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 The optimism of Indian independence from the British in the middle of the 20th century has been replaced by the pessimism of learned, anti-colonialist academics, who hold that there was no “Indian” independence from the “British” after all—because, according to Ali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 POETRY NOVEMBER

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Welcome to the November 2018 Scarriet Indian poetry in English.

It is advantageous when a poet knows what they want to do. Knowing what you want to do is the play you’re putting on.  I vastly prefer Shakespeare performed by the very young to the slickest Hollywood production featuring well-known actors. Shakespeare wins me over. And so a poet who knows what they want to do wins me over. An amateur love poem moves me more than a sophisticated one by a sophisticated poet who is dutifully being sophisticated—by saying nothing which identifies him as a poet with something to say. Auden, one of my favorite poets, said it is better for the apprentice poet to love to “play with words” than “to have something to say,” but this was Auden acting sophisticated for a certain class of people—Auden knew in his heart this was rubbish. It goes without saying a poet should be good with words and have a sizable vocabulary, but look what Mozart did with 12 notes. What you do is all. Not the words—is this wrong to assert around poets? I assert it, nonetheless. Hearsay belongs to words, and hearsay is the greatest enemy of the poet.

And because hearsay is the enemy, many seek the safety of “just playing with words.”  The truly brave fight hearsay by “having something to say.”

Linda Ashok knows what she wants to do.  She wants to make old-fashioned India sexually happier for women—a good challenge for poetry, and a good thing for her, since every great poet has an identity of some kind as a particular kind of poet; the vague feeling that you would like to write poetry isn’t enough; you need to know what you want to do before you write the poem. This is a simple fact. One can see the intention, or not—in every poem (no matter what the New Critics say) and language and experience are such that infinite profit can pour from a single theme; the poet who has no theme is barren.

Here is Linda Ashok’s “Dirty Love.”

A beach is a pretty place to kiss
but I don’t want to kiss you at pretty places

I want to kiss you under the bed
On the bathroom pot
While washing your wears
While on the wait for your train
at the station, at taxi stands

I want to kiss you by the masjid
by the tea-stall, house of the congress &
the conservatives
I want to kiss you in a public toilet

and places that are not as pretty as the beach

Because–
1) I only know how to make dirty love &
2) my absence can only love you as much

 

Linda Ashok is young and ambitious—the poem just quoted is superb—there are no limits to what she can do.

When I first met Linda Ashok as a literary online friend, “Linda,” a popular American hit song from 1946, was a brief point of interest between us, the context of which I cannot quite remember—except that, pedant that I am, I had to point out to Linda that “Linda,” the once well-known song, was named for the child who would grow up and marry the Beatle, Paul McCartney.  Yes, poets, it’s true!

I recently watched a documentary on my phone on the evolution of the Beatles’ public image as they burst upon the world in 1964—we all remember those snappy answers by the Fab Four at numerous press conferences, the Beatles, cocky, funny, self-assured, witty, ebullient at the time.

The documentary revealed by accident (it was the usual fan-hash of worship and nostalgia) the one overlooked fact of the most famous musical act in history—how much the Beatles came to hate the press—at first their best friends.

The press (publicity) ended up ruining the Beatles, causing them to retreat from public life, break up, hate each other, and lose their miraculous gift of songwriting before the age of 30.

“How long will you last?” “Which of you are married?” “Why are you doing solo projects?” “Are you spreading drug use?”

Paul McCartney was asked every day, “When are you going to marry Jane Asher?”

Paul became increasingly annoyed with the marriage questions—at one point saying on video with a very grim face, he hated marriage, (Linda was still a few years away) but this was only the tip of the iceberg; as the early 60s flew by, the Beatles died from fake news, exasperated with lying, gossipy, nasty reporters.

Poets live and die by the press release, the review, the publication, the notice, the award, the prize, the whisper.

But not just poets. All of us live and die by hearsay.

The poets are precisely that class of people who are supposed to miraculously conquer hearsay—when it comes to words, poets fight fire with fire.

When reporters and reviewers hate you, you are no poet, you are no human being. We really do live in the breath of others.

Linda Ashok is working hard, in a public manner, in the world of the press release, for poetry, and for all of us.

Upon the wave of hearsay she sails.

We make poetry professional when we elevate the criticism of the poetry.  Just as the Beatles knew they had truly made it when other artists began to cover their songs, poetry shared in a meaningful and sincere manner is the hard work that must be done.

Starry-eyed “poets” gushing fine sentiments and “liking” each other is to be encouraged, even, and it may advance poetry, professionally and internationally, but only so much.

Linda cares about poetry in all its guises, but I believe she also understands, in a worldly sense, what feeds poetry, and where poetry can go.

