INDIAN POETS IN ENGLISH —MAY

Image result for bhagavad gita

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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