POETRY MAGAZINE’S INDIA ISSUE, JULY/AUGUST 2019

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Poetry’s India issue is not an India issue.

In the globalist introduction by editors Kazim Ali and Rajiv Mohabir, we are told countries do not exist; only colonies and far-flung sub-cultures do.

In their introduction to Poetry’s “Global Anglophone Indian Poems,” the editors wish to erase the nation of India:

“Indian” is the wrong word to encompass  and label diasporic subjectivities of South Asians that descend from a system of indenture.

This sounds like something one would hear in the British Foreign Office around 1933.

Narratives flip. History repeats. The optimism of Indian independence from the British in the middle of the 20th century has been replaced by the pessimism of learned, anti-colonialist academics, who hold that there was no “Indian” independence from the “British” after all—because, according to Ali and Mohabir, “There is no such thing as cultural purity—Indian or not.”

A nation—which gathers together differences in a happy embrace—is this possible? It was not, according to the British Empire, whose very rule depended on division, nor is it anything the editors wish to get behind, spending most of the introduction asserting India isn’t real. Because nothing “culturally pure” exists. Which we all know, but…

“Culture” is a term always used broadly, and in terms of connection—and this is the very essence of the word; and this aspect of it shouldn’t inspire fear, unless one wants to get rid of culture altogether. We all admire gardens, and gardens grow, even as they remain gardens. Nations are nations in as much as they have a culture which binds the nation as a nation together, and this is a good thing. The editors, however, see danger:

The notion of a culturally pure India is a dangerous weapon leveraged to maintain social distance, as in some cases it fans anti-Muslim and anti-Black politics.

Is “social distance” civility? What do they mean by this?

And what exactly is “Muslim politics?” And is “Muslim” or “black politics” ever “pure,” and, because of this “purity,” is it, too, “dangerous?”

Or is it only the “culturally pure India” which is “dangerous?”

Division is always good, according to the editors—since the greatest unity India ever achieved was “an India that does not exist today, except for in histories kept by elders: a pre-partition British India, a single landmass owned by white masters.”

God forbid Indians get to rule a “landmass.” Better, according to the editors, that Indians are divided—to the point where they don’t really exist.

For Ali and Mohabir, Indian unity of any kind is either non-existent, white, or bad. India as a Hindu country is something the editors cannot bring themselves to even mention, as this, perhaps to them, is the ultimate horror. They refer to Hindus once—in the first paragraph, as if the religion practiced by a billion Indians, 4 Indians in 5, were a minor anomaly:

On the one hand, “Indian” languages were always transnational, or—in more modern times—global. Regional languages encountered one another, as well as Farsi and Urdu, during Mughal conquests; the concepts of Hindi as a national language and Hindustan as a national space were both developed in response to the perceived foreign influence of the northern empire builders. Crosspollination existed between the Urdu-speaking Mughals and Farsi- and Arabic-speaking cultures, both in spoken and written literatures. Queen Elizabeth I and Emperor Akbar the Great were exchanging letters in Urdu and English through their translators before there was a British East India company.

This is their first paragraph. What does this mean?

I understand protecting minority rights—constitutions and laws cover this; but to forever and preemptively assume the majority is the devil, and to always undermine it on principle isn’t exactly the recipe for a strong and happy nation.

The editors point of view seems to be that anything which has anything to do with “indenture” and “diaspora” is the best thing of all. A kind of strange, unholy, celebration of the results of the British Empire keeps breaking out in the rhetoric of the editors. Are the “white masters” hiding in the wings? In high rises in London? In the editorial offices of Poetry? We hope not.

That British Empire was quite a thing. “Colonies” and the “indentured” and “diaspora” everywhere. Did the British make India? Yes, absolutely, according to Ali and Mohabir—exemplifying the truth that the British “Divide and Rule” Empire still lives, spilling into everything, even the rhetoric which attempts to summarize the topic in a short introduction:

The earliest Indian poetry in English, including those poems by nationalist anti-colonial poets like Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu, were poems from the British literary tradition. It would take a new generation of Indian poets, who included the Kala Goda poets Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and others, to begin developing a new Indian English aesthetic that drew not only on British influences, but local traditions as well as global ones.