John Lennon wanted to pull out. Asked by a reporter (this might have been 1965) what he “really cared about,” since, according to the reporter, John (the caustic, cynical Beatles) was known for “not caring about anything,” John said he cared for, “myself and my family,” pointing out many people didn’t have to like everything, and the public was more like him, than this reporter realized.

And so, no pressure on Linda.

Poetry can be served in all sorts of ways.

It does not even have to be liked.

*

Rajiv Mohabir has a poem on the Poetry Foundation site called “Coolie” which sets the record straight about his slave ancestry: “Now Stateside, Americans erase my slave story; call me Indian.”

Indian poetry has a tendency, perhaps more so than American and British poetry, to be scientific.

Science—once felt by the Romantics to be the opposite of poetry—when embraced by poets today, tends to prove the Romantics right—to be taken seriously, science avoids song. Take this relentlessly passionate and lyrical poem quoted in full by Mohabir—it is highly prosaic; note the use of “something” and “sometimes.”

Perhaps there is a scientific reason for the poets inserting poetry into more accessible prose speech—the urgent messages can be more publicly conveyed.

The sentence, “Whatever beast calls out will never know itself through the mirror of another, as populations collapse and the sea empties and no others can process its cries into music” is poetry of the highest order—“mirror,” the key word, has a distant, underwater, relation to “music,” as well as “Whatever,” “never,” “another,” “others,” and “cries.”  As “populations collapse and the sea empties” are prose facts from a scientific journal. Presenting all this may indicate the highest genius, or an eco-poetry pulled in too many directions.

If readers are confronted with facts about ocean pollution in a poem, and this is the main thrust of the poem, it will never be a poem. Poems and scientific journals are utterly different, and should be kept separate.

This is a bold assertion, only because the reason may not be readily apparent, but it comes back to hearsay. The Renaissance artist da Vinci said truth is only what we can see with our own two eyes. (This faith in seeing began the scientific and artistic revolution against the hearsay of Aristotle.) Words are not just partially hearsay. Words are hearsay. The difference between factual news and poetry has nothing to do with the words and their content, but whether the narrator is considered reliable, or not. The hidden truth is that the reliability of the narrator is hearsay, as well. Poetry suffers whenever it includes narration by narrators who are considered reliable (“I read the news and the seas are doomed.”)  The unreliability of the narrator is precisely what frees up poetry to be poetry.

So here’s the poem:

Hybrid Unidentified Whale

Is it any shock that in loss
we compensate? How emptiness
is like a coral, a something,
that strews its intestines
then chokes another head
with its greedy bowels.
Poets gather at this bed, drawn
like rorquals to krill blooms
to the metaphor’s perfume
of being the first or the only
of your kind. Scientists listen:
a blue or fin? Or is it a sei? A mix
of the dying out? Whatever
beast calls out will never
know itself through the mirror
of another, as populations collapse
and the sea empties and no others
can process its cries into music.
I want to cast such song-frequency
with lines about how shells
gouge my feet when I keep up
with you foot for foot,
or how I’ve noticed
that you stop looking back
for me, but researchers
can no longer hear
its strain. Sometimes I call
into the abyss for so long
it reaches back and slides
down my throat.

I wouldn’t go so far to say this is great poetry chained to the scientific essay. It is more like the scientific essay hitting and molding great poetry. Those “researchers.”  The “sea empties.”  So the reliable have warned us.  And it doesn’t matter if it’s true, or not.  It could be true for a time, or in part.  That’s not good enough for poetry. That’s the insidious thing about hearsay. It keeps us from seeing. If we don’t see, it’s not a poem.

**

Meena Kandaswamy is a young poet and novelist who belongs to the Caste Annihilation Movement. Her poetry is frank, direct, and all for striking a match for revolution.

The poet is not at all troubled that her poem, marked by the sublime, ends with a phrase which has a prose/science feel: “Aggression is the best kind of trouble-shooting.”

AGGRESSION

Ours is a silence
that waits. Endlessly waits.

And then, unable to bear it
any further, it breaks into wails.

But not all suppressed reactions
end in our bemoaning the tragedy.

Sometimes,
the outward signals
of inward struggles takes colossal forms
And the revolution happens because our dreams explode.

Most of the time:

Aggression is the best kind of trouble-shooting.

***

Shikha Malaviya is one of those poets who has so much to say, her poetry breeding with journalism, bursting with intelligence, feeling, experience, memories of her life and mixed with the news of the world—she is obviously anxious to share India, history and to change with the world—the poetry itself can hardly keep up with her breathless sweep. Is it possible for things to be too much for poetry? Nearly every poem by Malaviya has “after such-and-such” or “inspired by that” or “based on this” as a header; every poem, if possible, has more depth and exactness than life itself, as when a person’s room is as interesting as the person; hers is verse focused on multi-tasking to an extraordinary degree.

Her poem “September 9, 2012 (A poem in 9 hours)” has 3 parts.

