INDIAN POETRY OCTOBER

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India is just like America.  Why does it seem this way, as I review Indian poetry in English? Scarriet continues the project inspired by Linda Ashok.

Welcome to October.  (This 7-poet-reviewed series began in February.)

Hoshang Merchant was born in 1947.

He writes mostly in English, lives in Hyderabad, India, and has been educated in America, Iran and Jerusalem. He writes a searing love lyric—operatic and tragic.  Witness his poem, “Scent of Love:”

It is raining a small rain
A gentle rain
over all the world
Gentle like that love which is so hard
to sustain or to receive or to reciprocate
Because men are greedy: They bite and tear

You from the mountains I from the plains
I from the city You from the forest
I a hunter And you a deer
The city is full of the smell of my dear today

The musk mingles with the rain
Its scent spreads
This morning I lie in bed dreaming of you
I was to be hunter but I’m an inert deer

Sensing danger you wait
And I sense danger with you
Why is the world so crazed for venison?
I wonder at a living creature
Who must so eat a living creature!

And suddenly the wounded doe dies for you
She has dragged herself to you to die before you
Her stag
Did she not stay one night inert
When you slew her in bed
Just as tonight I wish to slay you?

Does not our passion only bring suffering
And do we all not die daily a little
Satisfying our longings?
Play go play though your scent drives me wild
And I have myself become wild in my love for a wild thing

Slay or be slain
And your hand will not be cleansed of blood ever again
The pain the pain of love is everywhere
And the scent of this musk cannot be washed even in a rain.

Time and space does not permit printing more of Merchant’s poems, but I cannot resist presenting the opening stanza of “My Sister Takes A Long Long Time To Die:”

It was the dark of winter
When the illness came like a thunderclap
They isolated an Indian girl in the Chicago snow
Hoping this Indian disease would go away
But it was America that had killed her
The sickness in us is named America
And the long long time of waiting does not die.

There is a certain timeless passion in the poetry of Hoshang Merchant.  Passion (is this a paradox?) tends to turn poetry into prose—the poetry is ruined by what it contains. This seems to be the chief dilemma of the modern poet. If the poetic furnace from the 15th century is still hot; why not use it? There is something about Merchant’s poetry which reminds me of the old English and Italian sonneteers.

*

Shriram Sivaramakrishnan is like many poets.

The feeling and thinking and method of poetry is all one—it is as if life were speeding up and we were near death and the most honest and significant thing about life needed to be spoken in as few words as possible.

That’s what poetry is and that is its delight. Modernism has long banned the “romantic rhyme” as the model for poetry, though it remains so in the popular taste.

With the rise of the Instagram poets, however, the pithy epigram (is it really a poem?) is replacing rhyme.

The ‘scientist poets,’ many who come from India, however, have something different in mind.

Poem #1: A Glass of Water

A glass of water.

How simpler can the truth be?
Water — that indomitable spirit of nature —
civilized at the work of man.

‘Taught manners,’ let us say,
to display socially acceptable behaviour
to remain stoic and lend herself to the
whim of the organized mind,

that is, to contain her primal fury:
that which moved continents into civilizations
and made landmass levitate like china dolls;

into a palpable parameter
for further fiddling,
a ripple will disrobes her
into poetic verses
to quench this carnal thirst.

but contained, she was
as in petri dish
under the microscopic lenses
of a microcosmic species,
in whose sacral dimple
even a tail had chosen not to grow.

**

Keki Daruwalla, born in 1937, belongs to the generation of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, learned in the primitive, yet new.

New Criticism is the chief influence—it seeks human transcendence among the stoic and half-sublime creatures of nature—bees and fish figure prominently—in a style of taciturn, flinty, ice-cold lyricism.

Fish

The sea came in with her and her curved snout
and her tin coloured barnacles
and long threaded rose moles
patterned on her body.

The sea brought her and her curved snout
and her rose moles and her eyes still translucent
as if half aware and half unaware
of the state of her body.

The sea came in with her and her scimitar snout
and her translucent eyes
greying into stone.

The sea brought her in,
wrapped in seaweed
and slapped her on the sand,
all five feet of her
with the armour of her scales
and the filigree of her rose moles.

The tide kept coming in
but couldn’t disturb her
or her resting place –
she was heavy.

The sea fell back but even
as the thin-edged foam line receded,
it went to her once more with a supreme effort,
rummaged among her barnacles
and left.

Tide and fish are powerfully invoked in the poem’s repetitive language. A simple, yet magnificent, work.

***

C.P. Surendran writes the startling lyric. A small observation which is yet significant is what this poet does particularly well. The following poem is a masterpiece of this:

Prospect

While you were sleeping
A dog yawned in the sun
And in the distance,
A train, blindfolded by a tunnel,
Window by window
Regained vision.
I thought of all the things
That could happen
When we are looking away,
The universe we miss in a blink.

