newest release, but I’m eager to check out the material included on his long-awaited project about the connection between Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy. I honestly don’t know what the connection is, but I can’t wait to find out!

I once read a book written by the hypnotist who first introduced Miss Eddy to altered states of consciousness during her long, drawn-out ordeal with chronic back pain. Not too many copies of that one in circulation these days, but it’s housed at the Arts & Sciences library of Johns Hopkins University. It was fascinating, relating the story of a hypnotist who could raise a blister on your arm using only an imaginary heat source. Makes an interesting kind of backstory to the origins of Christian Science, a religion my father and his siblings were raised with – and those were definitely some troubled kids.

But back to The Missing, and the deadpan drollery of Val Kilmer’s lieutenant, when he encounters the search party looking for Maggie’s kidnapped daughter.

Look, ma’am, I’m just a lieutenant to this lot.
We, too, are hunted by Apache raiders.
These are enlisted men – turn aside your eyes,
I do not condone the clumsy thieving here,
and some would speak harshly of my command,
letting fly words of contempt for this disorder,
but such back-biting slanders innocent men,
and without a second thought, careers are up.
Men seek to climb the ranks by spreading mischief.
Already a few sulky men have laid traps.
They suppose me ignorant of common pranks.
“Search me!” such fools proclaim, “turn out my pockets!
What insurance I’ve laid by is hidden well,
and though you rake for it in my very breast,
not a jot will come to light – my cares are safe.”
Little enough do these men know of command.
As quickly as they speak up, they’ll be tossed out.
Their loose tongues will be their own undoing then,
and the rest will merely nod and mock at them.
The stolen valuables will all be paid for,
and by and by, they’ll learn to watch their missteps,
if only to grasp the likely consequence.
My duty and my means constrain my hand, ma’am,
I would offer you protection otherwise.

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Ludovico Einaudi – Waves

I opened up a book of early poems by William Butler Yeats the other day, and I read “The White Birds” while listening to some piano music about the ocean by Ludovico Einaudi. I discovered Einaudi from some of the more enchanted moments in the soundtrack to Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, The Water Diviner. I’ve been wanting to write some poetry about Einaudi’s music ever since.

But this short poem for Yeats and Einaudi quickly became just another poem about ocean plastic. I can’t think of anything but plastic when I picture the beach. Even listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s beautiful album Waves, all I can smell is trash from the dumpsters where the seabirds feed, now that the oceans contain more plastic than fish.

Plunge again in the water, dive deep in the foam –
count the lost inland seabirds who called these waves home.
Tangled in netting from hungers long spent,
the seashore rewrites all – the white birds have left.
The lily-like creatures of reef and abyss
turn empty glass faces toward ours, and we miss
the companionship wild geese and gulls mocked in us,
when we nodded to see them and bribed them to fuss
over all of our comings and goings – they’ve gone
up the rivers to forage from dumpsters that spawn
around cities we once fled to come to the sea.
Their detritus now covers all we can see.

Sorry to be so grim today. But here are some beautiful deep sea creatures to take your mind off the ugliness of it all.

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A Passage to India – Sonnet 4

I finally finished David Lean’s A Passage to India today, and I can say now with conviction, they don’t make movies like this one any more. The subtlety of the performances from Judy Davis and Victor Banerjee in the last act of the film really took my breath away.

And David Lean creates space for their quieter artistic choices rather than boxing them into a crescendo-series the way so many directors do in contemporary film. You don’t come to epic set pieces expecting something like this nowadays. You look back on the first two acts of the film as you watch their character arcs come to a fitting conclusion, and you can see how every little detail in their artistic choices realizing these roles sets up the climax and denouement flawlessly.

Now I can really see why Russell Crowe tells people he wants to be the next Judy Davis.

This sonnet is in Adela Quested’s voice, trying to make sense of her own actions in hindsight, after the conclusion of the rape trial.

While she is on the stand, we are given a momentary flash-back to a moment on the slope, approaching the Marabar caves, when she clasped Dr. Aziz by the hand for support as she struggled against heat exhaustion and pressed on with him alone. And when giving testimony, she takes us back to a conversation the two of them had during a short rest in their climb. Mr. Fielding, trying to help her make excuses after the trial, suggests that it was suggestion alone that drove her to make the accusation – all along, he suspected she was surrounded by people who mistrusted Indians wholesale, and that this was the whole trouble.

In the end, we are left with the impression of a sensitive young woman who does not quite fit in anywhere, too alert to the contradictions that surround her station in the British Empire to make herself at home in the world.

The sense of touch, the recognition there
of conversations huddled on the brink
of truths we would not speak, but sought to share,
brings waves of vertigo each time I blink.
So many featherweight assumptions press
upon me from well-wishers – when I stayed
the course, I muddled through under duress,
unwilling to disown the scene I’d made.
The horror of the self alone pursued
me down the slope from those unblinking caves,
and how could I explain? Our friends seclude
themselves away from mirrors and close shaves
with self-reflection – they abhor self-doubt,
and cannot feel the fears I dream about.

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A Passage to India – Sonnet 3

While watching A Passage to India, David Lean’s adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel, I’ve begun reading Jawaharlal Nehru’s prison letters to his 10-year-old daughter, Indira Gandhi, who went on to become the Prime Minister of India (twice), like her father before her.

