THE SPELL OF STORY
A review of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam (Bloomsbury, pp. 394, ISBN 978 1 4088 1970 8)
In one of my favourite poems by Margaret Atwood, the poet regards her daughter absorbed in plastic letters, “learning how to spell,/ spelling,/ how to make spells.” She (adult observer/ mother/ writer) knows “A word after a word/ after a word is power.” It is a poem suffused with both bitterness and enchantment which she ends by asking (herself just as much as the child), “How do you learn to spell?/ Blood, sky & the sun,/ your own name first,/ your first naming, your first name,/ your first word.”
This poem came back to me when I encountered little Blackbeard in Atwood’s MaddAddam, the closing novel in the trilogy that comprises Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009). Blackbeard is one of a species of humans idiosyncratically engineered by a team of braniacs led by Crake (once a “fucked-up kid named Glenn”, cool laconic green-eyed genius, capable even as a teenager of generating awe; alpha wolf, head lion, or “little bastard” depending on which side of the super-security compound walls you happened to be on). The Crakers, as they come to be called, are incredibly beautiful, superbly docile ‘humans’ in whom all the problems of humanity—racism, hierarchies, inheritance, territoriality, unrequited love, thwarted lust, the need for symbolism, religion, clothing, weapons and tools have all been eliminated, along with the capacity to make jokes, because as their creator ruefully admits, to tell jokes you need “a certain edge, a little malice”, which the Crakers clearly do not have. What they do have is insect-repelling skin and the ability to digest plants, coupled with quintuplet copulation rituals involving blue bottoms and genitals, flowers and singing. If left to Crake the singing would have been eliminated too, but, as one of the scientists says in MaddAddam—they’d be zucchinis if the singing gene had been knocked out. In Oryx and Crake, Snowman a.k.a. Jimmy, the Crakers’ reluctant prophet and “improbable shepherd”, notes that their singing is “unlike anything he has ever heard. As if crystals are singing, but not that, either. More like ferns unscrolling – something old, carboniferous, but at the same time newborn, fragrant, verdant.” In Atwood’s universe (no matter how dystopian) song is essential to the human (no matter how bio-engineered).
Which brings me back to Blackbeard, curious child of a species that has, as per its creator’s manifesto, no need for art, no use for names that cannot be demonstrated by a physical equivalent (“even stuffed, even skeletal”), people for whom there were to be “No unicorns, no griffins, no manticores or basilisks” and absolutely no knowledge of writing. When Blackbeard first comes across Toby (ex-God’s Gardener, current lover of Zeb the Reb, whom she has silently loved from The Year of the Flood, chronicler of facts and feast days, communer with bees) writing her Journal, he asks, “What are those lines?”
“Look,” she says. “I’m doing writing: that is what these lines are.” And she proceeds to explain pen and paper, ink and elderberry juice, stick and sand. How to draw the letters and put them together to make words—“the words stay where you’ve put them on the paper, and then other people can see them on the paper and hear the words.” Blackbeard is confounded—“but it can’t talk,” he says, “I see the marks you have put there. But it is not saying anything.” To which Toby says, “You need to be the voice of the writing. When you read it. Reading is when you turn these marks back into sounds. Look. I will write your name.” She prints out BLACKBEARD and sounds out each letter. “See,” she says. “It means you. Your name.” Putting the pen in his hand, curling his fingers around it, she guides his hand and the pen to spell the letter B. “This is how your name begins,” she says. “B. Like bees. It’s the same sound.” Blackbeard is not convinced. “That is not me,” he says, “It is not bees either. It is only some marks.” Smiling, Toby tells Blackbeard to show the paper with his name on it to Ren, a member of their beleaguered community comprising other ex-God’s Gardeners and ex-MaddAdammites, the last living remnants of the old-humanity. Distrustful, Blackbeard does as he is told, and returns, radiant—“It said my name! It told my name to Ren!” That, Toby says to her little pupil, is writing.
Later that day, she finds him with a stick and the paper. His name is written on the sand. “The other children are watching him. All of them are singing.” “What comes next?” she wonders. “Rules, dogmas, laws?” (All the things Crake had weeded out of the Crakers.) “How long before there are ancient texts they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret? Have I ruined them?”
For Toby it is a moment of dread. For me, it was a moment of frisson. The beautiful edible-coloured people who are Crake’s idea of the perfect human, non-violent and herbivorous, are also frighteningly blank. In Oryx and Crake, when the entire human population has been wiped out by “a rogue hemorrhagic” and only Jimmy survives, he appears to them in the Paradice dome—where Oryx had taught them leaf/insect/mammal/reptile, taught them what to eat, what not to eat, what bit, what hurt, what not to hurt—and begins to spin the stories that will help explain the end of their innocent, hermetic, artificial world and the vanishment of clever, good, kind Crake who made them. They accept every fiction he tells them; they seem to him “like blank pages, he could write whatever he wanted on them.” It is a tremendous power, and as he leads them out of Paradice through the Chaos of dead bodies (“Chaos always smells bad”), Jimmy, always a word-person, finds that power both exasperating and exhilarating. Relying on “a lifetime of deviousness” he answers their innumerable questions—“Why is your skin so loose?” “What is that smoke?” “Why is that child lying down, with no eyes?” Having promised to look after the Crakers should anything happen to Oryx and Crake, he leads them to his own haven, the white sands with the rusted cars and rustling trees, the offshore towers brimming with birds. The Crakers ask, “What is this place called?” Jimmy answers, “It is called home.”
It is this frisson, this magic of the “first naming” that illuminates MaddAddam for me. It is in fact intrinsic to the entire trilogy, the emphasis on and recurrence of the idea and importance of naming. In The Year of the Flood, Adam One says to his followers, the God’s Gardeners, an eccentric conservationist cult, “the Names of the Animals were the first words he spoke – the first moment of Human language. In this cosmic instant, Adam claims his Human soul. To Name is – we hope – to greet: to draw another towards one’s self.” While Adam One’s sermons can sometimes seem like a source of comedy and pious platitude, one can see why they’ve been plotted into the overall schema of the trilogy, along with ideas of innocence and sin, of paradise lost and paradise regained. In the beginning was the word, and so was it in the end. Atwood as the enchantress of the apocalyptic is also Atwood the mesmerized acolyte to the word. In a world where everything is obliterated and vicious gene-spliced animals rove the debris, threatening the handful of surviving humans with their pigoon intelligence and wolvog ferocity, Jimmy—unlikely hero of Oryx and Crake, love interest to several young ladies in The Year of the Flood and narratively-marginal but symbolically-vivid figure in MaddAddam—takes refuge in words, salvaging them from an eroding memory, hanging on to them, harbouring for the old words “that no longer had a meaningful application in today’s world” a “tender feeling”, “as if they were children abandoned in the woods and it was his duty to rescue them.” It’s almost as if the Craker kids are also abandoned words, in need of salvaging! During his worst crisis, when Jimmy sees footage of his mother being shot for treason, he loses his grip on the thing that has always kept him afloat—language. “Language itself had lost its solidity; it had become thin, contingent, slippery, a viscid film on which he was sliding around like an eyeball on a plate.” In MaddAddam when Toby sits to write her Journal, she wonders, “What kind of story – what kind of history will be any use at all, to people she can’t know will exist, in the future she can’t foresee?” In Oryx and Crake Jimmy had wondered what possible use it could be to faithfully record moments for future readers in the time-honoured tradition of castaway chronicles, because Crakers couldn’t read, so any reader he could possibly imagine existed in the past. The fact that at the end of MaddAddam it is a Craker—Blackbeard of course—who puts down the Story of Toby is perhaps Atwood’s affirmation of the immemorial impulse to record, to create creation myths, to mythologize. Amidst a bleak dystopian landscape it is the writer’s celebration of the human desire for witness and testament. “This is my voice, the voice of Blackbeard that you are hearing in your head. That is called reading. And this is my own book, a new one for my writing and not the writing of Toby.” It could be sentimental. Instead it is profoundly moving when Toby realizes that Blackbeard is like the child she never had, that he is writing a Journal of his own, that he is all grown-up, that he has inherited the legacy of word and book from her, has embraced it with love and a kind of adorable doggedness, and will not let it die.
As the culmination of a dark, even ugly concatenation of events, told with bang-on brutality as well as with wit and lyricism, it is perhaps befitting that MaddAddam is a tale of reconciliation between seeming-irreconcilables. This to me was the easiest read (sometimes too much so) in the trilogy, faster and funnier, Toby’s voice lit by a kind of unexpected humour that pleased me more than Jimmy’s jokes. If the trilogy as a whole is concerned (among other things) with the rampant nature of human greed, corporatization, the cynical use of science, the devaluation of the liberal arts, the banality-venality-criminality of the human psyche and the sordidness of sexual transaction, MaddAddam is, in its own right, a story of regeneration. At heart a love story, not just the love story of Toby and Zeb, but also our universal love of story.
|This review first appeared in Biblio: A Review of Books, VOL XVIII NOS. 11 & 12, November-December 2013|
CONTRIBUTING TO THE LINEAGE OF LALLA
A review of I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Děd, translated by Ranjit Hoskote (Penguin, pp. 246, ISBN 978-0-670-08447-0 [HB], price Rs. 450)
In his new translation of the poems of Lal Děd, Ranjit Hoskote attempts at least three key things. One, to contextualize the life and work of “arguably Kashmir’s best known spiritual and literary figure”. Two, to posit the thesis that the poems were produced not by one person, but instead a “contributory lineage” of many different people across age, gender, location, “including both literate and unlettered, reciters and scribes, redactors and commentators”. And three, to present the vākhs attributed to the fourteenth-century mystic-poet not merely as “sayings” or “verse-teachings” but as poetry. It is a book that makes room for the scholarly, the literary and the philosophical, so that depending on the interest of the reader, it can be enjoyed for any or all of these reasons.
So who was ‘Grandmother Lal’ or ‘Lal the Womb’ (which is what Lal Děd literally translates as)? Hoskote’s Introduction traces first mention of her to the year 1587 in Mulla Ali Raina’s Tadhkirāt ul-Ārifīn, followed sixty-seven years later by a mention in Baba Daud Mishkati’s Asrār ul-Akbar. But it was only in 1736 that a “more plausible and detailed account” of her life appeared in Khwaja Azam Diddamari’s Tārikh-i Āzami or Wāqi’āt-i Kashmir. Born a Brahmin, married at the age of twelve, mistreated by her husband and mother-in-law, Lalla renounced her home and family at twenty-six, studied under the Śaiva saint Sěd Bôyu also known as Siddha Śrīkāntha and became a wandering mendicant. “It is assumed”, Hoskote writes, “that Lalla began to compose her scintillating, provocative and compelling poems at this stage in her life”. As he goes on to point out, “none of Lalla’s male predecessors in the Kashmir Śaiva lineage had been renouncers”, which made Lalla’s act doubly provocative and telling. Unlike the men who could function as scholars, teachers and writers while remaining within the household, Lalla, being a woman, had to leave the binding duties of domestic life in order to fulfill her spiritual quest. As a yogini, she was reviled, tormented, abused, but rather than frame her within a feminist construct, drawing out the references to women’s work as others have done, Hoskote prefers to see the vākhs as “testimony to a criss-crossing of gender lines”, where Lalla is a “wanderer across the landscapes of river, lake and snow, and no stranger to boat, anchor and tow-rope”. Asserting that her poems reveal a rich and fruitful receptiveness to Kashmir Śaivism, Tantra, Yoga and Yogācāra Buddhism, as well as Sufi ideas and practices, Hoskote rejects the notion of Lalla being considered a Bhakti poet. He suggests that though many features of her practice and poetry “do indeed bear an affinity to Bhakti spirituality, especially her opposition to the religious hierarchy and orthodox worship … her sense of direct communion with the Divine, her valorisation of the Name … and her use of the language of everyday life”, her perspective is based more substantially on jnāna-mārga (the path of evolved awareness and insight) than on bhakti-mārga (the path of self-dissolving devotion).
