INDIAN POETS IN ENGLISH —APRIL

Image result for urban contemporary india in painting

This is the third installment of Scarriet’s crash course in contemporary Indian poetry in English—seven poets per month (Feb ’18 thru Jan ’19)—suggested by Linda Ashok in The Poetry Mail.

Sukrita P. Kumar writes poetry striving to be everything at once: wise, but wise with simple imagery, which nonetheless reveals wisdom in, and behind, that imagery.  What else can a poet do?

For wise imagery, it doesn’t get any better than this:

Flames are messengers
Carrying the known
To the unknown

Life to afterlife

So ends Sukrita Kumar’s “The Chinese Cemetery.”

One must remember that the history of poetry is actually brief—exciting stories of warriors and gods, religious and creation texts, romantic songs, witty satires, haiku-like imagery, or some combination thereof. Most contemporary poetry is a strict, disciplined journey in quasi-religious imagery; Sukrita Kumar is no exception.

The poem quoted above begins this way:

The smile in the photograph
Is no reflection of what lies
In the dark hollow of the tunnels
Behind cement squares in rows,
Each, one-by-one in size
Marked by dates, picture, name
Of a tiny flash
A dot of life in the universe

Now are things really this bad?  Or is this just extremely disciplined writing?  One almost longs for Dante and his Beatrice, Alexander Pope doing circus tricks, or Keats making voluptuous rhymes—after reading this. But this is what the poets are doing today. Patience on a monument.

Because yes, things are really this bad. For some.

*

Vinita Agrawal’s poem, “The Refugees Are Here,” is an unrelenting tragedy of families dying, forced to trek because of war.

“People and their earth are one,” the poem states at one point.

But everything in the poem contradicts this sentiment.

For instance, “How does then a father explain/to his child’s face showing clear pain/That when a homeland has been snatched/just a home is not enough…”  The child, who eventually perishes, cries out to the father, “I don’t want to go anywhere. You are my home!”

There’s no relief. The poem ends, “the refugees are here/only to keep alive the stories of their land/through chapped, charred lips/that dried up kissing loved ones goodbye.”

**

Mustansir Dalvi writes satiric poetry.

It can be interesting to observe humor philosophically; humor doesn’t usually live full-blown in poetry, and when it does, the critic scrambles to make sense of it. The critic will notice the genre of humor needs to constantly reference things outside of itself; beauty and sorrow are self-sufficient; sorrow can hide and still move us; humor has to know common things that everyone knows.  Funny poetry is harder to pull off, and when it fails, it fails like bad rhyme; we can see it fall.

We are not sure the two poems by Dalvi, found in the Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry, “why someone needed to kick the infant Kafka in the balls” and “Prayer can change your fate, too (found object)” succeed, or not.  Perhaps the critic missed a reference, or two; it was the critic’s fault we “didn’t get the joke.”  Perhaps the critic is wrong altogether, and humor is not the object at all.  Let’s quote the first poem in its entirety, to make sure we are not mad:

Every poet
Wants to wake
As Gregor Samsa
one morning.

Every poet wants
to drag his belly in the dirt,
to be exalted by coarse burns
forming welts around his navel.

Every poet would
willingly put himself in harm’s way
to be squished into concupiscent curd
by someone who doesn’t even notice.

When we get to the third stanza, and read how “every poet would willingly put himself in harm’s way,” we think we are reading pure satire.  Is poetry being ridiculed?  Kafka?  And then there’s the reference to the famous Wallace Stevens poem. The satirist looks outward, challenging assumptions, and we definitely feel challenged.  Is the poem making fun of us—if we don’t “get the joke” (is there a joke?) are we the one who don’t “even notice?”

Mustansir Dalvi has won, and the reader has lost.  Or has the poet lost?  Or has the poet and the reader won?  Or is it all a mystery?  And no one wins or loses. We are Gregor Samsa, the bug.  And we know nothing. Or a lot.

***

Arun Sagar was born in 1965. Reading three of his poems published in Coldnoon, International Journal of Travel Writing, we find pleasing poetry of intimate delicacy.

In “Liège,” we find ourselves enclosed by the poem, and admire the way the poet puts us in the poem; sometimes we think this is the best thing writing can do—put us in a pleasant place.  The phrase, “the bus station an anchored ship” is nice. “Each way out is worthy” also gives great joy, as the poet adds to the pleasurable effect of the immersion.  Granted, one might say this poetic ambition aims low; it concedes pleasant life is all—but skill, sensitivity, patience, and wisdom are required when we find a  poem has replaced our life.

LIÈGE

Already I remember rain
on the windowpane,
the bus station an anchored ship,
soft disco music.
Already I remain onboard
with early morning baggage smells,
the driver’s quizzical smile.
This is the eternal
problématique: 5 am,
the impossibility of sleep
or tears, streetlights
through glass and rain.
Each way out
is worthy, each way leads
to clarity and mist,
and music.
And you, too,
are present here, the mere
knowledge of it
is enough; you too lean back
in your seat,
stretch your feet.
You look at me as if to speak.
.
****

Jennifer Robertson’s poem, “Come Undone,” published in The Missing Slate, is prefaced with a quote from Anais Nin, which is the theme of the poem which follows: “I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women are inside me.”

Madness is win-win in poetry.

The poet may not be mad, but the trope of madness always generates interest.

If the poet is mad, this will likely generate even more interest—unless it completely ruins the poetry.

