CONCLUDING MARCH MADNESS MYSTERY BRACKET FIRST ROUND PLAY

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Meer Nair plays in the Mystery Bracket

Poetry charms us just as any other kind of speech does.  This should give us pause.  What is poetry, then?  How do we know we’re reading poetry?

In the First Round contest in the Mystery Bracket we have this, which is infinitely charming, though we are not really sure why:

“Let us make love. Where are we?”

Michelina Di Martino is the poet.

Di Martino’s fans and supporters and followers resemble the followers of dionysus, which is to be expected. We cannot think of a more delirious meme than “Let us make love. Where are we?”  Frenzied acolytes make for a loud and enthusiastic fan base, which has to make Di Martino the favorite in this contest.

Her opponent is Meera Nair, who is a mother, a poet, and a movie actress.

Her is: “How long can you keep/The lake away from the sea”

It is supremely beautiful—we could ponder this line for hours in a sweet fit of melancholy; the lake, as we will believe, will be drawn to the sea, and landscapes with both lake and sea invoke all the peace and longing we might expect when contemplating robust and watery nature as she lies upon the land.

If Di Martino thrills, as we contemplate unburdening ourselves in smoky, far off hills, Nair allows us to reflect in our rooms, with a window open to the air.  We consider things broad and wide, or trivial perhaps, concerning a lake, and gentle hills leading the watery confinement gurgling down to the sea.  We know Meera Nair’s fragment is poetry. We cannot be sure Michelina Di Martino’s is.  It is perhaps because the packed March Madness arena is filled with noise and confusion, and the warm, heart-rending screams of the crowd, that “Let us make love. Where are we?” wins.

****

Sukrita Kumar’s “Flames are messengers/Carrying the known/To the unknown” burns us with its mysterious wisdom.

What is known more acutely than fire? And what burns?  The unknown.  Everything is unknown to leaping flames. Unknown, the cavernous space filled with sparks, dark and cool above the conflagration which desperately attempts to warm and light our lives.

In stark contrast, Kushal Poddar’s: “Call its name around/with the bowl held in my cooling hand./I can see myself doing this. All Winter. All Summer.”

What could be more different from “Flames are messengers,” a loud pronouncement from the god Vulcan, perhaps, words belonging to the center of the earth, roaring to us from the metal doors of old time? “Call its name around/with the bowl held in my cooling hand./I can see myself doing this. All Winter. All Summer” is the essence of affectionate, domestic tranquility, the lean cat eluding its kind master in the cooling shadows.

How to decide between these two states?

There is no time decide.  Only the impetuous result beneath the lights and clock in the old trembling arena of March Madness.

We smile when we read Kushal Poddar’s offering.  It warms our heart, and this warmth douses the flames.

Poddar will advance to the second round.

****

Ben Mazer is another demonstration that poetry’s force often lies away from whatever we commonly think of as poetry.  Mazer is the champion of a previous Scarriet March Madness, perhaps the greatest prize a poet today can claim.  Nobel? Pulitzer?  Everyone knows these prizes are political.

“her room/retains the look/of the room of a stranger” is the line the Mazer crowd wildly cheers from the rooftops of the Madness arena.

What is this poetic force that Mazer has?

There are so many ways for poetry to excel. But to excel, to stand out, to be regarded with awe, one must evince a quality, a mysterious quality, a strange combination of qualities, which teases the soul of the reader so they surrender almost immediately to the spell.

“her room/retains the look/of the room of a stranger” is all Mazer.  It is mesmerizing, but why?

We would venture to say that Mazer succeeds through the most profound introversion it is possible to evince.

The profound secret to Mazer’s success is simple.  The success is not simple, but the secret is.  And the secret is that Mazer proffers introversion to such an extreme degree, that the reader is disarmed, the reader’s blood pressure is reduced to near-zero, and in the resulting trance, the sweet poison is easily administered, and the spell effortlessly cast.

The great poet cannot be measured by rhymes, words, subject.  Or perhaps they can.  Anything can be quantified before the lynx eye.  But in this instance, as we contemplate the mystery that is the wonder of Mazer, we venture to say it is this: he is greater than nearly all of his peers in poetry (and any extreme in the realm of good taste can succeed in poetry) because his poetry is marked more by introversion than anyone else’s.

