POETRY MAGAZINE’S INDIA ISSUE, JULY/AUGUST 2019

Image result for poetry in india

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 The optimism of Indian independence from the British in the middle of the 20th century has been replaced by the pessimism of learned, anti-colonialist academics, who hold that there was no “Indian” independence from the “British” after all—because, according to Ali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

 

BEAUTIFUL BRACKET—MORE FIRST ROUND ACTION

Image result for a painting of tropical bay with herons and oranges

A painting can evoke a thousand poems. A line of poetry can evoke a painting.

Ann Leshy Wood, the second seed in the Beautiful Bracket, demonstrates this:

“where groves of oranges rot,/and somber groups of heron graze/by the bay.”

Ravi Shankar “What matters cannot remain.”

It is a lot to ask a poem to perform as part of itself. This is, of course, impossible, but competition of every kind is fraught with the same doubt.

As soon as we block off time, artificiality reigns, and all of us, in competition or not, are stuck forever in these tyrannies which either we, or time itself, makes. The natural deadlines wound as much as deadlines artificial and planned: every poem, every judgment, every look, every affectionate effort must end. Ann Wood’s herons will be called away from the bay. Ravi Shankar’s line will look for support before and after, in vain. These will not remain. But the oranges will rot forever. Rot is forever. Some things will remain.

A strange scent, of oranges, fills the arena.

Ann Leshy Wood wins.

****

Medha Singh brings a stunning line to the competition:

“you’ve remembered how the winter went/as it went on”

The insouciance and naturalness of the line nonetheless carries with it a rhythm the rhyming Romantic poets—even the best of them—would admire. This is the future of poetry, right here; it is natural speech which a Wordsworth or a Williams would cry out for, yet has a music a Yeats or Poe would envy. The fans of Medha Singh make a great, confident noise in the arena; they know she will be nearly impossible to beat, even though the Beautiful Bracket is full of great poets and lines.

Her opponent is a magnificent mind and poet, Philip Nikolayev, so Medha’s fans feel that stirring of anxiety fans feel before the starting whistle, even as they clamor and laugh in their boisterous exuberance. A certain quiet invades their numbers as they glance nervously at this:

“within its vast domain confined”

Truly we are confined. The sights and smells of the arena keep us here. Here there is no transcendence. Our fellow fans cannot help us. We are alone. We love being part of the friendly crowd, part of a vast domain confined, but we know at any moment we can be led away to ourselves, where doubts cry in us, alone. The arena becomes silent; every ceremony accounts, in a strange moment, for the individual in us all. Like syllables stepping through a line of verse, every member of the crowd reads:

“you’ve remembered how the winter went/as it went on”

We rise, stunned, from our seats. Programs and tickets flutter to the floor. Are we no longer confined? Outside, winter waits.

Medha Singh has won.

 

MARCH MADNESS!! 2019!!

Image result for battlefield in renaissance painting

It’s here once again.  Poetry March Madness!!

Previously, Scarriet has used Best American Poetry Series poems, Speeches by Aesthetic Philosophers, and poems of, and inspired by, Romanticism

This year, our tenth!—and we’ve done this once before—lines of poetry compete. 

The great majority of these poets are living contemporaries, but we have thrown in some of the famous dead, just to mix things up.

The line is the unit of poetry for ancients and moderns alike—moderns have argued for other units: the sentence, the breath—but to keep it simple, here we have fragments, or parts, of poems.

Is the poem better when the poetic dwells in all parts, as well as the whole?  I don’t see how we could say otherwise.

What makes part of a poem good?

Is it the same qualities which makes the whole poem good?

A poem’s excellent and consistent rhythm, by necessity, makes itself felt both throughout the poem and in its parts.

A poem’s excellent rhetoric can be strong as a whole, but weaker in its parts—since the whole understanding is not necessarily seen in pieces.

This is why, perhaps, the older, formalist poets, are better in their quotations and fragments than poets are today.

But this may be nothing but the wildest speculation.

Perhaps rhythm should become important, again, since rhetoric and rhythm do not have to be at war—rhythm enhances rhetoric, in fact.

Some would say modern poetry has set rhythm free.

No matter the quality under examination, however, any part of a poem can charm as a poem—with every quality a poem might possess.

Before we get to the brackets, let’s look at three examples in the 2019 tournament:

Milton’s “Glory, the reward/That sole excites to high attempts the flame” is powerfully rhythmic in a manner the moderns no longer evince. It is like a goddess before which we kneel.