A Friend in Need displays the rueful, mathematical precision of an old Romantic.

He sits in a chair
Whose fourth leg’s his.
He loves this chair.They used to make love in it.
That was when the chair
Had four plus two plus two,
Eight legs. Days with legs.
Since then there’s been a lot of walking out.
Now the chair’s short of a leg
And he’s lending his.

The best poems are when the language writes it (or is this misanthropic?)—language can say more than one wonderful thing at the same time—like harmony in music. Every assertion of this poem—simple in the extreme—says two precise things, proving language was the writer—it wasn’t just the poet complaining.

Surendran’s helpless longing is beautifully rendered by the passive possessives—“leg’s his” and “he’s lending his.” The “He loves this chair” couldn’t be anything but that, since we know by the poem he does love, given the subject of the poem—and the chair as the place where they made love—a variation on bed, is a surprise keeping with the charm of this clear, sweet, sad eight-legged poem.

****

Nitoo Das doesn’t mind being called a “feminist” poet. She deflects the male gaze with—in a poet’s irony—exactly what the male gaze seeks, (with a little added wit.)

How To Write Erotica

Treat it like a hoax. Wear
suitable clothes. Gauzy.
Be slippery. Create calligraphic circles.
Cite flowers. Reveal the vanilla, declare
the hibiscus. You’re allowed
to be slightly long-winded.
Also, abstruse. Don’t be afraid.
Be kaleidoscopic. Fractalise. Read Nin.
Better still, read Sappho. Surreal
and slow. Steer clear
of the opaque. Quirkiness is useful,
so is translucence. Spank
words carefully. Include
lots of skin, mouth,
tongue. However aesthetic
breasts work the best. Linger.
Startle with a sudden mention
of death. It should be clear, you’re not
improper. Sigh, hush,
hiss a bit. Confuse
memory. Clarify: there could be two
or three or four bodies involved,
but not necessarily. Be serious.
Throw in a few bones
to close.

The genius of this poem is that the poetry writes the erotica—the theme is embraced, and is dignified, and in command, because, as the poet knows, “erotica” is a “how to”—the whole approach in which the poet slyly tells us “how to write erotica” is proper—therefore it is delightfully sly when she writes, “you’re not improper.” Morality is not the issue, since “how to” is merely that.

The poem triumphs because the poetry is deliciously good: “Reveal the vanilla, declare the hibiscus.”

Phrases “Sigh, hush, hiss a bit” succeed because the poem is called “How to write erotica—and the poet presents to us how language can be cunningly erotic even as it is “not improper.” The joke is that the “erotic” in the hands of a skilled poet is both erotic and proper; “Treat it like a hoax,” is how the poem opens, and everything that follows—from “wear suitable clothes” to “Fractalise” to “Read Nin. Better still, read Sappho” to “However aesthetic breasts work the best”—succeeds in both directions—the poem is erotic, and yet the poetry and the wit creates the most delight.

The eroticism of Nitoo Das is not cheap, just as a nude by a great painter never feels pornographic. Who knows why this is so? Who knows why “How To Write Erotica” is erotic, and yet not?

Literature can be exciting in so many ways.

*****

Kiriti Sengupta is an admirer of Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1913) which is apparently controversial for the new poets—perhaps it’s similar to American academics who feel they are too modern and sophisticated for Poe. Sengupta translates Bengali poetry into English. He’s written a trilogy which combines fiction, memoir, and poetry. His English poetry comments on contemporary events in the heroic mode.

The Untold Saga

It only took two hands
to kill the evil; it only took
the trident to destroy the opponent.
Yet autumn arrives through your
larger-than-life avatar teamed with
the ten arms. Like many women
you followed the husband; you had
several other weapons to fight the war…

Durga, was this a conscious decision?

Legends say you emerged from the gods,
the presiding male dignitaries while Asura
remained unfailingly blessed—invincible.
You won, but you didn’t claim a reward!

That you are formally worshiped twice a year
made no difference to the gasping Nirbhaya,
who gave up to the penetrating rod the scoundrels
dug into her motherly cave through the birth route.

And that Nirbhaya followed death/deterred her from creating an epic!

[Poet’s Note: Nirbhaya died from fatal injuries following gang-rape in Delhi in 2012.]

******

Ankita Shah is a political poet reacting to war, refugees, and artificial, unnecessary, divisions created by, and in the wake of, war.

A video performance of Ankita Shah’s bilingual poem, “Go Back To Your Own Country,” went viral on Facebook.

Political poetry will always have a niche, and the political poetry niche in India appears to be exactly the same size as the political poetry niche in the U.S. We are not sure why this is.

*******

Thanks for reading!  We will see you in November!

 

 

 

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