Just as the British Empire both made and destroyed India, it continues to erase all sense of what anyone might say—including these editors, Ali and Mahobir—about Indian poetry in English.

The Indian “nationalist anti-colonial” poems were “poems from the British literary tradition.”

Got that?

Indian literary independence was British.

Therefore, Ali and Mohabir say,

It would take a new generation to begin developing a new Indian English aesthetic that drew not only on British influences, but local traditions as well as global ones.

But what is British influence if not “global,” thanks to its global empire? And how could poets like Tagore not have been influenced by “local traditions” back then, writing poems from “the British literary tradition?”

One can see how any attempt to extract “India” from “English” is hopeless. That is, if one ignores the content of poems and puts them into implicitly denigrated categories such as the “British literary tradition,” the only discernible aesthetic gesture made by the editors—whose introduction is otherwise lost in politics. Their aesthetic point begins with a platitude made regarding “tradition” and reasons from that nothing into more nothing. All the editors say is true—if truth is a circle starting at nowhere and ending at no place.

And now we come to the poetry selection.

As one might expect, there is no “British literary tradition” anywhere in sight.

The poems in the “Global Anglophone Indian Poems” issue of July/August Poetry, establish themselves right away as that which could not possibly belong to any tradition at all, except perhaps this one: Poems in English That May As Well Have Been Written in Urdu Since No English Speaker Can Understand Them. This will show those British white devils! And anyone who speaks their language!

The interesting thing about the 42 “Indian” poems in the Poetry Indian issue is that almost all of them sound like they could have been written by Ezra Pound—redolent of that flat, unthinking, anti-Romantic, anti-lyricism which roams the desert looking for an oasis of sweet rhyme intentionally never found, for the journey is to punish such desires.  And in this desert we rarely come across a person who speaks as a real person about some accessible thing that matters in a life really lived. It’s poetry that vaults at once past actual life, and any Romantic ideal of actual life, into some abstract library of learned reference. What we get is not Kishore Kumar as a poem (if only!) but a condescending or ironic reference to Kushore Kumar—in the abstract, attenuated, machine-like speech of the anti-lyrical, footnote, poem.

One of the better poems in the portfolio, by Arundhathi Subramaniam (it actually has a somewhat personable and lyric beauty) happens to contain the Kushore Kumar reference, a footnote gesture less annoying than usual. I also enjoyed the poems by Nabina Das, Rochelle Potkar, Sridala Swami, Jennifer Robertson, Ranjit Hoskote, Mani Rao, and Hoshang Merchant, though in most cases I’ve seen better examples of their work elsewhere. I’ve written about these poets in Scarriet. I compared Swami to Borges, praised Subramaniam as a “lullaby” poet, called Potkar a wonderful discovery, and even placed these poets into this year’s Scarriet Poetry March Madness. But here they are in Poetry. And of course I am happy for them.

Have I soured on the Indian poetry in this special edition of Poetry because I read the introduction first, and that soured me? Or were my expectations too high, thinking the venerable Poetry magazine would offer the best Indian Poetry selection I had ever seen?

Here’s the first poem we meet in the volume. It’s a kind of flickering, black and white, news reel of broken images, half-memories, abstracted references. Modernist to the core. What is it saying? We are not sure, exactly. India was never free, never happy? The ends of lines and the end of the poem, swoon towards their termination in an Eliotic whimper. What we do know is the poem is vaguely complaining, inglorious, and trying its best not to sound poetic (because the Romantics are not allowed).