This is not to say that Mazer’s poetry cannot say bold or extroverted things.  It is the introverted life from which it comes which conquers.

One can see at once the advantage of introversion in poetry: the hush, the mystery, the unruffled beauty, the calm, the deep breathing, the concentration, the privacy, the reverie, the reverential, the quiet tension, the tender, abashed sinking into the unknown.

Mazer’s opponent is Nabina Das.  She has produced the for this bracket the one entry which might be intimates an actual mystery:

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

The future is blisteringly manifest: “where she later dangled.”  Or perhaps the dangling is done in fun?

We doubt it, for there is a menacing finality about the whole thing: “the same ceiling fan from where she later dangled.”

The ambiguity would be more of a problem if the line were not so much fun in itself:

“Under the same” locks nicely into “ceiling fan from where” and the line travels straight up into the thin atmosphere of “she later dangled.”

It’s the kind of line which resembles a surfing wave—it belongs to nature almost as much as it belongs to ink:

“under the same ceiling fan from where she later dangled.”

It is not introverted, by any means.  Not like this, anyway:

“her room retains the look of the room of a stranger”

Both lines could almost be from the same poem.  It is almost as if fate matched these lines in March Madness.

Both are neatly divided in two:

her room retains the look—of the room of a stranger.

under the same ceiling fan—from where she later dangled.

Both are masterpieces of aural architecture:

“room” and “look” and “room” from a group, as do “retains” and “stranger.”

“under” and “where she later” form a group, as do “same ceiling fan” and “dangled.”

It is too close to call.

Nabina Das defeats Ben Mazer!

Fans in the rooms are going crazy.

****

In the final, Mystery Bracket Round One contest, we have Richard Wilbur, and his famous “The morning air is all awash with angels.”

Richard Wilbur’s (1921-2017) opponent is Sridala Swami:

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

Richard Wilbur was a leading 20th century formalist, and we can see this in the exuberance of all those “a’s:” air, all, awash, angels. Not to mention the iambic pentameter: The MOR-ning AIR is ALL a-WASH with AN-gels.

Sridala is trying to do something quite different.

There are no angels. There is no morning air.

“There is only this book” and we are already post-modern, or is the a reference to what Dante, in his Vita Nuova, says is his “book of memory,” which creates the smaller book of his Vita Nuova?

Sridala’s line begins with three anapests: There is ON-ly this BOOK, and your ONE

And the caesura in the middle of the line is the spondee, ONE CHANCE—which is the perfect place to make a dramatic pause: you’ve got one chance, bub.

of SPEAK-ing to the WORLD is THROUGH the WORDS in IT.

A long anapest: -ing to the WORLD, and then three iambs ends it: is THROUGH the WORDS in IT.

If we read both lines aloud, we find both scan, the Wilbur with more concentrated force, but hers is equally strong, and more subtle.

Hers is speech within speech.  One chance.

His is the singularity of something supernatural, or perhaps merely descriptive, we see in, and around, the morning air.

Wilbur’s is more fanciful, but there is something beautifully somber and philosophically contemplative in Sridala Swami’s “There is only this book, and your one chance of speaking to the world is through the words in it.”

Sridala Swami wins.

 

Next up:  The Life and Beautiful Brackets.

INDIAN POETS IN ENGLISH —APRIL

Image result for urban contemporary india in painting

This is the third installment of Scarriet’s crash course in contemporary Indian poetry in English—seven poets per month (Feb ’18 thru Jan ’19)—suggested by Linda Ashok in The Poetry Mail.

Sukrita P. Kumar writes poetry striving to be everything at once: wise, but wise with simple imagery, which nonetheless reveals wisdom in, and behind, that imagery.  What else can a poet do?

For wise imagery, it doesn’t get any better than this:

Flames are messengers
Carrying the known
To the unknown

Life to afterlife

So ends Sukrita Kumar’s “The Chinese Cemetery.”

One must remember that the history of poetry is actually brief—exciting stories of warriors and gods, religious and creation texts, romantic songs, witty satires, haiku-like imagery, or some combination thereof. Most contemporary poetry is a strict, disciplined journey in quasi-religious imagery; Sukrita Kumar is no exception.