If the poetry is good, we enjoy the madness whether the poet is writing about madness or is, in fact, mad.  It really doesn’t matter.

The poem isn’t sufficient to prove whether the poet is mad—any sort of hint that madness is in the neighborhood will help; “madness is win-win in poetry” naturally becomes its own prophecy.

And finally, the saving grace is that if we don’t like madness, madness is really not madness at all—in this case, having “many women” inside is healthy, and to be merely “quiet and consistent,” the implied problem.

Jennifer Robertson summons Adrianne Rich (“Diving Into the Wreck”) and Virginia Woolf (who reportedly “put stones in her pocket” when she committed suicide by sea) in her poem, which succeeds beautifully:

No more walls, she says.
No more coats. I’ll have none of that.
None of your hands
shadow-boxing a hermit crab.
No more repetitive shapes
or sharks to
set things right

ocean after ocean after ocean

I’ll speak of things, of names
too difficult to decipher.
And yes, no more changing into a flower,
a sea anemone, a jellyfish.
I’ll remember that all animals
are predatory
at the bottom of the sea.

And then I’ll speak of
hurricanes, mirrors,
and odd-numbered
fantasies
of a brokenness you call
inadequate,
paltry, blonde.

You will not be able to see me change.
You will not see me drifting into the sea.
There will be nothing aquatic
about this shipwreck. You will not know
the colour blue.
When I put stones in my pocket
You’ll still be looking at a mermaid

and saying,
Look, how close
she is to the ship.

 

*****

Arvind Krishna Mehrota is a professor, born in 1947.  He edited the Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets. One can access two brief poems of his, one published in Poetry in 1976 and the other in The New York Review of Books in 2011. He has done tireless work as a translator.

Enchanting how “Engraving of a Bison on Stone” (from Poetry) begins:

The land rests
Because it cannot be
Tempted or broken
In a chamber.

“Except That It Robs You Of Who You Are” is a wonderful title; the poem, however, berates “speech” in a somewhat predictable manner.

Except that it robs you of who you are,
What can you say about speech?
Inconceivable to live without
And impossible to live with,
Speech diminishes you.
Speak with a wise man, there’ll be
Much to learn; speak with a fool,
All you get is prattle.
Strike a half-empty pot, and it’ll make
A loud sound; strike one that is full,
Says Kabir, and hear the silence.

The “fool” will “prattle.” So maybe I should shut up.

******

Rochelle Potkar is an amazing find.  She writes with wit and insight.

“Disquiet” is a delight to read, and must be quoted in full:

My father was the quietest man;
his few words made no sense
in the world’s idiom.
.
Saddled into a marriage
astride a dead horse of tradition
he flogged it too many times
for two children.
.
He stayed away even when near.
He did not belong to anyone,
unaware of our favorite colors,
our school grades, or
the names of our boyfriends.
.
He lent money to ruffians at high interest rates
and recovered nothing.
Smoothening his hands over glossy brochures,
he invested in scams of impossible dreams.
.
He used to count his coins
like I now count my words
.
I too am falling out of the system.
.
I too belong to no one.
I fear he is growing inside me…
(Are we always pregnant with our parents?)
.
I fight to brew soup for my daughter
To know her grades
and look her in the eye
during her babbles.
I know her favorite toys, colors
the names of her friends.
.
I have hidden the broken mirrors of my growing disengagements.
I am killing the father inside me,
but he keeps rising.
.
My language is turning alien
in the world’s idiom.
.
I too have placed faith in scams
Of soul, body, and intellect.
The rule being: everyone is duped at least once.
.
I search for him in other faces
and turn mine away
when I find even one similar feature.
.
But can I run away from the one cell that is the whole Self?
.

The “one cell that is the whole Self” is stunning.  The whole poem is lyrical, yet epic in scope, intense, self-aware, and accessible. Poetry too often scrutinizes obscurely and complacently the eccentric, the trivial.  Not only is the poetry of Rochelle Potkar preferable, it far exceeds expectations, as it sagely thrills.

*******

So ends the April edition. Looking forward to May. Thanks again, to Linda Ashok.

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3 Comments

  1. maryangeladouglas said,

    April 14, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    Worthy.

    • maryangeladouglas said,

      April 15, 2018 at 12:09 am

      THROWBACK

      someday driving into the Caledonian,
      into the mists of what is left of
      an unexpected blue

      and the folkways branching like cherries
      and my heart as full of song as the pear
      branch blossoms in May

      unsure of whether it be pear blossom
      or the light of uncertain stars
      uncertain stars the light of my songs

      the light of what does or doesn’t belong in this century
      and I a vivid ghost looking into dead mirrors
      I will not waste away

      nor seek as was said by angels
      the living among the dead
      with the rains I will be, and never lost

      among Caledonian hills,
      keeping the density of storm clouds
      while they live, and full of bright birds

      with the unexpected lightning of rainbows
      around the Throne

      and with the Holy Ghost discerning everything
      singing as I can with the surging winds
      the petals translucent as they are scattered

      and as they sail;

      well beyond the status quo the growth of capital;
      well you may say, well, toward
      the summits of gold.then:

      God on high, Christ as he would be remembered
      and brushing aside infernal gossip.
      the need to know,

      removing all its springs
      just how the music is wound.
      for the white and gold,for the white and gold;

      the opaline weddings of the skies.
      and Poetry as it would be known, unto God.

      mary angela douglas 14 april 2018


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