I discovered this little gem of a children’s book through a sweeping history of one of the world’s most vibrant new democracies, India After Gandhi, by Ramachandra Guha, who is now my favorite history writer of all time. Guha’s history of India is rich in personal detail, while still remaining epic in scope and searchingly powerful in the variety of perspectives it brings to bear on each chapter in India’s eventful recent history.

Reading these letters (from 1931) today, while watching the third act of the movie, gave a special poignancy to the story. This sonnet is about Peggy Ashcroft’s Academy Award-winning performance as the Englishwoman Mrs. Moore.

Here, Mrs. Moore looks out on the moon’s reflection in the Indian ocean from a steamer on which she has left India alone, spurned by her son, the colonial magistrate, who has just refused bail to her friend, Dr. Aziz, on the grounds that his fiance (her friend Miss Quested) accuses Dr. Aziz of attempted rape, during an expedition to the eerie and remote Marabar caves.

To look upon the moonlight on the deep,
I cannot help remembering Aziz,
not as he is, but as we met – I keep
returning to that scene, the great Ganges,
the modesty with which this doctor smiled
to share the view with me, as if he knew
my heart the way an unassuming child
can read our minds at once – and as I do,
my very being stutters at the thought
that our encounter led him on to this
appalling consequence. Those empty caves,
so full of what we bring to them, and not
what we would take again – all that’s amiss
re-echoes in distorted, ceaseless waves.

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A Passage to India – Sonnet 2

I just read a review of Amartya Sen’s memoirs of India, and the review makes some telling points about the British Raj and its self-styled legacy. While I’m not ready to start a new book (still reading Ramachandra Guha’s epic India After Gandhi), Sen’s book sounds like a good companion piece to David Lean’s A Passage to India, which I’ve been watching in small chunks this week, to get a glimpse of the early Judy Davis, one of Russell Crowe’s all-time favorite actors.

In this scene, Adela Quested (played with understated charisma in this scene by Judy Davis) has just had a fight with her fiancé, the stiff-backed colonial magistrate, over his incivility to two Indians who were her companions at a small party hosted by another dignitary of the Raj. She needs a break from the awkward family circle at her fiancé’s fancy bungalow, and goes out cycling alone, where she comes across a ruined tantric temple guarded only by wild monkeys.

This set was built for the David Lean film, but in faithful imitation of an actual temple at Khajuraho. The scene is quite controversial with fans of the novel and play that inspired the film, as it does not appear in either one, and is far more explicit in exploring Adela’s sexuality than Forster’s book. The following sonnet was written without the benefit of having read the book or seen the rest of the film (yet).

A wind that runs before the noonday sun
cut through the palmy grass, unveiling sights
a bride might half-suspect, so far from Eton,
far more wondrous than the Marabar heights.
I slowed my bicycle to study each
rapturous frieze in this strange pantheon
of demi-gods, as if stone busts could teach
the ornament of love to anyone.
Perhaps it’s true that marriage cannot make
one know the other – even so, we reach
for what is of ourselves to give, and take
to us the trappings of a bond we would not breach.
The demons of the animal in us
drive out pure-minded thoughts of paribus.

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Kingdom of Heaven

Kingdom of Heaven is a fitting sequel to Gladiator for Ridley Scott, with beautiful set pieces, an all-star cast and a love story that weaves its way through historical events effortlessly and ties the whole thing off very nicely in the end. Inspired by real events, it follows the story of Balian, defender of Jerusalem, and culminates in a battle won by the legendary Saladin, played with steel and panache by Ghassan Massoud.

In his first confrontation with the crusaders (not his actual first, but the first one depicted in the film), having cornered a particularly malicious mercenary in his lair at Kerak, Saladin is unexpectedly forced to stand down by the arrival of King Baldwin’s army. This is a great frustration to his men, because the mercenary in question has been harassing caravans of Muslim pilgrims, in violation of the peace King Baldwin had negotiated.

This poem, inspired by the 60th Psalm, is in the voice of a mullah played by Khaled Nabawy who, after this undecided battle, questions Saladin’s assurance that the right time and place will be chosen for victory, by him. The mullah prefers to give all credit for planning and promising victory to Allah.

God, You turned your back on us – our homes are overrun.
You exacted blood for our impieties – relent!
You made our great roads tremble, thick with infidels.
Restore what now remains of our toppled pride.
You answered our thirst for glory with harsh medicine,
You filled our cup with a bitterness that left us dry.
You gave God-fearing people a rallying cry,
a scripture of our own to teach the truth.
Will you not free your followers from Western despots?
Extend your hand in aid to answer our prayers, our oaths.
Allah has spoken, that it should be written down:
“Over the village of Asqalan let me exult,
and all the forests of Lebanon I shall measure.
Mine is Galilee, and I shall take back Ibelin,
from the fortress of Tiberius, invincible,
where the Horns of Hattin will draw blood before night falls.
The Gulf of Aqaba will do for a washbasin,
in Judea I cast off my sandals and take rest,
over Jerusalem’s gates my men shout, triumphant.”
Who will stand forth and lead us to Raynald’s lair, Kerak,
and lay siege to the sell-sword who desecrates the Hajj?
Have our men of courage quailed within sight of his walls?
Salahadin will not avenge even his own kin.
God will deliver us from these infidels’ terror,
if petitioning men for redress has been in vain.
In the name of Allah, we shall summon greater strength,
and God will give these mercenary knights a dog’s death.

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