Freedom (Nabanita Kanungo)

It would try to lisp a dumbness sometimes—
the language of welts rising slowly on the panes,
a cracked blur of riot-torn air,
confused which year it was.
.
The last time it made a sound was when
it crinkled on its way into a bin,
a great plot of justice. I wasn’t born, then;
my father was.
.
It must have been whole once,
for you could still conceive it like a dream,
a gloriously illegitimate thing, though;
until a country was torn out of its heart one day
and you saw its impaled ghost in the moon.
.
My grandfather told me we had slept so long
with a flag over us, we couldn’t run when
machetes poked us awake amidst still-dreaming heads
rolling in the streets like marbles struck in game.
.
There was nowhere to go and we went nowhere,
with its face slumped on our backs
and history books that said what had happened is the past,
.
until sixty years later, a community’s threats betraying
her voice, a poor nun requested me
to leave my month-old job in a convent
where I’d studied since childhood.
.
I keep trying to find its shape in photographs, old letters,
the wind of stories trapped in some cancerous throat, dying …
.
a tattered roof in the stars, a tent flying off
with meanings barely gathered into a heap.

One imagines a Modernist school teacher shaping this poem—and what is ironic about this, of course, is that Modernism was the period when the English were still (cruelly) ruling India. The Greeks, the Romantics, where is their influence? Why is Indian poetry ruled by a style belonging to early 20th century American Anglophiles, like Pound and Eliot? Pessimistic, anti-Romantic Pound and Eliot? Why? Poe fought for American literary independence—and was rejected, even reviled, by the Anglo-American modernist establishment (Eliot hated Poe as much as he hated Shelley).

Look how the first poem in the volume ends: “with meanings barely gathered into a heap.” Why should Indian poets linger in the tidal pools of late British Empire despondency? “Because we have troubles!” Of course you do—but why is the aspiration and promise and identity of the poetry you choose the sour, anti-Romanticsm of your British masters? The ones even British poets like Shelley found objectionable? Indians, what are you thinking?

What is the editorial mission of this Indian Poetry portfolio?

Poems not enjoyed as poetry, but deemed useful as vague, Modernist, teaching-sorts-of-things?

And as much as this may be somewhat useful, and wide-ranging, the editors have somehow managed, even in this case, to present a narrow vision of Indian poetry. Not so much Wall of Sound, as Wall of Pound. Indian poets stuck in a desultory, lost-in-time, Modernism. The editors have put Indian Poetry in a certain container, coloring what it contains. It doesn’t have to be this way. The Indian poets writing in English have access to a long tradition of poetry in English, including every sort of world historical poet translated into English. There’s no reason they must, in such large numbers, wear the stiffness of Anglo/American Modernism.

Trapped in the dullness of this anti-poetry (referencing all sorts of cultural things in a stilted manner) one dutifully marches through the gray maze of this highly learned affectation thinking: is Indian poetry today the attempt to smash the “British Literary Tradition,” in solidarity with a few dead, white, male, American poets, who killed their “British Literary Tradition” with the cudgel of Ezra Pound? (Never mind that the “British Literary Tradition”—whatever shallow idea one has of it—didn’t have to be “killed,” and why with Ezra Pound?)

I have discovered many poems by Indian poets lately, many of them poets in this Poetry issue, as well as many excellent amateurs who by dint of their academic outsider status, would never be selected for a collection like this.

I’m convinced the quality of Indian poems in English today is equal, or greater, to, the quality of poems written in the UK and America.

Yet Indian poets get scant attention.

Unfortunately (and this is nothing against the poets themselves represented here) you would not know this quality exists from Poetry’s India issue—which is a terrible shame.

It’s almost a betrayal.

When I was younger, I naturally thought poetry was everything, and editing was nothing. Now I’m beginning to think the opposite is true. I could name exciting Indian or Indian-background poets I admire, poets who don’t write like Ezra Pound, but write with honesty and vigor, and inhabit a variety of styles in a thrilling, even memorable, manner, and yet one might be moved to go find a poem by these poets and be underwhelmed—since no poet publishes poems of equal quality.

The selection matters.

Every poet—because it is finally the poems, not the poet, which matter—has bad and good poems.

It is important we find and assemble the good ones. Critics and reviewers must judge. This is all they are supposed to do.