The poem quoted above begins this way:

The smile in the photograph
Is no reflection of what lies
In the dark hollow of the tunnels
Behind cement squares in rows,
Each, one-by-one in size
Marked by dates, picture, name
Of a tiny flash
A dot of life in the universe

Now are things really this bad?  Or is this just extremely disciplined writing?  One almost longs for Dante and his Beatrice, Alexander Pope doing circus tricks, or Keats making voluptuous rhymes—after reading this. But this is what the poets are doing today. Patience on a monument.

Because yes, things are really this bad. For some.

*

Vinita Agrawal’s poem, “The Refugees Are Here,” is an unrelenting tragedy of families dying, forced to trek because of war.

“People and their earth are one,” the poem states at one point.

But everything in the poem contradicts this sentiment.

For instance, “How does then a father explain/to his child’s face showing clear pain/That when a homeland has been snatched/just a home is not enough…”  The child, who eventually perishes, cries out to the father, “I don’t want to go anywhere. You are my home!”

There’s no relief. The poem ends, “the refugees are here/only to keep alive the stories of their land/through chapped, charred lips/that dried up kissing loved ones goodbye.”

**

Mustansir Dalvi writes satiric poetry.

It can be interesting to observe humor philosophically; humor doesn’t usually live full-blown in poetry, and when it does, the critic scrambles to make sense of it. The critic will notice the genre of humor needs to constantly reference things outside of itself; beauty and sorrow are self-sufficient; sorrow can hide and still move us; humor has to know common things that everyone knows.  Funny poetry is harder to pull off, and when it fails, it fails like bad rhyme; we can see it fall.

We are not sure the two poems by Dalvi, found in the Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry, “why someone needed to kick the infant Kafka in the balls” and “Prayer can change your fate, too (found object)” succeed, or not.  Perhaps the critic missed a reference, or two; it was the critic’s fault we “didn’t get the joke.”  Perhaps the critic is wrong altogether, and humor is not the object at all.  Let’s quote the first poem in its entirety, to make sure we are not mad:

Every poet
Wants to wake
As Gregor Samsa
one morning.

Every poet wants
to drag his belly in the dirt,
to be exalted by coarse burns
forming welts around his navel.

Every poet would
willingly put himself in harm’s way
to be squished into concupiscent curd
by someone who doesn’t even notice.

When we get to the third stanza, and read how “every poet would willingly put himself in harm’s way,” we think we are reading pure satire.  Is poetry being ridiculed?  Kafka?  And then there’s the reference to the famous Wallace Stevens poem. The satirist looks outward, challenging assumptions, and we definitely feel challenged.  Is the poem making fun of us—if we don’t “get the joke” (is there a joke?) are we the ones who don’t “even notice?”

Mustansir Dalvi has won, and the reader has lost.  Or has the poet lost?  Or has the poet and the reader won?  Or is it all a mystery?  And no one wins or loses. We are Gregor Samsa, the bug.  And we know nothing. Or a lot.

***

Arun Sagar is a wonderful poet. Reading three of his poems published in Coldnoon, International Journal of Travel Writing, we find pleasing poetry of intimate delicacy.

In “Liège,” we find ourselves enclosed by the poem, and admire the way the poet puts us in the poem; sometimes we think this is the best thing writing can do—put us in a pleasant place.  The phrase, “the bus station an anchored ship” is nice. “Each way out is worthy” also gives great joy, as the poet adds to the pleasurable effect of the immersion.  Granted, one might say this poetic ambition aims low; it concedes pleasant life is all—but skill, sensitivity, patience, and wisdom are required when we find a  poem has replaced our life.

LIÈGE

Already I remember rain
on the windowpane,
the bus station an anchored ship,
soft disco music.
Already I remain onboard
with early morning baggage smells,
the driver’s quizzical smile.
This is the eternal
problématique: 5 am,
the impossibility of sleep
or tears, streetlights
through glass and rain.
Each way out
is worthy, each way leads
to clarity and mist,
and music.
And you, too,
are present here, the mere
knowledge of it
is enough; you too lean back
in your seat,
stretch your feet.
You look at me as if to speak.
.
****

Jennifer Robertson’s poem, “Come Undone,” published in The Missing Slate, is prefaced with a quote from Anais Nin, which is the theme of the poem which follows: “I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women are inside me.”