An interesting point that emerges is that while the oral recitation of Lalla’s poems by both Hindu and Muslim reciters allowed for a “space of relative freedom and play” in the use of the language, Kashmiri, and while the figure of Lal Děd could be simultaneously owned as Lalleśvari or Lalla Yogini by the Hindus and Lal-‘ārifa by the Muslims, her poetry—since the late 1980s—has become disputed territory. With Kashmiri Pandit scholars claiming her exclusively for Kashmir Śaivism without any hint of Sufism, and Kashmiri Muslim scholars arguing that “her emancipatory teachings could not have sprung from a Hindu matrix”, linguistic research has been coloured by ideological preference. As partisans on both sides pursue that chimera ‘authenticity’, “the Śaiva-only school condemns all Persianate phrasing as insertions made by later Muslim hands” while “the Sufi-only school could well construe Sanskritic terminology as evidence of later Brahminical imposition”. Hoskote argues that there is “no mythic Old Kashmiri original to be retrieved; … every generation has revised the phrasing of Lalla’s poems towards contemporary usage”. It is with this in mind—and the “style switching [that] has historically been common between the two communities”—that Hoskote proposes his theory of the “contributory lineage”, affirming that the “poetry that has come down to us in her name is not the work of an individual”, that Lalla is “not the person who composed these vākhs; rather, she is the person who emerges from these vākhs”. His purpose, he writes, is “not to take away from the historical Lalla’s agency, but to suggest how the contributory lineage, acting in her name, distributed her agency—and with it, the privilege of articulation—among those who had no access to political influence, no stake in cultural hegemony,” and in so doing carved out a “mobile, self-renewing, uncontainable space” that resisted authority, celebrated individual destiny and retrieved the sacred from “standard-issue religiosity”. In envisaging Lal Děd’s poems as what he calls rather snazzily “the LD corpus”, Hoskote follows in the footsteps of Vinay Dharwadker’s view of Kabir’s work being “a complex multi-author production spanning five centuries and mediated through multiple languages, regions and teaching lineages”. In this “collective model of authorship”, Hoskote writes, “every contribution is a devotional act, and is therefore offered as an attribution to the saint-poet.”
So the question ‘Who was Lal Děd?’ is one that Hoskote prefers to enlarge rather than reduce, and in so doing arrive at a celebration of the “vibrant heteroglossia of the LD corpus, its gift for orchestrating a polyphony of variegated tones, registers and voices.” Lalla, it would seem, contains multitudes. This assertion does not however diminish the presence of Lalla that animates the poems, a presence or persona that is at times wild and fervent, at times tender and funny, often scathing and always intense. If the historical Lalla embodied “compassion, commonsense … and resistance to authority” the body of work that is ascribed to her comes across, in this translation, as equally vital, filled with a moral force that is not moralistic, but genuinely spiritual, robust and real, infused with a wisdom that is as practical as it is profound. Placing her work within a continuum shaped “within the horizons of Kashmir Śaivism, Yoga and Tantra”, Hoskote suggests that the “Lalla who emerges from the LD corpus” … “innovated around the Sanskrit and Apabhramśa teachings of the Śaiva masters and explored the spiritual alchemy of the Tantras.” It is to the writings of the Śaiva acharya Abhinavagupta (c. 950-1020) and Utpaladeva (c. 900-950) that he traces the lineage of Lalla’s utterances, finding in them themes central to Śaivite and Tantric ideas of redemption, the spiritual quest that “places the seeker at a tangent to society, as an eccentric, a holy fool, an inspired lunatic”, one who consciously exists outside the binaries of acceptable behavior. Hoskote finds in Lal Děd’s poems a great degree of intertextuality with Paśupata, Siddha and Nātha texts, which, he writes, “were not fossil fuel, but renewable resources” that gathered a new charge in Lalla’s poems. So too the form of the poems, the vākh, emerging as a ‘folk meter’ at the threshold of Apabhramśa (whose dominant meter was the doha) and modern Kashmiri, makes Lalla not the “puzzling exception, the isolated oddity that she is so often made out to be.” Hoskote suggests that she drew on and participated in the “substantial, vigorous and heterodox counterculture” that existed in Kashmir between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, a counterculture he names “the Tantric underground”. Speculating that this was a subversive trans-caste movement which did much to alleviate caste tensions in late medieval and early modern Kashmir, Hoskote suggests that Lalla “worked her way across the Tantric path, using it as a bridge rather than a platform.”
There is much in the Introduction that may be controversial, or simply grist to several scholarly mills! That is perhaps as it should be. Any new translation of a canonical work that aspires to go beyond what precedes it and impact what follows it needs to be, at the very least, a reinterpretation. In Hoskote’s introduction to the work of Lal Děd he does more, as he repositions the poet within her linguistic, historical, socio-cultural, religious and philosophical traditions, building on and breaking with the traditions that he himself would have received as a person studying and translating her work over a period of twenty years. And while such a strong and comprehensive approach is invaluable to our understanding of the phenomenon of Lal Děd, as a piece of literature it is the translations themselves that need to bear up under the strongest scrutiny. As I compare Hoskote’s translations with earlier versions, namely Sir George Grierson’s (1920) and Jaishree Kak’s (2007), I can see the trajectory the poems have taken, and their consequent transformation. Hoskote acknowledges the debt he owes to Grierson and Barnett, Jayalal Kaul, and Shiban Krishna Raina’s Hindi paraphrases but these are very much his own, personal renditions of 146 of the 258 vākhs that variously assume the form of songs, proverbs and prayers, or, in his own taxonomy—the teaching-poem, the robust reaffirmation, the contemplative residuum and the piece of tough talk. To Hoskote’s sub-listing of types of poems—the proclamation, the lament, the soliloquy, the hymn, the dire prediction and the love song for the Divine—I would add the Q&A poem and the unanswered question.
On the whole, they read beautifully, with the crispness and economy one would expect from a translator who is also a poet. Right away, one enters a realm of speech that is very contemporary, in keeping with Hoskote’s stated purpose of “restoring the colloquial pulse” of Lalla’s voice. What is unexpected—and that is perhaps partly (and unfairly!) due to the fact that one does not expect it from Hoskote—is the Americanized inflection in phrases like “Soul, get this!” or “You can bet I wasn’t sure” or even “dead woman walking”. While some of these felt like potential snags, a point I shall return to later, there is a wonderfully refreshing sassy, trippy cadence to many of the poems, thanks to phrases that come from what the poet and translator Robert Bly called “the living tone”, not street-language or slang, rather “the fragrance that tells you a person now alive could have said the phrase” (Bly’s The Eight Stages of Translation). Thus Lalla says, in poem 2, “Then it hit me: What am I thinking, He’s everywhere!” Or in poem 12, “Holy water hasn’t touched my skin. I’ve lost the plot.” In poem 58, Lalla says, “Get your act together, join mind with life-breath”; in poem 71: “I can’t believe this happened to me!”, “Serves me right: it’s time I got to know myself”; in poem 92: “I couldn’t care less.” Some of these phrases sound almost exactly like what any of us might say in moments of crisis, and this rightness of tone is delightful. Such examples of a current colloquialism abound, as do phrases that enter the poems from other environments—nautical ( “all hands on board”), medical (“infect”, “virus”), news-room (“every hour on the hour”), finance and marketing (“It’s a numbers game”), classroom (“stand proxy”) and yes, the world of information technology (“break the code”, “password to the Supreme”). It is these latter that sometimes seemed a bit odd, like snags in a seamless net, but they had the salutary effect of making me return to earlier versions for a process of comparative analysis. For example, in what is Poem 14 in Hoskote’s translation, both Grierson as well as Kak translate “code” as “hidden knowledge”. Here are the relevant lines in full:
“I searched for myself, and wearied myself in vain,/ For no one hath, I ween, e’er by such efforts reached the hidden knowledge.” (Grierson)
“Arduous was my search for the Self./ Nothing compares to the hidden knowledge.” (Kak)
“I wore myself out, looking for myself./ No one could have worked harder to break the code.” (Hoskote)
What had seemed at first like an aberration, a too-hip introduction of modernity, seemed in retrospect part of a pithy shorthand that conveyed the sense of a knowledge so hidden it could only be classified as “access-denied” to all but the adept. However, here are earlier versions of the phrase from poem 19, “If you know the password to the Supreme Place”:
“If thou know the syllable that is itself the Supreme Place” (Grierson)
“If you know the supreme state” (Kak)
Here it seems there has been a shift in the meaning in Hoskote’s version, for Grierson suggests that “the syllable” itself is the Supreme Place, and not the magic mantra that will allow access to the Supreme Place. Kak sidesteps the word/syllable/mantra/password-conundrum altogether and goes directly to the idea of “knowing” the supreme state. While Hoskote’s commentary on this and its companion poem 20 does elaborate on the use of the word “password”, I am not entirely sure if it is bang-on the way the majority of his choices seems to be. Following this word and its variants through old and new translations, I discover that in another poem (43 in Kak’s Mystical Verses of Lallā, 58 in Grierson’s Lallā-Vākyāni, 64 in Hoskote’s I, Lalla) “manthr” has been translated by Kak as “mantra”, by Grierson as “mystic formula”, and by Hoskote as “prayer”. Connecting all three is the idea of the incantation, and I suppose somewhere in between floats the untranslatable.
In fact, it is Hoskote’s predilection for codes and passwords that leads to the only poem in the book that did not feel like a significant or radical improvement on its earlier avatar. That poem is number 135, and I felt in Kak’s version as well as in Grierson’s a kind of simplicity had been achieved that is lost in Hoskote’s too-layered last line: “What is that Supreme Word you’re looking for/ in the hermit’s coded dictionary?” It feels excessive and ruins the effect of a poem that starts so promisingly.
In the rest of the book, however, the new translations are clearly luminous, achieving sound, meaning and wisdom with a kind of grace the earlier versions do not have. One such is poem 13:
Love-mad, I, Lalla, started out,
spent days and nights on the trail.