Let me name some wonderful poets left out of this selection: Linda Ashok, Anand Thakore, Ravi Shankar, Medha Singh, Daipayan Nair, Kushal Poddar, Sharanya Manivannan, Sarukkhai Chabria, Joie Bose, Menka Shivdasani, Ranjani Murali, Akhil Katyal, Jeet Thayil, Sushmita Gupta, Urvashi Bahuguna, N Ravi Shankar, Abhijit Khandkar, Arun Sagar, Aseem Sundan, Sukrita Kumar, CP Surendran, Nalini Priyadarshni, Divya Guha, Arjun Rajendran, Aishwarya Iyer, Sophia Naz, Meera Nair, Arun Sagar, Tishani Doshi, Huzaifa Pandit, Bsm Murty, Sumana Roy, Aakriti Kuntal.

Sensual, hopeful, colorful, wise, spiritual, romantic, scientific, wry, affectionate. And yes, anti-Modernist. That’s why I love these poets.

It may seem an act of sour grapes to list a few of my favorite poets the editors missed, and there’s a danger an incomplete search of their work will disappoint. The last thing I wish to bring to Poetry’s Indian Poetry party is bitter words and no answers. Even passable Ezra Pound imitators deserve better than that.

 

INDIAN POETS IN ENGLISH —MAY

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Amit Majmudar has translated the Bhagavad Gita, which was just published, as Godsong—the book was reviewed last month in the NY Times by Parul Sehgal, who admires the poetry of the translation, but in her review, she faults the author for shying away from history and politics:

The verses of the Gita are traditionally accompanied by commentaries. Majmudar uses this space to discuss his faith and his translation decisions, as well as to make a curious assertion: “I prefer to let my Gita float free of history or geography,” he writes. “Historical quibbling isn’t just irrelevant when it comes to scripture; it’s a buzz kill.”

This is strange — not least because the religious concepts in the Gita, like karma and dharma, are not static, as historians like Wendy Doniger have pointed out; they emerged at “particular moments in Indian history, for particular reasons, and then continue to be alive — which is to say, to change.” It’s especially odd given that Majmudar engages passionately with historical quibbling when it comes to issues of translation. What he doesn’t want to discuss, it seems, is historical quibbling when it comes to social issues. What he doesn’t want to discuss is caste.

The review in the Times is brief, raising more questions than it answers. “The verses of the Gita are traditionally accompanied by commentaries,” writes Sehgal, obviously with no time or space to expand, in today’s clamoring publishing business. What does this sentence mean? Why are the verses of the Gita traditionally accompanied by commentaries? And traditionally, what kind of commentaries?

Amit Majmudar is a successful doctor in the United States, and the “caste” he discusses in “The Beard,” a poem he published in the glamorous, leftist, New Yorker in 2017, is terrorists, and their beards, and how he felt compelled to cut his off because he resembled one who made headlines: “I am alone here now,/among Americans a foreigner/when just last year I used to be/among Americans American.”

In Majmudar’s poem, “Kill List,” published in the leftist Nation in 2016, he writes, “At a certain distance, I admit, I do look like an Arab.”

*

Speaking of caste, Mosarrap Khan prefaces his tragic poem, “For Rohith Vemula,” with a quote—from the eponymous, Dalit, Ph.D. student’s, suicide note: “My birth is my fatal accident.”

The poem is not about terrorists, or being confused with terrorists, but runs in the opposite direction.  Rohith Vemula was a gracious, studious man (who in his suicide note says he does not blame anyone) who imploded, rather than exploded. He got in trouble at his university for protesting Dalit rights.

For Rohith Vemula

“My birth is my fatal accident.”

Rohith, why didn’t you mention caste
In your parting letter? You gracious bastard.
Did you want to be a Gandhi in your death,
another non-violent messiah?

Did your parents sell their little piece of land
and eat one meal a day to put you through school?

You loved the stars. A child who loves the
stars is bound to be lonely. A child who loves
the stars would never be appreciated.

You are gone.

It’s Monday morning. People are
mourning the deaths of those American scholars
who founded Indian political discourse. They don’t
remember you who make politics.

India is investing in Start-ups, didn’t you
know? And you End-up, you fool.
Your ilk will never learn. Loser.