The first part, “1 PM, Bangalore, Sunday brunch,” is followed by “2. 5 PM, Narmada Valley, dam protest” and “3. 10 PM, Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, nuclear reactor protest.”

Shikha Malaviya is energetic, to say the least. Can we keep up with her? Here’s the first part of “September 9, 2012 (A poem in 9 hours)”:

The sting of sea salt on our tongues
we chase down tequila shots
screaming chug! chug! chug!
Our hips swaying badly
to Bollywood beats
telling us the party has
just begun

Remainders of an ordered feast
green curry smudged
on the forehead of a table
and after the fact
a melamine pile
plates balanced precariously
a half-eaten momo
in the shape of a smile
grinning back at us
wickedly

As the neighbors’ loud laundry
flaps in the warm Bangalore wind
tied in triplicate to
the security camera pole
how ugly it is we all complain
tenants should be screened
we all agree
someone is always watching
don’t they know
as you snap a picture
with your mobile phone

Could there be a better way to spend a Sunday?

We are already exhausted, and we still have a dam protest and a nuclear reactor protest to attend.  But why complain?  With her, we can have our cake and eat it.  There is so much to eat.

Malaviya is not above remarking on “green curry smudged” before protesting a dam. Remarkably, she has time for everything.  We glimpse in her work the possible truth that poetry is energy.

****

Biswamit Dwibedy writes poems so metaphorically self-conscious of their own wisdom one almost feels one should be deciphering them on a blackboard, if not listening to them in a hushed and bewildered ashram.

Master Alone

Feeding on the bread of stars, at footlights of the ardent lover
Their relationship, now reduced to a metaphor, a cluster of knowledge
that turns perception to the proof as one searches for it.

Units of measurement become frames to reveal the radiant serpent
ever-changing in the night sky.

This freedom is the result of that recognition.

“And so I descended from the sky and awakened you,”

said the bejeweled animal
to the simpler earth choked by muddy fragments.

And lines of landscape appear choked when
expressions of the face cease to manifest

“two hands only intertwine by the extension of their shadows”

as the shape of the word “anonymous”
because it is incomplete
a sequence turns to an extension
seen in the nature of blood.

And the frequency in question
Is the proof allowed
to find no utterance.

*****

Jhilmil Breckenridge, like many poets these days, pursues advanced degrees in creative writing, is an “activist,” as well as a “poet.”

A poet doesn’t need anything aside from their poems to prove they are a good poet.

We go to a doctor when we are ill.

But who looks to see what someone “is” before perusing their poems?

If anyone did such a thing, poetry would be aghast.

Until there are churches or hospitals which exist because a “poet” works there, poets will wander with their works under their arms, belonging to nothing and no one. I “studied” with this or that poet is a sign of weakness, since a person will never be a poem.

The poem is the sermon and the surgery, and poems are had for a song. Poetic reputation outside the poem is the saddest lie. Not that activism and advanced degrees are bad. We should be able to do whatever we want to do.

Breckenridge is aware of this, otherwise she would not have written this lovely stanza:

If your religion is poetry,
you have to consume grief and joy
in equal measure,
consume until you are so replete
you have no option but for the words
and worlds to flow, soot on pristine white.

The priest brings soot which conveys religious law; the doctor, soot in a pill to make you feel better; Breckenridge understands soot is soot.

This is the awful truth of poetry. Imagination has more to do with a “heavenly” sermon or a “miraculous” pill than with poetry. Poets today merely mourn. Breckenridge, again:

If your religion is poetry,
you must learn to witness, to feel
the terror of starving farmers,
the hungry sea the refugee boat teeters in,
the salt of your tears as you see small bodies
being lifted from soot and grime.

******

Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet whose poems achieve a lullaby sublimity, the term of which is not meant to indicate a lower order of poem, since the best lyric poems in the canon, if we are honest, achieve excellence in the lullaby mode—poetry pours balm even as it does all of its other things; poetry otherwise would have no identity apart from jarring silliness (the limerick) or fictional speech (prose).

The following will illustrate exactly this—poetry is lullaby, when the wind isn’t blowing.

Prayer

May things stay the way they are
in the simplest place you know.

May the shuttered windows
keep the air as cool as bottled jasmine.
May you never forget to listen
to the crumpled whisper of sheets
that mould themselves to your sleeping form.
May the pillows always be silvered
with cat-down and the muted percussion
of a lover’s breath.
May the murmur of the wall clock
continue to decree that your providence
run ten minutes slow.

May nothing be disturbed
in the simplest place you know
for it is here in the foetal hush
that blueprints dissolve
and poems begin,
and faith spreads like the hum of crickets,
faith in a time
when maps shall fade,
nostalgia cease
and the vigil end.

*******

Thanks to these wonderful Indian poets and to Linda.  See you in December!

—Scarriet Editors, Salem MA 11/15/18

 

 

 

 

 

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