Circling back, I found the teacher in my own house.
What brilliant luck, I said, and hugged him.
Or poem 64:
Whatever my hands did was worship,
whatever my tongue shaped was prayer.
That was Shiva’s secret teaching:
I wore it and it became my skin.
While some, like poem 139 ring rough and true (“To hell with all your vows and prayers”), others cut to the quick:
This body that you’re fussing over,
this body that you’re dolling up,
this body that you’re wearing to the party,
this body will end as ash.
While still others express an intimacy so real it hurts:
Don’t think I did all this to get famous.
I never cared for the good things of life.
I always ate sensibly. I knew hunger well,
and sorrow, and God.
One question that arises in my mind, having found myself in similar situations, is to what extent the poet must hold back in deference to the translator when, as in Hoskote’s case, they coexist. For, as Bly (also a poet-translator) points out, “We have been slowly possessing the poem and making it ours—we have to do that to bring it alive—but it is possible that we have kidnapped it instead.” I have to say that Hoskote seems to have escaped the possibility of turning kidnapper almost entirely, except in a couple of instances where I felt that the poet had taken precedence. One line (in poem 137) “the mustang of your mind” sounded more like Ranjit than Lalla, and one poem (94) sounded to me entirely like a poem he might have written (especially when I compare it with earlier translations.) A taut set of enigmatic instructions, it is, in itself, excellent and deserves to be quoted in full:
Wisest to play the fool. Lynx-eyed, play blind.
Prick-eared, be deaf.
Polished, lie dull among the dull.
I wonder, is this successful poem a failed translation? And then again it occurs to me that in the scheme of the “contributory lineage” that Hoskote attributes Lalla’s corpus to, it is perhaps fitting that he should add his own voice to this polyphonic chorus! Studying the titles of Lalla translations over the years proves revealing. From Grierson and Barnett’s Lallā-Vākyāni, or the wise sayings of Lal Děd, A mystic poetess of ancient Kashmir to Kak’s The mystical verses of Lallā; from Parimoo’s The ascent of self: A reinterpretation of the mystical poetry of Lalla-Ded, Jayalal Kaul’s direct Lal Ded and Sir Richard Carnac Temple’s The words of Lalla the Prophetess to Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla—the shift is from someone who is out there to someone who is in here, an assertion of self that is unabashed, celebratory, performative and intimate. It should feel contradictory to Hoskote’s thesis of collective authorship, but instead it highlights how deeply that legacy has been owned and enriched by countless contributors. Everyone who may have offered a poem to the corpus forsakes his or her own identity in order to subsume it within this cry—‘I, Lalla!’ For a poet and a mystic who espoused transcendence of self and release from the body-bound ego, this is the perfect rallying cry, and perhaps the very reason that Lalla’s utterances reach us through time, political upheavals and ideological appropriations with such beautiful resilience. This new and latest translation is proof of the enormous power of a body of work that, while constellating around one figure, the figure of Lal Děd, is large enough to accommodate, assimilate and adapt, moving from the moment when Kashmiri began to emerge as a modern language to the stabilized idiom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; travelling via Sanskritic terms and phrases, Arabic and Persianate locutions, Sufi and Sikh usage into the English of the present. By no means should Hoskote’s be considered the last word in the legacy of Lalla, but for our times and this moment in history, I do believe it to be the definitive one.
This review first appeared in Biblio: A Review of Books, Vol. XVI Nos. 7 & 8, July-August 2011
DISCOVERY AND REDISCOVERY
A review of Bearings by Karthika Naïr (HarperCollins Publishers India, 94 pp., ISBN 978-81-7223-834-6) and of The Boatride & other poems by Arun Kolatkar (Pras Prakashan, 262 pp., ISBN 978-81-906520-1-8)
This review looks at two books of poetry that are, in a sense, from two ends of the spectrum—the first, a debut collection by Karthika Naïr, in which we are introduced to an emerging poet; the second, a comprehensive posthumous collection which invites us to return to one of the most well-known and well-loved poets of our time, Arun Kolatkar.
The title of Karthika Naïr’s book is telling—Bearings. The dictionary entry that prefaces the collection does not favour one definition of the word over another and lists them all. Signalling, perhaps, the amplitude of the poems that will follow and also perhaps signalling the stance of the poet herself, as she finds her bearings within the landscape of Indian poetry in English. Refusing to be overwhelmed by either tradition, legacy or language, Naïr seems willing to situate herself very squarely within the demands of poetry itself, in all its formality and fluency, its sonic and visual ‘thingness’, its capacity to be, within the covers of the same book, both “a memo to the self” and “an inventory of damage”.
Her “experiments in ekphrasis” in the first section ‘Virga’, apart from being “the verbal representation of visual representation” (Scott, Mitchell and Heffernan), seem to take pleasure in directing the reader elsewhere—a dance, a duet, a sculpture, another poem, a music class, a performance. In pointing the reader towards the creative world outside the poem, indeed the world that has informed and inspired the poem, and through the manner in which she does it, Naïr achieves the interestingly paradoxical effect of intimate distancing. Who the poems are for, where they come from, time place situation mood, what specific poetic form they inhabit, all these details are to be found in that handy academic tool—the footnote. What saves the footnoting from fustiness, or over-explanation, is simply the precise and personal tone in which they are written. At times, the footnote seems more revealing than the poem itself. Form, for Naïr, is clearly a way of corralling the tempestuous. ‘Tempus Fugit’ is a villanelle and ‘Zero Degrees: Screenshots’ is a series of “senryu-like poems”. Repetitions, strict syllabic counts, tercets, quatrains, triolets—for Naïr the dance of words is mathematical, measured. It is perhaps no coincidence that a word that occurs more than once in the book is “glissade”—a gliding step in ballet, a step that is used, as the Encyclopedia Britannica informs us, “primarily as a preparation for jumps and leaps”, besides also meaning “a controlled slide” down a steep incline of snow or ice. Naïr’s preferred mode is ‘control’, with the ‘slide’ manifesting itself more in the deft usage of rhyme than in the rush of words down the steep slope of emotion. In fact, a rare poem where we do find Naïr overtly ‘letting go’ is in the second section, ‘Damaged Goods’, and is titled ‘Inheritance’. In four unpunctuated stanzas she dives into a litany of relatives, relics and rituals surrounding the death of a granny. It seems reckless, breathless, but it is just as knitted, plotted, as most of Naïr’s poems. Here the gliding step of language is the precursor to the jump, the leap, and eventually, the sure-footed landing.
‘Damaged Goods’—which includes poems about illness, pain and the fear, indeed the close proximity, of death—is remarkably unburdened by self-pity or morbidity. ‘Visiting Hours/Circa 1989’ is a wry look at well-meaning relatives for whom a visit to the hospital is a “planned trip”, a form of entertainment almost, featuring friends, tea and gossip. ‘Płain Speaking: Serenade of a Stalker’ recasts pain as a pathetically obsessed suitor; ‘Pillowtalk’ recasts death as a bedside visitor, who drops in for a chat, “bearing a posy of queries and/ a furrowed forehead.” ‘Blueprint’—which ends with the lines “But build/ I will”—is a moving homage to the tenacity of the human spirit, while ‘In Memoriam’ gives us these haunting lines:
You didn’t leave much behind, but nothingness
can expand into a red giant with grief at its core.
But it is the poem ‘Afterwards’ that contains this arresting and significant line:
It still feels new, this moment metronoming my days.
‘Metronome’ is a word that, to my mind, holds a particular weight in Naïr’s world, naming as it does a device that marks time. ‘Marking time’ can be understood not just as a rigorous attempt to achieve and maintain the perfect tempo while practising music (which is what the metronome is used for), but can also suggest the temporality of human existence, as we wait out the rest of our days. In her poems, Naïr is concerned not only with the need to create and sustain rhythms through language, but also, simultaneously, to acknowledge evanescence. Movement and the moment, both are important to her poetry, and the metronome—with its pendulum and its pivot, its fixed weight and its sliding weight—acts as keeper, as measure, as trope.
The third and last section in the book, ‘Terra Infirma’, looks at “Persistent, impolite questions about the definition of home and identity” (Naïr’s preface to the section). Here, more than elsewhere, one gets a sense of the poet’s physical location in the city of Paris, with poems such as ‘Sighting at the Centre Georges Pompidou’ and ‘Snapshot on the Parisian Métro or Landscape on Line 3’, while a poem like ‘Meridians’ captures the fragmented sense of living across and in between “a caravan of cities”. In ‘Visitations: Skype Warp’, the diminishment of distance, thanks to technology, and its attendant joys/horrors is wittily summarised in the last stanza:
mothers swift to slit
static, space and sentiment:
Your hair looks awful today,
do you go out looking this way?
Here is a moment when Naïr uses the image of an archetypal figure (the mother), a recognisable tone (disapproval), and gets both exactly right. The last poem in the book, ‘Homestay, Schaerbeek’, is a whimsical poem that seems at one level to be about a house amused by its house guest, but is, at a deeper level, about writing and its connection to familiar spaces. “Writing should be simple here” the poet says, where “all other sounds have been exiled.” But it isn’t. And when she says, “Maybe I won’t have written at all at the end of the day.// Maybe I won’t care”, one senses that nothing, at least for the questing, questioning poet, is ever quite that simple.
Picking up Arun Kolatkar’s The Boatride & other poems feels a lot like revisiting an old friend in anticipation of much joy and newness. Just how much is what’s revelatory about the collection, published five years after Kolatkar’s death in 2004, edited and with a superb introduction by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Titled ‘Death of a Poet’, the introduction not only chronicles the last few conversations Mehrotra had with Kolatkar, but also gives us a wonderfully lucid overview of the poet, the man, the mischief-maker, the flaneur/loafer, the fan of American music, of Big Mama Thornton and Elvis, the autodidact and the prodigious reader. Erudite and engaging, the introduction sets the perfect tone for the book, which is divided into five sections—‘Poems in English 1953-1967’, ‘Poems in Marathi’, ‘Words for Music’, ‘Translations’ and the final section, which contains the long poem ‘the boatride’. Appendices, Notes and a Chronology follow.
Right away, the second poem in the book, ‘Of an origin moot as cancer’s’, demonstrates something many poets (especially young poets) forget—namely, the way in which the simplest of words can create the most complex of effects. Wordplay is something Kolatkar revelled in, and the next poem ‘Dual’—with the deliciously apt echo of ‘duel’ ghosting below its surface—is no exception. As “A man and a woman in a radical cage/ Grope and get bruised in an animal light”, the word ‘light’ itself becomes a weapon in the hands of the pitiless observer, the amused spectator. The “unlearnt skin” of the couple, “dazzled/ in the narcotic light, is blunt and smooth/ like the fat palm of an infant cactus.” The short poem ends:
The two might declare harsh thorns and live
as insensate as a cactus, piteously bristled
and opposing the light.