Sushmita Guptas “Everything hurts,/Even that/Which seems like love” also has rhythm, but this is not a goddess, but a flesh and blood woman, before which we kneel and adore.

Medha Singh’s “you’ve/remembered how the winter went/as it went on” is so different from Milton, it almost seems like a different art form; here is the sad and homely, with which we fall madly in love.

And now we present the 2019 March Madness poets:

I. THE BOLD BRACKET

Diane Lockward — “The wife and the dog planned their escape”

Aseem Sundan — “How do I make the paper turn blood red?/How do I make everyone read it?”

Menka Shivdasani — “I shall turn the heat up,/put the lid on./Watch me.”

John Milton — “Glory, the reward/That sole excites to high attempts the flame”

Philip Larkin —“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

Eliana Vanessa — “I’d rather be outside, with him,/turning stones in the rain,/than here,/listening to the hum/of so many skulls, alone.”

Robin Richardson — “Please let me be a blaze. I will destroy,/I mean create again this place.”

Khalypso — “to wake up/strangers & sticky & questioning.”

Walter Savage Landor —“I strove with none, for none was worth my strife”

Robin Morgan — “Growing small requires enormity of will.”

Joie Bose — “I am a fable, a sea bed treasure trove/I am your darkness, I am Love.”

Daipayan Nair — “I run, run, run and run/Still I don’t reach my birth/I don’t cross my death”

Edgar Poe — “Over the mountains/of the moon,/Down the valley of the shadow”

Linda Ashok — “When you have a day, let’s meet and bury it.”

Hoshang Merchant — “I have myself become wild in my love for a wild thing”

Aaron Poochigian — “beyond the round world’s spalling/margin, hear Odysseus’s ghosts/squeaking like hinges, hear the Sirens calling.”

****

II. THE MYSTERIOUS BRACKET

Jennifer Barber — “Sure, it was a dream, but even so/you put down the phone so soundlessly”

Percy Shelley —“Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.”

A.E. Stallings — “Perfection was a blot/That could not be undone.”

Merryn Juliette — “grey as I am”

Michelina Di Martino — “Let us make love. Where are we?”

Sukrita Kumar — “Flames are messengers/Carrying the known/To the unknown”

Ben Mazer — “her room/retains the look/of the room of a stranger”

Richard Wilbur —“The morning air is all awash with angels.”

Sridala Swami —“There is only this book, and your one chance of speaking to the world is through the words in it.”

Nabina Das — “under the same ceiling/fan from where she/later dangled.”

Kushal Poddar — “Call its name around/with the bowl held in my cooling hand./I can see myself doing this. All Winter. All Summer.”

Meera Nair — “How long can you keep/The lake away from the sea”

Ranjit Hoskote — “The nightingale doesn’t blame the gardener or the hunter:/Fate had decided spring would be its cage.”

Aakriti Kuntal — “Close your eyes then. Imagine the word on the tip of your tongue. The warm jelly, the red tip of the quivering mass.”

Srividya Sivakumar— “I’m searching for coral and abalone deep in the dragon’s lair.”

Sophia Naz — “Deviants and dervishes of the river/lie down the length of her”

III. THE LIFE BRACKET

William Logan —‘I’ve never thought of you that way, I guess.’/She touched me then with the ghost of a caress.”

Danez Smith — “i call your mama mama”

Divya Guha — “The shaver missing, your greedy laptop: gone too, hiding you.”

N Ravi Shankar—“You are nude, sweet mother,/so am I/as the bamboos creak a lullaby”

Rupi Kaur — “i am not street meat i am homemade jam”

June Gehringer — “I don’t write about race,/ I write about gender,/ I once killed a cis white man,/ and his first name/ was me.”

Marilyn Chin — “by all that was lavished upon her/and all that was taken away!”

Sam Sax — “that you are reading this/must be enough”

Dylan Thomas —“After the first death, there is no other.”

Stephen Cole — “I feel the wind-tides/Off San Fernando Mountain./I hear the cry of suicide brakes/Calling down the sad incline/Of Fremont’s Pass.”

Alec Solomita — “All of the sky is silent/Even the jet shining/like a dime way up high”

Kim Gek Lin Short —“If truth be told/the theft began/a time before/that summer day.”

Lily Swarn — “The stink of poverty cowered in fear!!”

Semeen Ali — “for a minute/That one minute/contains my life”

Akhil Katyal — “How long did India and Pakistan last?”

Garrison Keillor — “Starved for love, obsessed with sin,/Sunlight almost did us in.”