Madness is win-win in poetry.

The poet may not be mad, but the trope of madness always generates interest.

If the poet is mad, this will likely generate even more interest—unless it completely ruins the poetry.

If the poetry is good, we enjoy the madness whether the poet is writing about madness or is, in fact, mad.  It really doesn’t matter.

The poem isn’t sufficient to prove whether the poet is mad—any sort of hint that madness is in the neighborhood will help; “madness is win-win in poetry” naturally becomes its own prophecy.

And finally, the saving grace is that if we don’t like madness, madness is really not madness at all—in this case, having “many women” inside is healthy, and to be merely “quiet and consistent,” the implied problem.

Jennifer Robertson summons Adrianne Rich (“Diving Into the Wreck”) and Virginia Woolf (who reportedly “put stones in her pocket” when she committed suicide by sea) in her poem, which succeeds beautifully:

No more walls, she says.
No more coats. I’ll have none of that.
None of your hands
shadow-boxing a hermit crab.
No more repetitive shapes
or sharks to
set things right

ocean after ocean after ocean

I’ll speak of things, of names
too difficult to decipher.
And yes, no more changing into a flower,
a sea anemone, a jellyfish.
I’ll remember that all animals
are predatory
at the bottom of the sea.

And then I’ll speak of
hurricanes, mirrors,
and odd-numbered
fantasies
of a brokenness you call
inadequate,
paltry, blonde.

You will not be able to see me change.
You will not see me drifting into the sea.
There will be nothing aquatic
about this shipwreck. You will not know
the colour blue.
When I put stones in my pocket
You’ll still be looking at a mermaid

and saying,
Look, how close
she is to the ship.

 

*****

Arvind Krishna Mehrota is a professor, born in 1947.  He edited the Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets. One can access two brief poems of his, one published in Poetry in 1976 and the other in The New York Review of Books in 2011. He has done tireless work as a translator.

Enchanting how “Engraving of a Bison on Stone” (from Poetry) begins:

The land rests
Because it cannot be
Tempted or broken
In a chamber.

“Except That It Robs You Of Who You Are” is a wonderful title; the poem, however, berates “speech” in a somewhat predictable manner.

Except that it robs you of who you are,
What can you say about speech?
Inconceivable to live without
And impossible to live with,
Speech diminishes you.
Speak with a wise man, there’ll be
Much to learn; speak with a fool,
All you get is prattle.
Strike a half-empty pot, and it’ll make
A loud sound; strike one that is full,
Says Kabir, and hear the silence.

The “fool” will “prattle.” So maybe I should shut up.

******

Rochelle Potkar is an amazing find.  She writes with wit and insight.

“Disquiet” is a delight to read, and must be quoted in full:

My father was the quietest man;
his few words made no sense
in the world’s idiom.
.
Saddled into a marriage
astride a dead horse of tradition
he flogged it too many times
for two children.
.
He stayed away even when near.
He did not belong to anyone,
unaware of our favorite colors,
our school grades, or
the names of our boyfriends.
.
He lent money to ruffians at high interest rates
and recovered nothing.
Smoothening his hands over glossy brochures,
he invested in scams of impossible dreams.
.
He used to count his coins
like I now count my words
.
I too am falling out of the system.
.
I too belong to no one.
I fear he is growing inside me…
(Are we always pregnant with our parents?)
.
I fight to brew soup for my daughter
To know her grades
and look her in the eye
during her babbles.
I know her favorite toys, colors
the names of her friends.
.
I have hidden the broken mirrors of my growing disengagements.
I am killing the father inside me,
but he keeps rising.
.
My language is turning alien
in the world’s idiom.
.
I too have placed faith in scams
Of soul, body, and intellect.
The rule being: everyone is duped at least once.
.
I search for him in other faces
and turn mine away
when I find even one similar feature.
.
But can I run away from the one cell that is the whole Self?
.

The “one cell that is the whole Self” is stunning.  The whole poem is lyrical, yet epic in scope, intense, self-aware, and accessible. Poetry too often scrutinizes obscurely and complacently the eccentric, the trivial.  Not only is the poetry of Rochelle Potkar preferable, it far exceeds expectations, as it sagely thrills.

*******

So ends the April edition. Looking forward to May. Thanks again, to Linda Ashok.

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