Mate, hope you reached the stars. Fill
your belly with the star dust to
keep the fire burning.

What to make of this poem? Mosarrap Khan is rude and loving, personal and political, presuming and respectful, abstract and brotherly, cynical and poignant, mourning and irreverent—multiple moods in one dish of grief; this is perhaps the remarkable fact of the poem: how can one poem feel so many things? This is worthy of elegy; the mourner trying every type of voice to reach the grave; making tribute—with all one can possibly think or feel.

**

Rochelle D’Silva is an ambitious slam poet.  A YouTube search will bring up many of her performances, including the (first place) Slam performance of her poem,”I Have Perfect Bottle Opening Hands,” and not long ago she released a spoken word album, “Best Apology Face.” She writes of love—not so much of lust, or of romance, but more on the side of relationship advice, if someone were waxing poetic—cautious but passionate.  She unburdens herself in three and a half minute poems, in a wide-eyed, pleasant manner, simultaneously giving the impression, that here’s a person who is so nice she probably gets hurt a lot—and isn’t it great she writes poetry (and reads it smiling, without fear) which is pleasant enough to let us vicariously take revenge on whoever may have been silly enough to hurt her.

It raises an interesting aesthetic question—poetry performed, or spoken, is poetry in what percentage? And in what percentage something else?

Music demands performance, but does poetry?  When I read a poem silently, I am “performing it,” so I don’t need a slam performance, necessarily, but who am I to begrudge a spirited (or an utterly charming, because the person is charming) performance of a poem?

***

Arjun Rajendran is a typical modern poet, whose poems sound more like little short stories, or small novels, than poems.  Ironically, the poems suffer precisely because the poet is able to pack his poems with plot, character development and all the accoutrements of fiction; the walls of the modern poem crumble—“months later” or “years later” is a typical phrase.  But this must be a good disadvantage.  The perfect lyric which sits on an island surrounded by flowers is gone. The content of Rajendran’s poems vary: psychological, historical, personal, elegiac, political, saucy, sassy, but each mood and detail is epic—a 15 line poem can almost feel like soundtrack, actors and scenery need to be brought in.

Here’s an example of how good he is:

Ankur’s Coming Out

There wasn’t a proclamation, any act of bravado.
In that uninhibited moment, I simply asked and he didn’t
deny it. We were at another friends’ that night, on
the same mattress, surrounded by Kingfishers and socks;
exhausted by our pretensions at spoken French.

Later, it felt perfectly natural to have him press my neck,
call me baby. It was disappointing to learn he wasn’t
attracted to me. I equated it to not being attractive
to the opposite sex. Months later, I saw him in a cafe,
with four pansies, and he beckoned us over. My girlfriend

thought it was such a waste, that the hottest guys are often
gay. It felt okay to see her hug him so tight; it’d be okay
even if they had a night to themselves. At another party,
the prettiest girls claimed him, and elsewhere, his desire,
the Parisian baldy, bantered with his dusky seductress.

****

Aishwarya Iyer is the Wordsworth impulse in the Wordsworth/Coleridge split—Wordsworth makes the plain, amazing; Coleridge, the amazing, plain. Iyer wants us to be dazzled by a rainy city, to see the phantasmagorical in a puddle. The poets are better than the photographers; literacy is better than spinning in a circle and clicking.

This fallen rain
Swizzles visions
The car keeps turning at the signal
The old women have stopped talking
For once, loosened into children,
Watching the cars drinking the steel rain

This falling rain
Swells memories
Swollen drops spreading
The heat in your clavicle
You can see beyond this sky
Wrenched by the rain
Going blue, white, blue
Dying, and plain

Fallen dust and leaves and musk
Smells of longing fed till the end of dusk
When rain goes where will you find
The breath lost to the coming of love?

And in another painted city
Some years hence
Or years before
This rain must have sung
Exactly the same note
Curling your smile
Creasing your arms
Felling all pain
This fallen rain

We absolutely adore the line, “The breath lost to the coming of love?”  It is these lines, avoided mostly, because of some fear they sound too much like pop songs, which poetry should embrace; just because popular songs exist doesn’t mean poets can’t do it better, or try, at least. Another odd thing is that despite all the poets’ terror of pop music, so many contemporary poets do not punctuate their poems—even though they are being read, not sung.

*****

Sophia Naz makes words important in her poetry and this, again, is a contemporary practice. There are two ways of writing poetry—in the first, poets speak in the poem; there is a conversational, discursive, Socratic flow. The poet thinks out loud. In the second way, the poet makes words discrete pieces of the poem, so that every word becomes almost a small poem in itself. It’s a different way of thinking.

The second method, we find, usually accompanies a content which is sensual—rich descriptions of material objects—with sights, sounds and smells—abound.

The last thing we want is our poems to be a hopeless blur—so poets either 1) talk sensibly towards understanding—or 2) highlight each word as a stay against confusion.

The “talkers” have it easier, since poetry, in reality, is speech, and not a walk in the woods, or a photograph.  But the “talkers” worry their poetry might become mere talk; the “word-is-a-world” poets have a different worry—their poetry may end up being a series of pretty, moss-covered stones, without rhetorical force.

It is true that the talkers use words and the word-highlighters use speech; obviously we are only speaking of an emphasis, something as subtle as a minor or a major key in music.

In the following poem, it is easy to see Sophia Naz strikes out in the direction of poetry as a patient elevation of words, rather than poetry as an oratorical, or chatty, onslaught, of speech:

Neelum

Deviants and dervishes of the river
lie down the length of her
those who remember
Neelum before she became
crushed lapis, her pristine byzantine

pine penciled brows broken
traffic-lined, knifed by road, gashed
by guillotine of clear-cut log & choke
hold of plastic bags carry ominous
promises of corpses downstream

we are driven by our bellies, hunger
peaking when we see Neelum from
on high as missionaries must have
pinned, supine below us, the gem
of legend turns a hairpin in

our mouths the sharpest gasp, keeling
wheels & eyes, we are puny flames
on high altitudes where even green
tea leaves boiling to death take
their own sweet time

mined from the tiny
stabbing Sapphire’s liquid throat, lumps
of quartz come clean, clear as water, crystallize

into skulls of quiet
sugar – penitent cheeni
cupped intently then forgotten
in a crowded bazaar like those other
prisoners of myriad wars marching on
beyond the horizon

Neelum is neglected, derelict
bride, whose groom, princely
spring lies in tatters, her jewels
spilled like blood from veins
what is left is a muddy turquoise
footprint running cold between my fingers.

Sophia Naz wants us to see. She is a camera, and her poem is a moving picture; the temporal for this poet is the material world moving inside our eyes—and the voice, by default, is absent. Poetry is voice, not picture, so the poet is working (and she works beautifully) against what poetry is; we admire the poem second-hand, almost, in the exquisite unfolding of the piece. The paradox is that any poem is, by necessity, a voice, and not artificial, as it speaks (for it must) either in the air, or in our heads. Things will speak, even if the poet does not. But the reader has to really listen—because poems do not see. They talk. The danger Naz faces with this style is sounding too artificial—even as what she depicts is not artificial at all.

******

Meera Nair is a poet, who, when searched, is found speaking her poems on YouTube, with a sad, majestic romanticism. She writes of love, mostly, and does so with a broad metaphor or two, in brief lyrics of simplicity, as she attempts to knock down the heart without too much fuss.  We found the following poem of hers recently published on her Face Book page:

The old man turns up without fail
Every month

There is a locked up room here
That he cannot let go of

Last night
My knee brushed against a secret drawer
Hidden beneath the dining table

Inside was a treasure trove
Buttons of different colours
A needle pierced into a spool of thread
A book of poems
And a half empty box of vermillion

Though I light no lamp
I keep the beaded curtain covering the prayer room
Polished and bright

I live in a house
Someone else has loved in

The final two lines sum up the essence of this poet—and, to a great extent, poetry itself.

*******

And those are the seven poets for May!  Thanks again, to Linda Ashok.

 

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