****

IV. THE BEAUTIFUL BRACKET

Mary Angela Douglas — “one candle grown lilac in a perpetual spring”

Ann Leshy Wood — “where groves of oranges rot,/and somber groups of heron graze/by the bay.”

Medha Singh — “you’ve/remembered how the winter went/as it went on”

Yana Djin — “Morning dew will dress each stem.”

John Keats —“Awake for ever in a sweet unrest”

Sushmita Gupta — “Everything hurts,/Even that/Which seems like love.”

William Shakespeare —“Those were pearls that were his eyes”

A.E. Housman —“The rose-lipt girls are sleeping/In fields where roses fade.”

Raena Shirali — “we become mist, shift/groveward, flee.”

C.P. Surendran — “A train, blindfolded by a tunnel,/Window by window/Regained vision.”

Dimitry Melnikoff —“Offer me a gulp of this light’s glow”

Jennifer Robertson — “ocean after ocean after ocean”

Sharanya Manivannan — “burdening the wisps of things,/their threats to drift away.”

Philip Nikolayev — “within its vast domain confined”

Ravi Shankar — “What matters cannot remain.”

Abhijit Khandkar — “So I write this poem and feed it to the ravenous sea.”

*****

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INDIAN POETRY DECEMBER

Image result for india in december

December is here, and now Scarriet has looked at 77 Indian poets who write and publish in English, with one more month and seven more poets to go—84 in all, and what an illuminating exercise this has been!

Here’s what I learned and am learning. Indian poetry in English rivals Britain and the USA.  Let’s stop ignoring India.

Thanks, again, to Linda Ashok.

Now let’s look at this month’s poets:

Sharanya Manivannan is young (born in 1985) and writes of romantic episodes with feeling; the goal is: memories enhanced by tokens traced in the poetry become the reader’s. Wordsworth did this to wonderful effect with daffodils—the highest accomplishment of lyric poetry, in which Romantic pure feeling replaces poetry’s old task—history, scripture, satire—because the yellow flowers are both the memory and the reality; Wordsworth made sure reader and poet were on the same page; nothing gets in the way of daffodil fever.

The dilemma of describing a wonderful love affair is that the more wonderful it was, the more difficult (impossible) it is to describe. The love poet labors uphill; good Romantic poetry is  impossible. Classical, 19th century, Romantic poetry does not describe real love. Romantic poetry is a paradox, which is why no Modern has been able to replicate Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, or Shelley. The Moderns somehow did not get it. Perhaps because they look to old poetry, centuries-old poetry, much older than the Romantics, which depicts wild and passionate love in all its forms, with wit and natural imagery. The difference is, the love of the 19th century Romantics belonged to imagination, not love. In successful 19th century Romantic poetry, love has to be in the poetry itself, not only remembered. The “remembered” is all poetry is—except for the occasional poetic genius. Wordsworth: “And then my heart with pleasure fills,/And dances with the daffodils.”

Manivannan is as close to the Romantics as any poet we have had the pleasure to read. Here is her poem, “Keeping the Change,” attempting to keep what is gone:

In the French Quarter I wrote you
love poems in yellow ochre,

unscrolled them like a trellis
of bougainvillea, paper
petals too intense to abandon,
too fragile to keep. How many
shots of thirty rupee citrus vodka
could we get for a ten dollar

bill? Everywhere you went you
told them to keep the change,

placing it palm-down back on
the table, so when I picked up

your hand to kiss it after, I
smelt metal on your skin.

I don’t know what you came
here looking for, but it
wasn’t in the cobblestone,
or in the rock-bordered

coastline, it wasn’t in the
prayer-dome or in anything
you filled those palms

with when I lifted those
dresses I bought on those
streets over my head,

needing you the way a vine
of thorns needs a spine.

And this much later, a
coffer in my memory still

rattles—your coins too
cheap to care for, too heavy
to carry.

But I have a weakness
for copper and weight, and

I have collected them all,
handfuls of ore and residue.
They function like paperweights,

burdening the wisps of things,
their threats to drift away.

This is a wonderful poem, even as it resembles, at moments, the slangy, breathless, love poem which has become a dreary cliche since Modernism made the informal everything.

But this is to say nothing—it is like saying 19th century masterpieces of poetry threaten to become too rhyme-y.  So what? An age has its idiosyncrasies, and it’s good to see Manivannan in her time rise above her time with this magnificent poem.