A Bulgakovian strangeness surfaces in poems like ‘Make Way Poet’ and ‘Irani Restaurant Bombay’, while ‘today I feel I do not belong’ has the pitch-perfect piquancy of the world-weary ad-man’s song. In ‘Woman’, “a woman may shave her legs regularly” and “poison/ 23 cockroaches”, while above her “darkling” head “surgeons may shoot up and explode/ in a weather fraught with forceps”. There is a monstrous loveliness to these lines, while in ‘Suicide of Rama’ the irreverence of the opening—where we meet the suicidal hero falling, “his arse turned up toward the moon”—takes a contemplative turn in the closing lines, as “the river refers his bones/ to the salt judgement of the sea”. The range of tone and topic, the buoyancy and the gravitas, all of it is vintage Kolatkar, uncorked.
The section ‘Poems in Marathi’ features some familiars like ‘Three Cups of Tea’ and ‘Biograph’, a poem which compresses, like no other I know, the extraordinary full-tilt violence of an ordinary life, and many more that are new (to the English reader, that is). Kolatkar’s ability to be brutal and beautiful in the same breath is brilliantly apparent in poems like ‘One seldom sees a woman’ which ends:
for a moment the saliva of the horse
glittered on your finger like a wedding ring
then the wind dropped
The disintegrating human in ‘The Fuse’; the all-too believable menace of the machine in ‘Song of the Flour Mill’; the breezy sweep of ‘The Windsong’; the gulp of horror that is one tick away from the hoot of laughter in ‘Crabs’; the coming to life of buildings and blankets—all of it is so seamless that one forgets that these are Kolatkar’s translations of his Marathi poems. In Appendix III at the back of the book, Kolatkar writes, with characteristic deadpan humour:
Translating a poem is like making love / having an affair
Making love to a poem / with the body of another language
it follows that translating your own poems
is like making love to one of your own daughters
it ought to be a cognizable offence
carry a stigma
there ought to be a law against translating your own poems
Keeping aside Kolatkar’s self-directed irony for a moment, the reason why these poems work so well is precisely because they have been translated by the poet, who knew both languages well enough to make each translation resonate in just the right way. Lines like “these drops of saline have made a clock out of me” or “a kitten has licken me limbs so slick n clean” (‘Hospital Poems’) seem to achieve their poetic grace effortlessly, tripping off the tongue, bearing witness to the skill of the translator/poet. Kolatkar was an adept at getting the lingo right, be it in the mouth of the speaker in ‘Greetings’, or the prostitute on pilgrimage to Pandharpur, or the young lad in ‘Crying Mangoes in Colaba’. For him, conversation was a kind of music, so it is not surprising to discover that he did, in fact, write several songs, which are featured under the section ‘Words for Music’. The highlights of this section are the inspired lunacy of ‘Molotov Cocktail’ and the cadenced cool of ‘Spinach for Dinner’, while ‘Poor Man’ is rich with the self-flagellation, pride, ambition and doggedness of the poem’s eponymous singer-songwriter.
The fourth section, devoted to Kolatkar’s translations of Namdeo, Janabai, Muktabai, Eknath and Tukaram, has many fine verses to offer. Jottings that bring alive his relationship to Tukaram, and the act of translating Tukaram, can be found in Appendix III, where Kolatkar writes
Like it or not
I’ll make you world famous
You got to have some English Tuka
if you want to get ahead in the world
You are a lot of words
if I take them away
and replace them with others / substitute my own
what remains of Tuka
but the spaces between them
In the fifth and final section comes the long poem ‘the boatride’—as keenly observant as the Kala Ghoda Poems, sharp lines slicing through the bobbing narrative with scalpel sureness. Passengers, gulls, newly-weds, sisters, balloons, winds—each element singly and collectively marks the trajectory of the boatride, leaving harbour and coming back to land, to shore, to the admonishing sweep of “unswerving stone/ encrusted coarsely/ with shells”. In this poem one sees all of Kolatkar’s gifts, in distilled clarity.
In ‘Making love to a poem’ Kolatkar, the consummate bi-lingual poet, had wondered “Whether half my work will always remain invisible/ like the other side of the moon// whether a reader in one language will have to be content/ with the side facing him”. The publication of The Boatride & other poems ensures that this need not be the case any longer—readers can now enjoy Kolatkar’s universe in its entirety.
This review first appeared in Biblio: A Review of Books, Vol. XIV Nos. 7 & 8, July-August 2009
COMING FACE TO FACE WITH OUR OWN HUMANITY
A report on the Writers’ Chain Translation Workshop, January 2009
“Translators must negotiate with the ghost of a distant author,
with the disturbing presence of foreign text,
with the phantom of the reader they are translating for.”
When Umberto Eco wrote these lines in his wonderfully erudite, instructive and entertaining book Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation, he could not have guessed at a scenario like the one I experienced, with seven others, at the Writers’ Chain Translation workshop, held in January 2009 at Neemrana Fort-Palace, Rajasthan. Here was everything that seemed impossible—the distant author brought near, the foreign text made less disturbing, indeed less foreign, by the presence and voice of the author behind it, and ‘the phantom of the reader’ made material in a roomful of writers and translators, who were, in their proximity, the first and primary readers of a newly-translated text.
Part of the British Council’s new literature programme, India ’09: Through Fresh Eyes, the workshop was the result of a collaboration between the Council, Wales Arts International, Literature Across Frontiers (LAF), and Siyahi, a Jaipur-based literary consultancy with a focus on encouraging translations. It was conducted by Alexandra Büchler, founding Director of LAF, and herself a leading translator into the Czech language. When I asked Alexandra how she came to be involved with the project, she said, “Writers’ Chain asked Literature Across Frontiers (a European programme based in the UK) to facilitate the workshop as we have experience with translation workshops, particularly those using the bridge language translation method. I was delighted to accept the invitation to run it.” In fact, she looks at the Neemrana workshop not just as something successfully concluded but also as the beginning of a journey just begun. “India,” she says, “is a country where we would like to establish contacts with a view to promoting literary exchange in the future, and LAF’s participation in the Writers’ Chain project has been one of the first steps in this direction. We are particularly interested in promoting exchanges which would emphasize the cultural and linguistic diversity of Europe in India and vice versa, and would encourage more translations between the two.”
Mita Kapur, CEO of Siyahi, co-programmed and facilitated the execution and delivery of the initiative, besides moderating the session ‘Found in Translation’ at the Jaipur Literature Festival where some of the results of the workshop were shared. She found the exercise “creatively satisfying” and said, rather glowingly, “Our eight chosen writers created a symphony of translations”. The Neemrana workshop was thus clearly a unique confluence of organisational goals. As Sujata Sen, Director, British Council, East India, said, “We aimed to highlight the India Market Focus at the London Book Fair 2009 through our participation in a series of literature festivals, workshops and readings in India and the UK.” I feel, however, that the workshop went beyond its programmatic intention to showcase UK and India as “multilingual nations with diverse literature” and moved into an area where true communication became possible between languages and cultures. And this happened via translation.
“translation does not only concern words and language
in general but also the world, or at least the possible world
described by a given text.”
The poets from the UK brought those worlds with them. Meg Bateman, from the Isle of Skye, where she teaches in the Gaelic-medium University campus, brought her knowledge of Classical Gaelic, of pre-Christian praise poetry, of the history of reprisals against those speaking Gaelic, wearing Tartan, or playing pipes. Mererid Hopwood, the poet and novelist from Wales, brought alive the fiendishly-difficult formalised metre of the Welsh ‘cynghanedd’, the traditions of the Druid’s Chair for Poetry (which Mererid was the first woman to win in 2001) and the beautiful music of the Welsh tongue. Matthew Hollis, writing in English, whose first full-length poetry collection, Ground Water was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize, the Guardian First Book Award and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, evoked the poetry scene in England in the 80s through to the 90s, with examples and incisive commentary. And Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, author of four poetry collections and winner of numerous awards for his work, spoke passionately of what it is like to be an Irish poet in Belfast, the history and background of the Troubles, and how poetry for him has been a way of finding “some kind of healing”.
Meeting my fellow writers from India was equally special. There was Chennai-based Sivasankari, indomitable woman, writer, activist, with an astonishing number of prose works to her credit, and an even more astonishing, not to mention humbling engagement with the lives of the women she writes about. She spoke eloquently of Sangam literature, the intricacies of the Tamil alphabet, of ritual, folk and bhakti poetry and her mammoth Knit India Through Literature project, which she is almost single-handedly seeing to fruition. There was Udaya Narayana Singh, Director of the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore, linguist, scholar, poet, playwright and essayist, writing both in Maithili and Bengali, who opened the workshop with an overview of the linguistic and cultural complexities of the nation we call Hindustan, Bharat, India. And there was Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, a poet, writer and translator like myself. Kynpham writes in both Khasi and in English and teaches at the North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong. While his presentation was, among other things, an eye-opener into the robust Khasi custom of oral, occasion-based performance poetry, mine contextualised the history and tradition of Indian poets writing in English, from Dutt and Derozio to present times. And yes, all of us read our work to each other.
Here then was translation that began as a series of conversations, readings and revelations. Though we had been emailed each other’s work and had brought with us translations of the circulated work, it was the presence not just of the words but the worlds of the writers that made a vital difference. As Mac Lochlainn said in an email interview post the workshop, “Hearing the original languages was invaluable – getting a sense of phrasing, register, tone, pitch and delivery opened up the poems in unexpected ways as they stepped off the page. Learning about cultural context, politics, history, local traditions, mythologies, and personal histories of the artists gave new, unexpected dimensions to the work. The presence of the poets, as they revealed how they work or what inspired their work, allowed for a much richer and multi-layered approach to the translations.”
“should a translation lead the reader to understand
the linguistic and cultural universe of the source text,
or transform the original by adapting it to the reader’s
cultural and linguistic universe?”
Equivalence. Balance. Faithfulness. Betrayal. From the coolly theoretical to the hotly debatable, the act of translation throws open the proverbial Pandora’s Box. At the Writers’ Chain workshop however, the fact that “each translator was also a composer of original texts” as Mererid put it, made things a lot smoother—“I believe we all slipped quite easily into the role of ‘meta-poet’; a persona hovering above the original poet seeking to find the original poem and carefully trying to stop one’s own shadow from casting too much obscurity on the original work [being translated].” For a workshop whose stated mission was, as Sen put it, “to promote literatures written in the less widely-used languages of UK and India”, it was perhaps an inevitable irony that the bridge language at this vibrant and determinedly multi-lingual program was, in fact, English. In the characteristically humorous words of Udaya Narayana Singh, “The more you wish to do away with the devil, the more it gets stuck to you—both in theory and practice. By ‘devil’, I mean ‘English’ as an intermediary.” In a more serious vein, he goes on to say, “What the workshop did for me was that it helped me arrive at a more satisfactory English translation of my texts. Thanks to the fact that we had an English poet on either side, Matthew from UK and Sampurna from India, willing to work very hard … While Sampurna had six versions of her English translation of my Bengali poem, Sivasankari had all [her] Tamil translations meticulously filed—many more than the mandatory three per poet we were asked to do beforehand.” For Meg, the challenge was “whether to naturalise a poem into the target culture, or keep its exotic differences intact.” Some very interesting cultural misunderstandings had occurred in the preliminary stages, which were resolved around the table. One such was the mystification caused by Kynpham’s use of the word ‘bamboo’ in a poem about a ministerial visit to Shillong, in preparation of which bamboo barricades are erected all along the roads, a familiar sight to any Indian. But the word ‘bamboo’ conjured up for Meg the image of a growing bamboo plant! This kind of confusion was rare, but delightful, in that it proved how at some level all communication is miscommunication, and what a miracle it is that we understand each other even to the extent that we do.
“translators simply behave like polyglots,
because in some way they already know
that in a target language a given thing is expressed
so and so. They follow their instinct,
as does every fluent bilingual person.”
Very often, especially in academic discourse, the vital role of instinct and intuition in making the best choices while transferring a text from one language to another is underplayed. And while a serious amount of ground-work is essential to get at least the word-for-word meanings as close as possible, it is finally the ability to use that literal version as a jumping-off point that separates a good translation from a merely adequate one. This involves listening with the heart as much as with the ear. As Robert Bly puts it in The Eight Stages of Translation, it involves “not the ear turned outward toward human speech but the ear turned inward toward the complicated feelings the poem is carrying.” So, for Meg one of the joys of the workshop was “experiencing the ‘auditory imagination’ at work, when un-translated poems communicated through abstract sound and tone alone.” Not just the ‘orality’ of a text, but the ‘aurality’ of a text, shared live, as it were, between and among practising poets and translators, played no small role in Kynpham’s assertion that the results of the Neemrana workshop, “could with all conscience be termed as final.” For Udaya, “the instant decisions I had to make while listening to the texts I had [until then] only read with my own breathing pattern and faulty syllabic understanding opened before me a tremendous treasure from which I could borrow and steal as I progressed. It was also reassuring to see that those instant translations into Bangla were so appealing to a native speaker like Sampurna.” Sound energies, Bly says, are received and distinguished by both the muscle system and the ear. “The translator’s job is to feel the body rhythm of the line,” Bly writes, it is “sound calling to sound”. I felt that happening very strongly when I was translating Mac Lochlainn’s Irish poem ‘Barraíocht’ into Bengali. It was indeed sound calling to sound, and the musicality of the Irish travelled, I felt, almost effortlessly and instinctually into the rhythms of Bengali. Another example of affinity based on sound alone was Udaya’s decision to translate Meg’s Gaelic poems into Maithili and Matthew’s English poems into Bengali. When asked what directed him to these choices, he was unable to rationalise it. “It sounded right,” was all that he said, and yes, that answer sounded right.
“try playing the same game,
following the same rules,
in another language.”
This is what Eco writes of his approach to translating Queneau’s Exercices de style. He also gives the example of Joyce, who, when translating Finnegans Wake into Italian, completely rewrote it—“he did not care about problems of reference”, demonstrating “to what extent the principle of equal reference can be violated for the sake of a deeply equivalent translation”. At the Writers’ Chain workshop the only poet who worked, to some extent, at this level was Mac Lochlainn, who translates his own Irish poems into English, changing the referents, dropping lines, adding lines, and creating in the process an independent and yet organically linked text to the original. The idea, he says, is to “attempt to minimise the loss of music and euphony that occurs with ‘straight’ translation” and also to challenge the notion of “monoglot monotony” by having two versions exist simultaneously in two parallel universes, each offering the bilingual reader some particularity the other does not have. But what happens when this approach is applied to someone else’s work? Sparks fly! Or would, if at Neemrana we hadn’t all attuned ourselves to a kind of trust in each other’s efforts. In privileging one approach over the other, the slavish over the subversive, the adaptation over the interpretation, political concerns enter what so far seemed like a deeply personal arena. When I asked Meg about what the act of translation meant to her, here is what she had to say: “At a personal level, it reinforces and opens up the commonality of human experience. At a political level, it reinforces my stance against a climate of opinion in Scotland that translation into English weakens minority languages. The fear I sometimes hear expressed is that translation will dilute all culture to the same dull melange. I don’t see this myself, as culture is always redefining itself … There is a danger when a culture stops speaking to itself, as there is a danger of sensationalism, as with cultural tourism, when literature is published to sate an eternal appetite for the exotic. I can see how the search for translations could feed this appetite, and yet I have more faith than that in human taste.”
For Kynpham it was a lot simpler, “Translation is simply an act that I like doing—in the sense that I translate what I like. And what I like is what I would want to share with readers in my own language.” For Udaya, “Politically … translation is just another kind of creative writing with a little more challenge [inherent in it], and it is important to propagate this and counter all derogatory remarks our earlier generation of authors had made against the so-called ‘traitors’.” For Alexandra, “Translation can open the doors to largely unknown literatures”. For Mererid, “Translation opens windows. It lets more light in.” And for Gearóid, “translation is a dialogue between cultures, a rapport, a form of enquiry and reflection—and the surprising thing is it often teaches us something about ourselves and our own culture through the act of translating another. We come face to face with our own humanity in the act of translation and though we are carrying things across cultural contexts and linguistic diversities we usually end up recognizing universal human truths in the poetry that speaks to us all.”
“The intuition that the problem of translation itself
presupposed a perfect language is already present
in Walther Benjamin: since it is impossible to reproduce
all the linguistic meanings of the source language
in the target language, one is forced to place one’s faith
on the convergence of all languages.”
If, as Sen said,“The idea was to establish an intercultural dialogue between the participants through literature and translation,” the Neemrana workshop succeeded beyond, I suspect, even the organisers (and participants!) expectations. But if, as Sen also said, “The workshop sought to help those involved improve their translation skills”—there’s a mandate the workshop transcended with great élan. This was a collection of very fine, deeply dedicated, and constantly learning practitioners. I believe Mererid spoke for all of us when she wrote, “I was full of nervous anticipation, quite sure that I was unworthy of the privileged invitation. But, within hours of meeting the group, much of the anxiety evaporated and I was left with a sense of purpose and goodwill. It seemed that everything was possible. The work could be translated. The poems could be appreciated. And there was so much to learn.” We learnt not just from each other’s work and skills, but from each other’s lives. The words ‘camaraderie’, ‘discovery’, ‘empathy’ and ‘inspiration’ recur in the responses to my email interviews. To rephrase Eco’s line, “The ‘universe of interpretation’ is larger than the ‘territory of transmutation’”—at Neemrana, the universe of the spirit was larger than the territory of the word.
I will conclude with the following lines from Eco, in which he talks about the 10th-11th century Arab writer Ibn Hazm telling the myth of Babel differently—“In the beginning there existed a single language given by God, a language thanks to which Adam was able to understand the quiddity of things. It was a language that provided a name for every thing, be it substance or accident. … for Ibn Hazm the original language was so rich in synonyms that it included every possible language … In any language men may discover the spirit, the breath, the perfume, and the traces of the original multilingualism.”
I believe we found traces of that “original multilingualism” in a restored 15th century fort with broadband internet in the cybercafé-cum-silver shop nestled at its feet, and eight writers speaking eight languages as if they were one.
 This and all following quotations, unless otherwise specified, are from Umberto Eco’s Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation, A Phoenix Paperback, Orion Books Ltd, London, 2004
This report first appeared in Biblio: A Review of Books, Vol. XIV Nos. 3 & 4, March-April 2009
MANY RISKY CROSSINGS
A review of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar, W.W. Norton, 2008, 734 pp.)
“We are entitled to our own/ definitions of the world/ we have in common”, writes Marjorie Evasco in her poem ‘Dreamweavers’, “our vocabularies/ are oracular/ in translation”.
In the vast new anthology Language for a New Century edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar, we get a taste, one poem at a time, of just what it might mean to try and define, through poetry, the worlds of poets writing in over forty different languages from Armenian to Vietnamese. Commonality and difference are celebrated, the oracular and the intuitive are explored, and by the end of the tome, one feels the truth of Carolyn Forché’s assertion in the Introduction that the language for the new century is not just poetry, but poetry in translation. The anthology presents a range of contemporary poetry that is, as the editors state in their preface, “post-1946”, written by “emerging and established poets, from various generations and aesthetic sensibilities”, thematically organized in nine sections that deal with childhood, identity, experimentation, politics, mystery, war, homeland, mortality, and love.
Introducing each section is a short essay by one of the three editors, and it is here that one gets that all too-rare a thing in anthologies – a peek into the personal, a sense of the complex cultural backgrounds that define who they are as people and poets, and above all, a sense of their engagement with the poems they have chosen. The articulation that poetry is part of life is a deeply felt one. As Ravi Shankar says in one of his three essays, his desire was for an “oblique language, full of feints and illusions, glintings and possibilities … that could move through the air like light, illuminating the unique yet utterly common situation” of being an American in India, an Indian in America. That desire was inarticulate for the child on a Madras rooftop, being quizzed by his curious cousins. It is, Shankar writes, “the poems in Slips and Atmospherics” that gave him the “rooftop language” which could address the ambiguities of that dual, indeed plural existence. As his co-editor Tina Chang writes, “What is it that we seek to glean from poems but a shadow of our own human experience?” Carolyn Forché quotes Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in her Introduction, and very pertinently so:
‘“What the poem translates,” wrote Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, ‘I propose we call experience, on condition that this word be taken literally – from Latin, experiri: the risky crossing … and this is why one can refer, strictly speaking, to a poetic existence.’” (p. xxviii).
Here then are many risky crossings, “many migrations”, and as Nathalie Handal writes, the realization that a hyphenated existence (which is a condition all three editors share, Handal Arab-American, Chang Taiwanese-American and Shankar Indian-American) is one that need not be rigid, that could take, in fact, the shape of a “series of broken images”.
So how does one read four hundred and forty poets? One undertakes a risky crossing of one’s own, being willing to experience both vertigo and disorientation. This is where the anthology’s thematic organization, though random, and open to question, acts as a road-map. The decision to have the poets thematically presented rather than alphabetically, regionally, or chronologically is one that the editors say they took in order to avoid replicating “in an insidious way the very mentality that separates person from person, nation from nation.” (p. xxxix) Finally, as one realizes, it is the transition from one poem to its neighbour on the same page that makes reading exciting, disappointing, or revelatory. As we move from Katayoon Zandvakili’s ‘The Eglantine Deal’ to Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s ‘By the Light of a Single Worm’, “We’re both on our knees to someone only we see”. The energies being transferred from one poem to another (both written in English) are extraordinarily powerful. From Zandvakili’s boy who is at times “nothing so much as a deer”, to Nezhukumatathil’s mantis “taking off a new sweater” here is a path one will want to retrace for the “tell-tale splash” the poems make as they fall into the pool of our memories, reminding us, like the boy, of things we have never seen. It is this strange light that adjacent poems throw on each other that makes one feel the connective, collective power of poetry. Through the bringing together of vastly different, fiercely individual voices, what we get is not Babel, but orchestral symphony. Reading the anthology sometimes felt uncannily like being at a day-long poetry celebration, where one after the other, poets, friends, strangers, well-known, brand-new, young, old, rise and speak their poem into the microphone. As they recite, orate, rap or simply read, soft-spoken or dramatic, poised or hesitant, using their bodies, their hands and their voices to relay the poem into the darkness where an audience sits, there arises an incredible sense of community. It is the sound of all those poems collected in one place that summons that rich, intense, even exhausting sensation of being part of something larger. It is a giving and a receiving, and it is the shared, confined space of the reading hall, the theatre, the lounge, that makes kinship palpable. When the immediate context of your poem is not your country, your social position, your background, your education, your gender, but simply another poem, and another and another, the poet is at the center of a crisscrossing universe, linked only by jumps and leaps and connections of the mind, and the spirit. In this anthology the links are functions of both spatial and spiritual proximity. The slow measured cadences of Ahmad Dahbour’s Arabic poem ‘The Hands Again’ are companionable and counterpoint to the leaping staccatos of Lale Müldür’s Turkish poem ‘311’ that follows hard on its heels. Elsewhere, Wing Tek Lum’s ‘The Butcher’ and Garrett Hongo’s ‘Chikkin Hekka’ seem to inhabit the same soul, “the sage’s admonition/ that to preserve a blade/ the cook must seek the play/ between the joints in the bones” (‘The Butcher’), the zone of “the rhythmic chopping of steel on butcher block” (‘Chikkin Hekka’), one poem seeming to take up a poem that ended three hundred pages ago.
But to return to the question of language. Here are four hundred and forty poets presented in English. While a very large number write in English, the others have all been translated into English. Perhaps implicit here is the thought that even more than poetry, or poetry in translation, the language for the new century, the twenty-first century, is ultimately English, that controversial, politicized, coveted, berated and indispensable link language to so much of Asia. But is it really one language? With so many languages being translated, should one not sense the many kinds of English that co-exist in the world today? Or have most of the poems in translation aimed at a pallid sameness of tone? Are they guilty of what Robert Bly refers to in The Eight Stages of Translation as ‘translatorese’ – “a language never spoken but a language translators know and laugh about”? He uses, in that lovely little book, an example of transferring Rilke’s Sonnet XXI from the German into English, and from English into American. To make the translation live in the language of the moment, by which he means “not slang…nor street-rhythms…but rather the desperate living tone or fragrance that tells you a person now alive could have said the phrase.” And while his reference was to making great poets of the past not seem dead in translation, it is equally applicable for contemporary living poets writing in languages that need to find their buoyancy in this strange and other tongue. Fortunately, most of the translations from the Korean, the Indonesian, the Chinese, the Hebrew, the Turkish, the Japanese, the Malayalam (the one case where the poet K. Satchidanandan translates himself) seem luminously crafted, with the liveliness, freshness and ease that comes not by accident but from rigour, the kind that the man in Li-Young Lee’s ‘Immigrant Blues’ offers as advice to his son – “Practice until you feel/ the language inside you”. In these, the ‘mother tongue’ as it travels towards the ‘other tongue’ seems light and transparent as “a bubble caught in my beak/ releasing the air/ of a language” (Michael Ondaatje’s ‘Proust in the Waters’). This lightness and clarity is not the result of a flattening, a blanching, but rather the result of a heightening, so that the tonal colours of the source language, and with it all the emotional, cultural, political resonances, both alien and familiar, ring true in the language that is its other – namely, English. If some of the Arabic and Persian poems seem a bit overwrought, it is perhaps the weight of other poetic traditions, other ways of charging the root language that seep through, and that is as it should be. Sometimes, however, false notes crop up and make the ear wince. I found that happening in a few of the Bengali poems (the line “When would the imminent deaths illuminate in my two eyes?” is one such in Syed Shamsul Haq’s ‘Poem 240’, a howling example of ‘translatorese’). The choice of Bengali poets – both from Bangladesh and India – seemed a little arbitrary, as if determined more by availability rather than the quality of the work (and translation). In Rafiq Azad’s poem ‘Give me Bhaat, Bastard’, the speaker uses, in translation, a weird kind of pidgin that feels clunky. In a way it also seems (perhaps unintentionally) to spoof the language of the ravenous speaker, who is “terribly starving”. The attempt has obviously been to carry the spoken tonalities of what must have been a particular kind of Bangladeshi dialect or patois into English. But the spoken tonalities of an English to match have not been found. (One thinks here of Arun Kolatkar’s translation of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ of which Arvind Krishna Mehrotra brilliantly writes – “So there it is, your Indian poem. It was written in a Bombay patois by a poet who otherwise wrote in Marathi and English. It then became part of two literatures, Marathi and Indian English, but entered the latter in a translation made in the American idiom, one of whose sources, or if you will, inspirations, was an American translation of a nineteenth-century Roman poet.” That kind of inclusive, eclectic, erudite yet colloquially attuned approach to translation is rare.) Moving from a major to minor quibble with Azad’s poem, a couple of typo errors – one being ‘course’ instead of ‘coarse’ – adds to a feeling of inattentiveness towards the translated text. Elsewhere, the fact that Jibanananda Das’s first name is spelt as Jibananda is a glaring slip in what otherwise seems like a meticulously edited collection (one has no way of verifying those poems and poets one is unfamiliar with).
If translation, as the Chinese poet Hung Hung says in ‘Woman Translating, or La Belle Infidèle’ “lays open the forbidden” it is also “a calling in want of a cool hand”. Finally each translation must work in its own right as a poem, as a carrier of those particularities (ineffable, often eluding the rational mind but clear in Bly’s phrase “to the ear and the ear’s memory”) that can survive the crossing from one language to another, without foundering. It is striking how, despite the common language that binds these poems together, the transferences happen in such different ways. In a multi-lingual nation like ours, where the language one writes in can be seen as an act of allegiance or betrayal, authenticity or posturing, here is affirmation that finally poetry knows only one language – and that is poetry, be it transmitted through an archaic Seal script that Yang Lian uses in his poem ‘Knowing’, or the run-on graphemic Sanskrit style that Rukmini Bhaya Nair uses in her (English) poem ‘Genderole’. Both poems are featured in the section on experimentation, which raises the interesting question of how the language or the conventions of inscribing that language can itself be an act of innovation, just as much as the form the poem takes. Yang Lian’s translator Brian Holton’s goal was “ to produce a text for the English reader at the same level of near-intelligibility (or near-unintelligibility) as that intended for the Chinese reader, together with something of the same feeling of an archaic talisman or charm: the result is more graphic art than translation. The choice of Greek words rendered in the Latin alphabet was a solution arrived at after much trail and error.” Bhaya Nair’s poem, on the other hand, seems to be a translation itself, into a language that we recognize as English only after we have schooled ourselves into inserting the spaces between words that will make them intelligible again to our reading eye. And just when we congratulate ourselves for our quick-wittedness at approaching this strange text, the poet disorients us by inserting couplets composed entirely of Sanskrit words, which despite disentanglement remain opaque, untranslated, and foreign (except to Sanskrit scholars). Here is confidence and challenge, here is an affirmation of the necessity for the strange if we are to understand the familiar. This section in fact, is my favourite, and though it purports to “constellate around” the “avant-garde sensibility” as expressed through “stretch[ing] the cords of syntax, exploding normative delineation and familiar imageries” (pp.xl) it seems to me to include all the themes that the other eight sections are devoted to.
Some contradictions remain. Even though the poetry in this volume is presented as a kind of ‘polymorphous perverse’, defying, denying, interrogating the idea of cultural fixity and ethnic identity – one cannot help but get the sense that a large number of poems and poets were chosen for what they represent of their cultures, conditions, countries. In an anthology that signals the source of the poems it contains in its sub-title, which is simultaneously specific (The Middle East, Asia)and vague (and Beyond – which beyond is that?), perhaps this is inescapable. But as a result, contrary to the avowed purpose of thematic rather than regional organization in order to avoid the insidious divides of nationality, often it is that very nationality that seems to be the reason for a particular poem’s inclusion. A number of rather unremarkable Arabic, Dari and Persian poems, several very ordinary English poems, and some downright bad Nepali poems – one wonders at the pressures of having to be duly, fairly, widely inclusive that must have led to their selection. How complicated must the identities of poets have to be in order to be part of this stage devoted to ‘world music’? What merits the likes of UK-based, Maldives-born Farah Didi’s awfully clichéd poem on trudging Sherpas in the Himalayas being part of an anthology where every included poet must have meant someone left out for want of space? A “multiethnic, multiracial identity” is no hindrance to good writing (C. Dale Young, Latino-Chinese-Indian, half-Caucasian through his mother but one who has “never felt Caucasian” is a case in point), but one wonders if that multiplicity has been the starting point of the search for some the poems that eventually ended up here. In the Preface, the editors write that this anthology really began after the events of September 11, 2001, when they wondered how they could “respond to the destruction and unjust loss of human lives while protesting the one-sided and flattened view of the East being showcased in the media. … Rather than focusing on our own personal reactions, we felt that looking outward toward a wide spectrum of poetry would give us the opportunity for discovery and transformative wisdom.” (p. xxxiv) Detailed notes on the editors’ definitions of the “East”, driving impulses behind the time-span represented, the selection process, organization of material, historical context and so on can be found in the Preface, and be debated, disagreed with and lauded. But what shines through all of it is the genuine commitment of the editors to “the language of enquiry and longing, the music of rumination and loss, and the narratives of growth and transformation”. That for me is the book’s great triumph. While trawling its expanses, when the names of those poets we know bob up, the feeling is one of delighted recognition. Agyeya, Dilip Chitre, Keki N. Daruwalla (whose ethnicity as a Parsee has been inexplicably listed, as has Eunice de Souza’s Goan origin), Nissim Ezekiel, Arun Kolatkar, Ranjit Hoskote, Kunwar Narain, Gieve Patel, A. K. Ramanujan, K. Satchidanandan, Jeet Thayil, to name only a few. India is one of the countries represented by the largest number of poets, and yet, the omission of the likes of Adil Jussawalla is unfortunate. Perhaps in a future edition, this capacious, generous and ambitious anthology will make room for more!
As Carolyn Forché says in her Introduction, “Read Language for a New Century as you would a field guide to the human condition of our time … for how much more fragile do those things we call civilization and culture seem now?” Here then is perhaps what Alvin Pang envisions in his poem ‘String Theory’ – “all possible futures fusing into a grand unified inevitability”, Brian Komei Dempster’s “pages that turn us toward a more certain home.” That home, for the editors, the poets and the readers is poetry.
This review first appeared in Biblio: A Review of Books, Vol. XIV Nos. 1 & 2, January-February 2009
THE POSSIBILITIES OF TRANSFORMATION
A review of Imtiaz Dharker’s The Terrorist at my Table
Imtiaz Dharker’s new book The Terrorist at my Table is best seen in the light of a progression from her earlier work, Postcards from God and I Speak for the Devil. In it, familiar themes arise – themes of identity, imposed or assumed, the entrapments of religion, gender and country, the phantasmal possibility of escape through rearranging the self, the room one lives in, the street, the city. In her earlier poems there was sometimes a surreal playfulness, a wicked glee in the poetic persona’s ability to defy definition, to invert gestures of exclusion with the very words used to exclude. (See ‘They’ll say, “She must be from another country”’.) By speaking in the voice of god or the devil as fluently as that of a mother, a wife or an exile, Dharker created a landscape where to speak was in itself an act of power.
In this new collection, the overall tone is more somber, at times more tentative. Transience is what Dharker turns to, wanting to fix with words the fragile, the fleeting. Line by line, verse by verse, there is an attempt to arrive at what may, or may not be, ‘The right word’. In Postcards from God, Dharker spoke of ‘The Word’ as “pure power”, and herself as “the keeper, with my/ small signs and codes.” In I Speak for the Devil she wrote, “Words arrive like terrorists/ on this flight”. In The Terrorist at my Table, Dharker writes: “Outside the door,/ lurking in the shadows,/ is a terrorist.// Is that the wrong description?” In the tussle between political correctness, jehadi jargon and journalistic exaggeration, language itself is under siege, “no more/ than waving, wavering flags”. Perhaps it is the poet who can salvage and restore to language the power of nuance, the articulation of uncertainty.
Nuance has always been Dharker’s strength and it is in those poems where nuance gives way to overt symbolism that one feels a slight discomfort. In the eponymous poem, the narrator slices “sentences to turn them into/ onions”. On the kitchen table, “The tablecloth is fine cutwork,/ sent from home. Beneath it, Gaza/ is a spreading watermark.” Towards the end of the poem is a powerful image: “Your generosity turns my hands/ to knives,/ the tablecloth to fire.” But the closing lines that follow: “Outside, on the face of Jerusalem, I feel the rain” seem hollow. It is in the poems that are vividly imagined, built on the small detail rather than the large abstraction that Dharker’s voice rings true. ‘Azaan’, about the boy who slings his school bag “like the beginning of a revolution/ on his shoulder” is one such, as is the dual piece ‘Before I’ and ‘Before II’. The mother getting her children ready for school, “thinking about/ what she would pack/ for them to eat” and then “The water spilling/ out of a steel glass” has the kind of visual and tonal precision that prefigures the chilling reality of the catastrophe to come. In contrast, ‘Firm’, a 9/11 poem that imagines a person in an office in the WTC seconds before the planes ram into it, fails to move the reader. It is the children of the shattered school (whether destroyed by man-made explosion or natural cataclysm is unstated) in ‘Before II’ who – when they “get up off the floor/ and sit as they were// before” – drive home the horror of innocent lives being lost.
Dharker has always been interested in exploring the protean nature of things. Paper turns into skin in ‘Tissue’, while “Walls are paper” in ‘My breath’. Breath that is impatient to be let out, as if it were an urgent message on the wings of a courier. Later in the poem:
My breathing is calmer
now that the need is simplified
to seeing another dawn.
You are waving to me.
My neighbour is lighting a fire.
Woodsmoke makes everything real
as if the world has shifted back,
shivered into the shape
it used to have
before they made new maps,
before the documents changed hands.
There is a nostalgia for a simpler, happier past, sitting alongside an acknowledgment of the chimerical nature of such a beast. In ‘Translations’ Dharker writes:
I have adapted to change.
With every choice lifted away
Today I am alive. Today
we are still here.
Today my children
have eaten. Today there was
water. Praise God.
The glee of transformation is now translated into a more measured appreciation of what it takes to survive. Change is a way of surviving. Change is a dream of going back – to one’s homeland, to a place of peace, to the ‘way things were’.
In the section titled ‘Lascar Johnnie 1930’ change is inevitable. As an introductory note informs us, “twenty percent of Britain’s maritime labour force was made up of Indian seamen, called Lascars.” Apparently many of them stayed on, making a living as itinerant salesmen in Scotland. When asked their (unpronounceable) names by the women who buy “pinnies” at the doorstep, they make it easy. “Johnnie”, they reply. Between ‘John’ and ‘Jaan’, the friendly ‘Johnnie’ and the tender ‘Jaanu’, lies a continent of incomprehension. In the life of the ‘invisible’ Lascar in Glasgow, “words jostle home like buffaloes”, and “our own country” is three flights up in “the seamen’s mission”, where “People from our village” give “proper food and rice”. In an age where the global village is seen as glib proof of integration (until it exploded in our faces), Dharker re-focuses our attention to the original meanings of those words – village, country, world – and fills them with forgotten, and irretrievable, specificities.
Two quotations – “Remember Andalus” (Osama bin Laden) and “Culture is a form of memory against effacement” (Edward Said) – take this process of re-collection forward. The sub-section titled ‘Remember Andalus’ is the result of Dharker being commissioned by BBC Radio 4 to travel to a place of her choice and write about it for the programme Another Country. Dharker chose Granada, in southern Spain, and some of the poems unfortunately do not transcend the sense of being captivated by the beauty of “Galleries and courtyards, high terraces,/ …red towers/ set like a jewel upon the hill.” It is when Dharker populates the terrain with women – imaginary, fabular, sensual – that the poems spring to life. ‘Aixa at the window’ is one such, where the narrator, Aixa, becomes at once present witness and past spectre, standing “at the fortress window,/ more a slit of concentration/ than a window”, wafting into the future when “Songs from MTV […] find my mouth,/ whisper out of me.” Dharker has a gift for locating the sensuous in the simplest detail – the shine of a fruit, the shape of a cheek. In ‘What the women said’ and ‘Aixa at the Alhambra’ you see that gift in all its amplitude. “It wasn’t the man. It was the garden/ that seduced me […] Today a bee stung my mouth.// I know you think it was him./ But it was just the garden, all along.”
‘The Habit of Departure’, the second section of the book, moves on to contemplate the quiet moment, salvaged from the wreckage of our everyday lives. It is intuitive at times, at times quotidian. There is an excellent poem ‘Mersey Crossing’ which brings together all of Dharker’s concerns about belonging and displacement, existing between cultures, countries, contradictions, the restlessness of the perpetually migrant, “obsessed/ with finding,/ always crossing, crossing,/ crossing back again.” The impulse towards ‘otherness’ is not restricted to the human. Life is a “goldfish in a greenish bowl”, a city is a woman as it “rolls its hip,/ picks up its plastic bucket,/ walks away.” A wall is a witness. This could turn eccentric, but it doesn’t:
The blue wall
has seen it all, but
is not cynical.
Every time it blinks
as if a code has broken
to change it into another thing.
Breaking codes, breaking the boundaries that separate bodies, countries, objects, time-zones, the breakdown of normalcy, the breaking and entering into one’s private selves – Dharker’s poetry relishes the infinite possibilities of transformation, the pressing need to mutate. In two seemingly polarized poems ‘Open’ and ‘The Password’ the poet revels in two opposing positions – of “leaving my life unlocked” and “you can’t get in/ to anything you think you own”. It is this polarity – this Access/Denied mode that interests me as a stance. And this continues into the third and final section, ‘Worldwide Rickshaw Ride’. The “god in the wall” is an ATM that “rejects” the offering of the password. In ‘Bus stop’ – “The timetable for the night/ bus is written in code.” The frantic passenger has no way of knowing where she is, “which way is east or west”. But she is not the only one. The driver does not know the way, even as he heads unerringly to Glasgow, “all over town, blind as a bat,/ looking for the thing he says he lost.” No clues can be found in the debris of ferry ticket and torn newspaper that tumbles out of a handbag in an imagined crash. The world is increasingly becoming difficult to decode. “Without/ translation the grass is orange/ here, that man’s carefully parted hair/ is green”. Within this multitude of signs and signals, the misread and the misunderstood, the Worldwide Rickshaw Ride is a careening celebration of calculated chaos. From the awfully familiar sensation (to anyone who has survived Bombay roads and its madcap rickshaw drivers) of the prayer in ‘Tomorrow’ – “Today let me just/ live through this rickshaw ride” – to the epiphany in ‘Smithfield Market’ when the rickshaw driver “comes face to face with/ a unicorn”, Dharker is “phut phuting fast forward” through cities, languages “we have no key to”, absurdities and “daily miracles”.
Though the poem ‘Rickshaw rider’ works better in performance than on the page, the overall effect of this section is exhilarating. It begins as a cycle of ten poems, each successive poem beginning where the previous left off, displaying a formal control that never lapses into empty formalism. The character of the one-eyed rickshaw driver returns as the one-eyed media-mogul obsessed with the quaint rickshaw and the one-eyed woman lost in a bus stop in Philadelphia or Boston. In ‘Glass’, Dharker returns to her preoccupation with redrawing the lines of control. “This is how faces look/ after they have broken through// partitions, ceilings, walls,/ seductive cloth, gold/ cages, curtains of fire.” Dharker’s new book, while faltering at moments, succeeds in engaging with the political through the luminously personal. She forgoes the flashy, the technically grandiose and opts instead for “a conversation between equal voices,/ a poem made with simple words.” Despite the title, this is an unencumbered collection, “engineered with a precise longing” for celebration over cynicism, renewal over despair.
This review first appeared in Biblio: A Review of Books, Vol. XII Nos. 7 & 8, July-August 2007
POETRY AS A VANISHING ACT
Review of Ranjit Hoskoté’s Vanishing Acts: New and Selected Poems 1985-2005
“reading is being the arm and being the axe and being the skull; reading is giving yourself up, not holding yourself at a distance and jeering.”
– From The Master of Petersburg, JM Coetzee
Reviewing a book of poetry can be as vertiginous and violent as ‘being the arm…the axe and…the skull’. In Coetzee’s superb fictionalization of Dostoevsky’s visit to Petersburg in the aftermath of his son’s suicide, the above statement escapes Dostoevsky’s lips when an official shares with him a story found among his son’s papers. As a father, he is appalled that his dead son’s privacy should be so ruthlessly invaded. But as a novelist, his rebuttal of the official’s sarcasm becomes, unwittingly, a defence of his own practices as a writer. The official-as-critic is to him even more distasteful than the official-as-authority for failing to have understood the first thing about reading – ‘giving yourself up’.
For me the act of reading has to be one, primarily, of pleasure. I read because I wish to give myself up, to enter the terrain of the word not as an antagonist, but as a participant in what the word might have to offer. When the book comes surrounded by preordained expectations (not all of them pleasurable!) and years (in this case, twenty!) of critical baggage, I am tempted to arm myself accordingly, put up some barriers of resistance, build some trenches of defence. But, realising that this would go against my self-proclaimed participatory stance, I pick up Ranjit Hoskoté’s Vanishing Acts: New and Selected Poems 1985-2005 equipped only with a willingness to read.
I decide to treat the volume as I would a work of fiction – I follow the march of page numbers, something I rarely do with a book of poetry. Surely chronology is an important element of understanding a poet’s development. And so I read the first set of poems from Zones of Assault (1991), realising I sometimes have to read aloud to make the geometries of sound make sense. And not all the geometries follow expected arcs. In ‘Zweistromland’ there is a visual jaggedness I have not been led to expect from what I have known of Hoskoté’s later work. Words teeter from one line to another, reeling in what may very well escape. Unexpected rhythms, almost incantatory:
“Even where the fine cracks are free
of flitting ash
no drop drips.
No drop drips
to lease a little sea to landlocked lips.
The wind’s a dry and hacking cough.”
There is a dryness, a hardness in the words that sometimes follow each other, making the tongue clack as it tries to negotiate them:
“the clanking gossip of their hooks,
drawn and thrown over the sides of coracles,
killed the quail’s black sleep.”
– ‘Icarus Insurgent’
An aridity of choice that seems to find its peak in ‘Noche Triste’, a poem I cannot get my mind or tongue around, till I have attempted three readings, spaced by as many days. A boulder in the course of my reading, I am determined not to let it stop the flow. In a way, my experience of this poem seems to mirror what the poem contains – “The rock’s long-dragged battery brunts up/ in whirring dust”, “That mind, a marble veined with conceptions,/ exerts itself to hold motionless this frieze”, “Bilious oracle” “uncial epitaphs” – I am, like the poem, wondering if there will be “place to beach or glide,/ to come to rest with a degree of grace?” And the answer, for both, seems to be in the negative. All one gets is “a sybilline silence”, even if it is only “for the moment”.
There is a sense of being at war with language, of “conscripting elephant nouns and gazelle adjectives” in an attempt to scale “the Alps at the top of the page.” (‘Vector Geography’). It is as if, for Hoskoté, language were the enemy needing to be conquered from a vantage point of hard syllables and relentless metaphors, from behind an assumption of unassailability. And yet, at times, language slips through into a place of gentler truths, as in ‘Leonardo’ where history peeps “from behind a tree, with a child’s eyes,/ at the immensity of your black wings/ when they eclipse the sun.”
Buoyed by the hope of finding other such moments of luminosity, I begin the second section, from The Cartographer’s Apprentice (2000). After a nine-year hiatus, I am wondering if the word will have become more ally than foe for Hoskoté, more polymorph than monolith. The title poem grips me with its crisp opening lines:
“Bridges snap under my feet as I go east
into a morning of many rivers.”
I follow the narrative (for narrative it is) and despite the already familiar “desert-dry…powered lungs…fossil myths” that I find embedded like milestones along the mappable trajectory of the poem, there is a freshness of tone, a willingness to abdicate overt control in favour of the fugitive, an attempt at “stepping off a trapeze” if only to be “impaled…on a javelin of air.” The sense of the poet being besieged, being held hostage by the demands of his craft, is still there but so also is an irreverence towards codes (“the key to the code is the mould on your shoe”), an acknowledgment of “feints and pauses”, “a common darkness”, spells, prayers. In ‘Decree’, the story of Osip Mandelshtam’s exile and later execution in the Siberian Gulag for having written the ‘Stalin Epigram’ is drawn out – “Sixteen lines can cost a man/ his life: a slap in the dictator’s face/ paid back with punctured lungs and trapfalls in ice” till it becomes the story of any poet’s banishment – “The poet is not at home./ These poems/ are messages/ left on his answering machine.”
The next section, from The Sleepwalker’s Archive, is one I am familiar with, having read it as a stand-alone book the year it was released (2001). But revisited in the light of Hoskoté’s earlier work, it acquires new dimensions. I notice a balance, sometimes precarious, between the gravid and the lucid, between the acutely observed and the abstractly imagined. The best poems are the ones where the pressures of history, art, mythology liberate rather than confine. In ‘Seleukos Nikator’s Elegy for Alexander the Great’ for example, there is an immediacy of setting, a veracity of tone and an inevitability of conclusion that makes it matter little if the reader is unaware who Seleukos Nikator was. (Having read the poem, I for one wanted to know who he was, and duly tracked him down, a bit of research conducted not to aid understanding so much as to accentuate it.) On the other hand ‘Apostrophe to an Architect Raising the City of God’ is too much of an artefact, so perfectly self-contained it (and we) “cannot escape the radii of that well-laid plan.” In poems as shot with references as Hoskoté’s, it is when the ancient or arcane directs the reader to a territory outside the landscape of the poem that the act of reading becomes a true journey. Some poems stifle this impulse (‘No Permit of Residence’ is one), some poems stimulate it.
When Hoskoté inhabits other personae – the ambassador, the grammarian – or inhabits the direct mode of address (“I do not envy you this brief, biographer”, “Horse-tamer, I have followed you from the chalky cliffs”) the poems seem to breathe easier, as if being free of the ‘poet-guise’ were enough to quicken his words into life. And I notice that these poems – classical, refined, distanced – can also be corporeal, bloody, visceral. In ‘Anatomy Lesson’ Hoskoté’s unflinching and meticulous gaze rests on the “incision in the puffed skin”; the poem is suffused with “scarlets and purples, lesions, odours/ of groin and mouth, the waste and flesh and bile/ of an extinct life”. In ‘Snarl’, a memorial poem to Francis Bacon, there is “grass the cannibal shade of hair”, “cardinal and wart-hog”, “muck-mottled skin”, “a cradle of bones”. Beneath the sculpted lines a sense of primal unease. The poet as archivist of unease. In ‘A Poem for Grandmother’, giving can kill – “do not” the grandmother advises “rip off the armour that is your skin.” In ‘Portrait of a Lady’ another grandmother-figure sits seemingly gentle, till her silken crochet thread “knots tight around my neck.” In ‘Trying to Fly’ the child “on the flat roof of a house” at the beginning of the poem wishes, by the end, “to be the flat roof of a house.” It is this need to break down barriers between forms, shapes, bodies, states of being and meaning, that interests me. And in ‘Anomalies’ I come across the lines that sum up this metamorphic mood:
“I was a simple basket-maker
until, one day, a lion roared
through my mouth and my fingers bent
into claws around the cane.”
Filippo Marinetti in his technical manifesto of Futurism had said intuition would help conquer “the seemingly unconquerable hostility that separates…human flesh from the metal of motors.” In Hoskoté’s work, not intuition but intellect seems to be a way of allowing the ‘metal’ of language to meld into the ‘flesh’ of poetry. Language is an element to be lived within – treacherous (“the flowering false pretences/ of language”) or maimed (“the frost-bitten stumps of my language”), fickle (“the capricious etymologies of desire”) or ferocious (“the wrong word kills”). A poem could as easily be a template of the predetermined as it could be a construct of shifting allegiances, beginning as a “trespass on sentences that ash has muffled” (‘Speaking a Dead Language’) or ending in “a thaw of colours/ that have worked quite free,/ as we have not, of words.” (‘Addenda’)
Much is made of Hoskoté’s attentiveness to the painterly, but to me what’s striking is his absorption in images of the everyday surreal. In ‘Addenda’, “the blind harlequin” throws the stranded skipper “a twisted coin,/ tells him to catch the first wind home.” In ‘Trespasser’s Song’:
“A concrete mixer grinds its teeth and groans.
But before the stone lion on the stair can add
his roar to the chorus, a boy gags him
with a black rag that began life as a crow.”
It seems to me as if for Hoskoté the act of writing poetry is indeed one grandiosely-staged and precisely-performed sleight of hand. Moving on to the last section of new poems Vanishing Acts (2001-2005), I suddenly see the aptness of its title. Perhaps all the poems that he has written so far have been tending towards this point of disappearance. I read on to find out. I encounter, to my delight, the host of archetypes, a cast of characters that I see acting as the poet’s liberating alter egos. The Madman, The Scribe, The Editor, The Abbot, The Orientalist, The Interpreter. Pilot. Emigrant. Alibi. The pilot wakes up wearing “the penitent’s shirt of fire”; the scribe as “faithful witness tears his flesh/ with a blade he’s tempered in the dark”; the “abbot of misrule patrols the street” while “windows splinter beneath a volley/ of shears”; the emigrant in the plane feels “the cabin temperature rise/ as though, miles below,/ the city of his birth were burning.” “Tear this night off me,” the editor says, in his last nightmare, “as a surgeon would strip/ the sweat-soaked shirt off a wounded man.” The madman “strops his knife”. All the unease, the incipient violence, the breaking free of self into other modes of mediating with the world, is now apparent, open for scrutiny. And the new poems hold well to scrutiny. There is the expected play with tropes, the reference to histories and mythologies. There is the heaping of word upon word. And yet there is a new clarity, as if by a process of chiselling away at the graven rock of familiar themes and multiple versions, the poet finally allowed their ‘real’ forms to emerge. The sense of being strangled, of the words staying locked “in parentheses/ at the bottom of your throat” in The Sleepwalker’s Archive gives way to full-voiced, deep-breathed enunciations. In ‘The Sword-maker’s Lullaby for the Infant Prince’ – “The new sword recalls no blood,/ the old sword tastes again/ the wheeling seasons of slaughter”. In ‘The Philosopher of the Early Hours’ the narrator is a pope by day, “by night, a panther stumbling in thickets where once/ he’d plunged like black lightning.” In ‘Poste Restante’ – “letters fall from his hand/ like homeless prayers.” There are many such examples of ease, of vitality, of complexity without inscrutability.
I emerge from the book with a peculiar sense of gratification. From the concrete to the liminal, I have got what I had only half-expected – pleasure. The pleasure in poetry that can be both tactile and aural, where the impetus of image into story can be unerring, where the polished phrase can hold within it the rawness of sudden insight. My responses are not purely those of the reader. My pleasures are those also of the practitioner, familiar with the rush of joy at a well-made poem, and the sometimes tortuous paths that lead there. Hoskoté’s work has often been classified as obscure, pretentious, pedantic. And it is easy to see why. Having encountered some poems that exclude the reader, or invite the reader into a territory too riddled with complexities of language and thought to be pleasurable, it seems simpler to walk away. Why make an effort to engage? Will it be worth it? Is the poet mocking my lack of knowledge with an excess of his? Where’s the poetry? Questions like these are enough to intimidate even the more intrepid seeker of verse. But even for the intrepid, Hoskoté’s demands are many. What he demands is an alertness to the textures in his poetry, the layers that allow you to choose your point of entry and engagement, the possibility of enrichment by widening the lens through which you read his work. For Hoskoté the ‘making’ of poetry seems sacrosanct. In his earlier work, that making was foregrounded, sometimes to the detriment of the poems. In his latest work, the process has become invisible. Perhaps the poems are more accessible. Or perhaps it is reading that is the true vanishing act, pushing beyond the choreographed intentions of the poet into a place of greater transparency.
This review first appeared in Biblio: A Review of Books, Vol. XI Nos. 7 & 8, July-August 2006