*

Priya Sarukkhai Chabria is a student of the love poem; the tanka (strong examples of medieval Japanese women’s poetry) classical Indian love poetry (explicit yet ornate, natural metaphors watching over human desire in poems bawdy or not). She tackles many old forms and stories and histories.  What I like is the attempt is Romantic—love and love beautifully remembered, whether it is considered moral, or not.

The challenge is the same. How does love live in the poem?  Perhaps the love cannot live in the poem?  Then how is the love poem interesting? What can the poor poem do, but be a lascivious peep hole of lost memory?

Sarukkhai Chabria, translator and scholar, as well as poet, has consciously tried to imitate the most passionate and witty love poetry of India’s past. She’s aware that speech, not just imagery, conveys the complexity of love in the most accessible yet intriguing sort of way:

She says to her girlfriend:

He said to me: Keep faith.
So I kept a stubborn faith in
him that grew
with every obstacle.
Swollen, taut, ready
I held this close within myself
feeling his absent presence
fill me full.

Suddenly—
this small spill,
for him a little thing.
His rapid pulling out of me
peels away my very skin.

I’m earthworm worming
in the red slush
open
to flaming skies.

Do we, the reader, want to be inside the very love of others? What do we make of her final image?  Does love poetry belong to the cheap and voyeuristic? How noble must the love be? What must we see? Not see?

These questions are answered if we return to the Romantics like Wordsworth. It isn’t about the love. It’s about the imagination. It is not a question of whether poetry should hold love at arm’s length, or not. The imagination is the filter, the authority, the judge, and the passion. This is why 19th century British Romanticism was a true renaissance of poetry—which the world neglects at its peril.

Sarukkhai Chabria is doing a good service by studying, translating and writing poems of love.

**

Ravi Shankar is a brilliant poet. If we can generalize, the best poets do five things well—1 use the language, 2 see, 3 feel, 4 think, and 5 manage the first four in a poem.

In poem after poem, the American poet Ravi Shankar, excels at all five. He prefers the loose sonnet form—four stanzas of three or four lines. He builds poems. Most poems are written. Shankar’s poems, like most we remember, are built.

No one would ever be foolhardy enough to say a poem must be this or that.

However, to reject completely the idea that a poem is something we recognize as a poem is to miss out, perhaps, on the secret.

We enter a house and recognize it as such—it is not a tunnel; it is not a field; it is not a forest. It is a house.

Shankar seems to have stumbled upon poem—and the result (of course poems and houses are infinite in their variety) is always poetry of the highest order.

“Buzzards” is a classic example—every word in the poem profits its neighbor, until the last startling phrase hugs the theme and crowns the whole.

Gregarious in hunger, a flock of twenty
turn circles like whorls of barbed wire,
no spot below flown over uncanvassed.

The closer to death the closer they come,
waiting on wings with keen impatient
perseverance, dark blades lying in wake

until age or wound has turned canter
into carcass or near enough for them
to swoop scrupulous in benediction,

land hissing, hopping, tearing, gorging,
no portion, save bone, too durable
to digest. What matters cannot remain.

“Contraction” is equally accomplished.

Honest self-scrutiny too easily mutinies,
mutates into false memories
Which find language a receptive host,
Boosted by boastful embellishments.

Self-esteem is raised on wobbly beams,
seeming seen as stuff enough
To fund the hedge of personality,
Though personally, I cannot forget

Whom I have met and somehow wronged,
wrung for a jot of fugitive juice,
Trading some ruse for a blot or two,
Labored to braid from transparent diction

Fiction, quick fix, quixotic fixation.
As the pulse of impulses
Drained through my veins, I tried to live
Twenty lives at once. Now one is plenty.

There are more Shankar poems like this: the language Shakespearean, the themes razor sharp, the expressiveness iconic.

It might as well be said. Ravi Shankar is at the top of the heap. There is no better poet living; we suspect a painful, heart-breaking, rueful quality prevents his work from being universally admired.

And another thing: we live in an age of social confusion.

The poem, in our time, which makes an impression on us like pigeons which wheel in a flock over our heads and come to a perfect rest on a church roof, is no longer the standard.

A dubious conversation of intense feeling we don’t quite understand, but puzzle over, is the model of the day.

Shankar’s poems are a product of these days, nonetheless; time will prove Shankar’s work to be excellent in every way it is possible to measure.

***

Abhay K, is like many Indian poets, an important compiler and translator, as well as a poet. He has published “100 Great Indian Poems,” most of them not originally in English.

He is also a diplomat. “Of Drugs and Drug Addicts” falls into the didactic category, but it’s an arresting and important poem, nonetheless, and is not without irony: the powerful “need help themselves” is as ironic as the very notion that the greatest addiction involves no apparent “addiction” at all. Power is a tricky concept; without power, we can’t effect good, either, yet all of us understand immediately the point which “Of Drugs and Drug Addicts” makes.

When we talk
of drugs and drug addicts,
we never talk of power,
the deadliest drug of all.

Cocaine, heroin or grass,
everyone knows,
are harmful for all,
and we have made them illegal
passing laws
but everyone craves power,
the deadliest drug of all.

Once tasted,
it surpasses the most addictive of drugs,
making a person mad,
numbing his senses
to the suffering and pain
of the millions
waiting in vain

for their deliverance
through these prophets insane,
power addicts, abusers,
who need help themselves.

****

Harnidh Kaur is in her mid-20s, and she’s what is loosely known as an “instagram poet,” with “followers,” if not “readers.” She voices concerns, which are called poems.  Enlarging the context of what poems are, and what they do, can be challenging, or so open-ended, poems no longer are.  But why should we care what poems are?  When context is “followers,” or “readers,” (the more, the better) perhaps democracy is enough to define poetry—so that we don’t need to define poetry at all.  The narrow definition of poetry by someone like Poe, for instance, can comfortably sit off to one side, and instagram poetry can do its thing. Everyone should be able to be happy.

did love seem like the scariest thing you ever did
because every time you tried to love
you made an unwanted political statement?

This is a good question.

Does it matter whether this is a poem, or not?

*****

Shalim Hussain is a political poet who hides his politics behind beautiful poetry, so that one wonders, is this poetry more beautiful because of the politics, and how can that be? We know beauty doesn’t allow her charms to be handled by others. She owns them, and will not permit their use for other ends. Politics, too, eager to be adorned by beauty, hasn’t got time for beauty, save as an adornment, for so much has to be explained. Politics is attached to history, religion, and all those things which requires scholarship and time.

Poetry which lends its voice to politics is dutiful in the extreme—it is anxious to be poetic, knowing there is too much to explain without metaphors and myths, and now there is so much work to do: myth, metaphor, politics will overwhelm and confuse, if the poet is not expert in sorting it all out.

I love the lines in this poem—“His downy heart bleeds over the bliss beneath” and many others are exquisite, delicate, first-rate. I love this poem—but honestly, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening—and the explanation at the end is not poetry, but an explanation.

The topic and the lines are so beautiful, however, that we’ll take it.

Witness the beauty of Hussain’s poem:

Dighalipukhuri*

One claw on a bar,
and the crow
lifts the other to his lips
and blows the day’s first puff.
His view races the smoke through the fencing,
conductors spank their buses on-
“Dighalipukhuri. Dighalipukhuri.”

Long pond.

He stares at a chirping he can never touch,
at entwined buds,
and pigeons floating together in air bubbles,
and lovebirds in love rows,
their heads under their wings.
His downy heart bleeds over the bliss beneath.

At home his vulture
awaits him,
the spear in her hair and
a carcass in her beak.

Here he makes his day long,
sometimes swoops down and scoops up a
beakful of love from the face
Dighali.
Love the blushes of hyacinths
skimmed behind the boats.
The trees smell of Duryodhana’s incense
and Bhanumati’s anklets still tinkle beneath the paddle-boats,
her tumeric and potfuls of milk
and wedding tears
and a few thousand years of love.

He will return to blow the night’s last mists.

(*Dighalipukhuri, literally, ‘long pond,’ situated in Guwahati is an ancient pond frequented by lovers. It is connected by an underground tunnel to the river Brahmaputra and was supposedly dug for Duryodhana and Bhagadatta’s daughter Bhanumati’s wedding bath.)

******

Jerry Pinto is a novelist as well as a poet—which is often a hopeful sign to some; they cannot help but think, ‘A novelist! A good chance the poetry won’t be bullshit.’ But others may worry, ‘A novelist! Treason may be lurking! Not a real poet, perhaps!’ Neither of these positions are at all fair. Let’s thrust aside these predjudices, and read the following with an open mind.

Prayer

Lord of the linear narrative,
Show me the point at which I should begin.
Stop me when I have said as much as I should.
Regulate my voice, I boom too much
And my whispers are shrill.
Feed me words on those long, slow afternoons.
Allow me the grace of serendipity—
To find lost continents on my tongue.
Give me the gift of silence,
And then set me adrift.

*******

Seven more remarkable poets for this December installment!

We’ll see you in January!

 

%d bloggers like this: