Ghazala's Weblog

a poetic thread to string my words and experiences on…

The poet Vikram Seth — April 21, 2009

The poet Vikram Seth

Another discovery! Vikram Seth– the poet… sensitive, witty, employing new metaphors, weaving poetry in cultures still unknown to me… enchanting! Really! I read his “A Suitable Boy” as a first year undergrad student. I read it through… in one sitting and marveled at how he was equally well versed with the nuances of all the different cultures and backgrounds that his characters dwelt in. Most of Seth’s poetry, though,  still belongs to realm of personal (like initial-formative work of Faiz?). There is another ‘Faiz-resemblance’ in employing traditional rhyme and meter schemes to conjure up novel imagery. So, am I hoping for too much if I am hoping for Vikram Seth to widen his concerns and turn his gaze deeper into matters beyond ‘the personal’? I think not.  Sample this poem from his collection “A Humble Administrator’s Garden“.

Research in Jiangsu Province

From off this plastic strip the noise
Of buzzing stops. A human voice
Asks its set questions, pauses, then
Waits for responses to begin.

The questions bore in. How much is
The cost and area of this house?
I see you have two sons. Would you
Prefer to have had a daughter too?

And do your private plots provide
Substantial income on the side?
Do you rear silkworms? goslings? pigs?
How much per year is spent on eggs?

How much on oil and soya sauce
And salt and vinegar? asks the voice.
The answering phantom states a figure
Then reconsiders, makes it bigger.

Children and contraceptives, soap
And schooling rise like dreams of hope
To rise with radios and bikes
Round pensions, tea and alarm clocks.

‘Forty square metres. Sixteen cents.
To save us from the elements.
Miscarriage. Pickle with rice gruel
Three times a week. Rice-straw for fuel.

Chicken and fruit trees.’ In Jiangning
Green spurts the psychedelic Spring
And blossoming plum confounds the smell
Of pig-shit plastered on the soil.

Life and production, drought and flood
Merge with the fertile river mud
And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest
And mandarin ducks return to nest.

The Yangtse flows on like brown tape.
The research forms take final shape,
Each figure like a laden boat
With white or madder sails afloat.

Float on, float on, O facts and facts,
Distilled compendia of past acts,
Reveal the grand design to me,
Flotilla of my PhD.

On the obnoxious dreary pillage
Of privacy, imperfect knowledge
Will sprout like lodged rice, rank with grain
In whose submerging ears obtain

Statistics where none grew before
And housing estimates galore,
Diet and wealth and income data,
Age structures and a price inflator.

Birth and fertility projections,
Plans based on need and predilections,
O needful numbers, and half true,
Without you what would nations do?

I switch the tape off. This to me
Encapsulates reality,
Although the beckoning plum-trees splayed
Against the sky, the fragrant shade,

Have something tellable, it seems,
Of evanescence, light and dreams,
And the cloud-busy, far-blue air
Forms a continuous questionnaire

And Mrs Gao herself whose voice
Is captive on my tape may choose
Some time when tapes and forms are far
To talk about the Japanese War,

May mention how her family fled,
And starved, and bartered her for bread,
And stroke her grandson’s head and say
Such things could not occur today.

The poem appeals to the researcher in me, grappling to understand social realities that must not be itemized and counted because they simply cannot be.  I also liked Seth’s poems The They and Homeless from the same collection because these poems have concerns that do not draw only from the angst arising out of relationships and love. They also sort of appeal to my sense of what I consider ‘beautiful poetry’. But I also love a deeply personal Unclaimed. Then again, I think it speaks to my feminist concerns of sex, love and the accompanying emotional sticky-gooey mess.

Unclaimed

To make love with a stranger is the best.
There is no riddle and there is no test. —

To lie and love, not aching to make sense
Of this night in the mesh of reference.

To touch, unclaimed by fear of imminent day,
And understand, as only strangers may.

To feel the beat of foreign heart to heart
Preferring neither to prolong nor part.

To rest within the unknown arms and know
That this is all there is; that this is so.

Slum‘dog’: On Uncouth Language and Subversion — March 10, 2009

Slum‘dog’: On Uncouth Language and Subversion


Every blog worth its name (number of hits) has had something to say about Slumdog Millionaire. I think I should also make the most of this opportunity 🙂 I really have nothing to say about the film that hasn’t already been said but the controversy about its title (slum’dog’) gives me a chance to say my two bits about the language of subversion.

Hip-hop music and culture in USA has a ‘slanguage’ of its own in which the word ‘dog’ has a special place because of the frequency and flexibility with which it is used. Among other things it is used as a common noun for ‘person’, especially a friend or a term of endearment. It would be a bit off the mark to say that the word has lost all the derogatory connotations but the usage in hip-hop/rap is a bit complex.

Let me draw a parallel with the feminine of the word ‘dog’- ‘bitch’. ‘Bitch’ has a long history of being used as a derogatory word for women. The connotations are those of ‘lewd’, ‘on heat’, ‘sexually promiscuous’. Also associated is the verb ‘bitch’- when one is ‘bitching’ she (he?)  is ‘gossiping’ or ‘back-biting’. Today a ‘sexually promiscuous’ woman is plainly called a ‘slut’ or a ‘whore’ (‘hoe’ in hip-hop). A ‘bitch’ is a woman who is straying away from the feminine conventions; she makes no effort to be obedient and pleasant. In hip-hop its cool to be a ‘bitch’. Many female rappers call themselves and girl friends ‘bitch’ just as African-American rappers also frequently call themselves and others ‘nigga’ and ‘dog’.

There is a derogatory subtext but it is full of subversion.

So, why so much hue and cry over the film title? Let me try an explanation using again the ‘bitch’ example. While it may be cool when a close girlfriend calls me a ‘bitch’, I would definitely take it as an insult if someone not close were to throw the word at me. Two African-American rappers may call each other ‘nigga’ but a white person using the n-word would be inflicting a racial slur. Is the title ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ derogatory, then?

The slum‘dog’ controversy reminded me of Faiz Ahmed Faiz‘s Kuttey (Dogs). I wonder what people may have to say of it…

Yeh galiyon key aavaara bekaar kuttey
Ke bakhsha gaya jin ko zoq-e-gadaai
Zamaney ki phitkaar sarmaaya un ka
Jahaan bhar ki dhutkaar in ki kamaai

Na aaram shab ko, na rahat saveyrey
Ghalaazat mein ghar, naaliyon main baseyrey
Jo bigrein to ik doosray say lara do
Zara ek roti ka tukra dikha do
Yeh har ek ki thokerain khaney waley
Yeh faaqon say uktaa kay mar janey waley

Yeh mazloom makhlooq gar sar uthaey
To insaan sab sarkashi bhool jaey
Yeh chaahain to duniya ko apna bana lein
Yeh aaqaaon ki haddiyaan tak chaba lein

Koi in to ehsaas-e-zillat dila dey
Koi in ki soee hui dum hila dey

My rough translation…

these vagrant, aimless streets dogs
the flair for beggary has been conferred upon them
their net asset is being scorned by their times
rebukes of the entire world their earnings

No rest in the evening nor reprieve at dawn
housed in filth, dwellings in drains
if they agitate, pit one against the other
show them a piece of roti
putting up with getting kicked by all
they tire of being starved and die

If this oppressed species were to arise
humans would forget all domineering
they can own the world if they’d only wish
they can chew up even the bones of the masters

Somebody stir them to feel their mortification
somebody move their sleeping tail

To me it looks like that using what is considered, foul/uncouth language for one self (or others who share the oppressed identity) is a way of arousing an oppressed people to feel their mortification, humiliation, and thereby, a subversive act. Young people tend to use slang more than any other age group because they find in this a convenient and cool way to display their irreverence towards what is established, traditional and the norm. Language full of slang, coarse and swear words is an act of defiance against authority- a way of expressing hostility and pent-up aggression, safely. In this way, it becomes one of the most used ‘weapons of the weak’.

Daughters and Feminist Mothers — March 6, 2009

Daughters and Feminist Mothers

All my unconsciousness knows about being a woman was learnt from my mother.

I am eerily like my mother in so many ways but I don’t want to be “like her” and try to do things, react to things differently. Even though I wasn’t close to her and my father was my teacher of the world, its politics and the large philosophical questions, it is ultimately, who she was that shapes me as a woman.

I firmly believe that it is not so important to ask how much time was a mother able to spend with her daughter (child?) and what she did specifically in that time but what the mother did with her entire life. How did the mother take on the various aspects of life, what kind of treatment she took from people around her, what were her dreams and how did she go about them…all these the child remembers. The girls learn from this how to be a woman and, I suppose, the boys would learn how to treat a woman.

Arundhati Roy once said somewhere that a feminist is a woman who creates choices for herself. Being a feminist daughter to my mother is not easy. I’m always evaluating my choices and trying to create new ones where none exist. Being a feminist mother to a daughter is no joke either… in fact the whole effect is that of a double whammy. I seem to be constantly swimming against the tide. Regardless of whether I make any progress or not on any front, slogging is a must and being tired is a given.

Why do I feel compelled to go on slogging? Because of my daughter… let me clarify lest you get me wrong. As a feminist, my struggle for equality begins with my own family, in my own house. I struggle with feelings of love and concern, with demands of devotion and decency while I strive for respect as an individual and freedom to engage with what I wish to. I struggle with others’ nostalgia for ‘family values’ and I struggle against unreason and coercion masquerading as ‘respect for elders’. I am forever struggling and contesting established notions in relationships to create options for myself that will create a new legacy for my daughter. With each act of negotiation, confrontation, conciliation and even compromise I am writing the text for her unconscious.

As I struggle, I write the script of my daughter’s struggles.

It is not surprising, then, that it was the feminist struggle that gave birth to the slogan “personal is political”. None other could have.

For women’s day my gift to my daughter and all my (feminist) friends who have daughters, a ‘Lullaby‘ by Fehmida Riaz in translation by Amina Yaqin.

Dearest your countenance like the
moon
You who are a piece of my heart
Dearest I keep on looking
Dearest my eyes are filled by your
image
Dearest I rock you in my cradled arms
Holding you next to my heart
Dearest sparkle of my eye listen,
Your mother’s entire life,
A flowing cataract of tears
Passed by
This bowl has been filled with that clear
water
With that dearest let me wash your
flowerlike hands, lotuslike feet
Touch you with my eyes
I endlessly wept away my sorrowful existence,
your sight stopped the tears
They unfurled and blossomed into
laughter
My frightened motherhood has great
faith in you
It seems like yesterday to me
I can recall that night
When you were born
That night was very black
Tormenting the heart with pain
But a kind of oil lamp began to burn
upon hearing your cry
Your beautiful beautiful limbs
Lovely and fresh, healthy and
prospering
Dearest can’t manage a kiss
Dearest I’m shaking and shivering
I know a wolf stands in my doorway
Consuming my youth, drinking my
blood
The wolf who was raised by Mammon
Who rules the world
We who are cursed from age to age
Because of whom in this world
Thinking is considered a crime
To love-a major sin
It has sniffed the blood of a human
body
It tracks your every move
Dearest cannot sleep at night
Dearest I am constantly awake
Dearest borne of my womb listen
This world belongs to injustice
What skills can I teach you
Women who came and went
Embroidering sprigs on net upon net
Placed food on platter upon platter
Which the wolf ate
Today every kitchen is empty
What can I show you
What skills shall I teach you!
When I take you in my arms
I listen to the call of time
I hear great battle cries
I listen to the beckoning of war
Hearing this again and again
Your skill is “bravery”!
Listen my dear little one
This land, this sky
All the grandeur of peace
The markets full of grain
Until that does not belong to us
We cannot exist in harmony
No one to lean on
There is no other option
Do not fear the wolf
Dear heart! Fight with conviction
Do not ever despair
I will teach you bravery
I will make you into a lioness
Fear will not touch you
Listen my dear new little one
You will not be alone
Your friends will be with you arm in
arm
Your friends, your companions
Will be by your side
Many hands will join together
This is my one wish!

APOLOGIES TO LARGE QUESTIONS FOR SMALL ANSWERS… — November 30, 2008

APOLOGIES TO LARGE QUESTIONS FOR SMALL ANSWERS…

I’m in a strage place. Mumbai massacres are over and everything is agitated and turbid. I am a little apprehensive of what this holds in store for the future of so many things… will India too, get dragged in the ‘war against terror’? who will symbolise ‘terror’ now and take the strike…?

Somehow reading Wislawa Szymborska seems fitting. She says in her poem The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

Her poem Children of our era somehow reminded me of the parable of blind old black woman and some youngsters with a bird in their hands, in a hauntingly poetic and beautiful nobel lecture of Toni Morrisson (Szymborska is 1996 nobel winner). Morrison says “In her country children have bitten their tongues off and use bullets instead to iterate the voice of speechlessness, of disabled and disabling language, of language adults have abandoned altogether as a device for grappling with meaning, providing guidance, or expressing love. But she knows tongue-suicide is not only the choice of children. It is common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human instincts for they speak only to those who obey, or in order to force obedience.”

We are children of our era;
our era is political.

All affairs, day and night,
yours, ours, theirs,
are political affairs.

Like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin a political cast,
your eyes a political aspect.

What you say has a resonance;
what you are silent about is telling.
Either way, it’s political.

Even when you head for the hills
you’re taking political steps
on political ground.

Even apolitical poems are political,
and above us shines the moon,
by now no longer lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
Question? What question? Dear, here’s a suggestion:
a political question.

You don’t even have to be a human being
to gain political significance.
Crude oil will do,
or concentrated feed, or any raw material.

Or even a conference table whose shape
was disputed for months:
should we negotiate life and death
at a round table or a square one?

Meanwhile people were dying,
animals perishing,
houses burning,
and fields growing wild,
just as in times most remote
and less political.

Ever so often, I think of our ill-attended meetings, dharnas and marches as pitiably futile, but then again I get up and go join something and tell myself that this was an act of resistance to atleast being passive, if not more. To be sure there are things, issues and questions not well attended to, neglected and not among our favourite. Szymborska says, in her Under a Certain Little Star, what I  wish to scream out today…

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity in case I’m mistaken.
Don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you for my own.
May the dead forgive me that their memory’s but a flicker.
My apologies to time for the quantity of world overlooked per second.
My apologies to an old love for treating a new one as the first.
Forgive me, far-off wars, for carrying my flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
My apologies for the minuet record, to those calling out from the abyss.
My apologies to those in train stations for sleeping soundly at five in the morning.
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing sometimes.
Pardon me, deserts, for not rushing in with a spoonful of water.
And you, O hawk, the same bird for years in the same cage,
staring, motionless, always at the same spot,
absolve me even if you happen to be stuffed.
My apologies to the tree felled for four table legs.
My apologies to large questions for small answers.
Truth, do not pay me too much attention.
Solemnity, be magnanimous toward me.
Bear with me, O mystery of being, for pulling threads from your veil.
Soul, don’t blame me that I’ve got you so seldom.
My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere.
My apologies to all for not knowing how to be every man and woman.
I know that as long as I live nothing can excuse me,
since I am my own obstacle.
Do not hold it against me, O speech, that I borrow weighty words,
and then labor to make them light.

* All poems translated from polish by Joanna Trzeciak

Who Is Afraid Of Poems? — October 24, 2008

Who Is Afraid Of Poems?

I stumbled upon this interesting article by Katha Pollitt. Of course, the Laura Bush connection is hugely amusing and the article makes an interesting point about American poets’ response to wars (and how that has changed over time). My forever sceptic friends, who tut-tut my ‘naive’ optimism, please note that poetry does scare some hearts as it emboldens others.

Anyways… so, Pollitt is a columnist with The Nation- her column is called “Subject to debate”.

Poetry Makes Nothing Happen? Ask Laura Bush. 

by Katha Pollitt

 

So Laura Bush will not, after all, be discussing the works of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes with a selected group of American poets at the White House on February 12. The conference, “Poetry and the American Voice,” was abruptly “postponed” after Sam Hamill, editor of Copper Canyon Press and author of thirteen books of verse, responded to his invitation by putting out an e-mail urging invitees and others to send him poems and statements opposing the invasion of Iraq. When I spoke to him on the phone, Hamill described himself as a lifelong radical (“What on earth were they thinking?” he wondered out loud), and said he had planned to decline his invitation but had hoped to compile an anthology that another invitee would present to the First Lady. Within days almost 2,000 poets had responded to his plea. It was almost like old times, when Robert Lowell refused to attend a poetry symposium at the Johnson White House to protest the Vietnam War.

 

Why was the conference canceled? Hamill expresses himself rather forcefully (“I was overcome by a kind of nausea,” he wrote of finding the invitation in the mail)–in fact, he sounds a lot like writers of letters to The Nation. But he didn’t urge poets to take off their clothes and pee in the punch bowl, or to stage a reading of the Not In Our Name statement. He merely suggested giving the First Lady some poems. Poets these days are a mannerly crowd, and it’s a safe bet that those who chose to attend would have been polite. Marilyn Nelson, poet laureate of Connecticut, said she planned to wear a silk scarf decorated with peace symbols, in hopes of attracting the First Lady’s eye. So is that it? The White House, so bold to make war, is afraid of poems and scarves?

 

So much for democracy, free speech, vigorous discussion. In this most insulated and choreographed of administrations, the “American voice”–note the singular–is welcome only when it says what the White House wants to hear. And yet, as so often, censorship backfired. “They did us an extraordinary favor,” Hamill told me. “They revealed that there are many, many poets opposed to the Bush regime. And they demonstrated their fear of the carefully chosen word–their fear of poetry.”

 

Now Laura Bush, a former librarian, likes to read, and that’s good. As Texas First Lady she helped start the Texas Book Fair, and as First Lady she has held a number of symposia on interesting historical topics–women writers of the West, the Harlem Renaissance and Mark Twain, whom she calls the “first real American writer,” so eat your heart out Bradstreet, Edwards, Franklin, Irving, Douglass, Emerson, Thoreau (especially you, Henry, you civilly disobedient antiwar tree-hugger, you). To her credit, she invited to these gatherings serious writers and scholars–Arnold Rampersad, Justin Kaplan, David Levering Lewis, frontier historian Ursula Smith–who she must have known could not, on the whole, be happy with her husband’s policies. Still, according to press reports, invitees to these events arrived suspicious, went away charmed. That’s how it usually works with the presidency–Bill Clinton beguiled an entire roomful of poets at a 1998 soiree, with only a few refuseniks. Proximity to power, a brush with history, the cachet of exclusivity and, in the case of Laura Bush, a private glimpse of perhaps the biggest contrast-gainer in the history of marriage–say what you like about the irrelevance of poets in today’s world, if they’re willing to forgo all that, antiwar feeling must be positively rampaging across the land.

 

“There is nothing political about American literature,” Laura Bush has said. But it would be hard to find writers more subversive than the three she chose for her event. Whitman’s epic of radical democracy, Leaves of Grass, was so scandalous it got him fired from his government job; Hughes, a Communist sympathizer hounded by McCarthy, wrote constantly and indelibly about racism, injustice, power; Dickinson might seem the least political, but in some ways she was the most lastingly so–every line she wrote is an attack on complacency and conformity of manners, mores, religion, language, gender, thought. None of these quintessentially American writers would have given two cents for family values (Whitman was gay, as perhaps were Hughes and Dickinson), abstinence education, the death penalty, tax cuts for the rich, Ashcroftian attacks on civil liberties or the other hallmarks of the Bush regime. It’s hard to imagine them cheering the bombing of Baghdad.

 

There will be readings all over the country on February 12. As of this writing some 3,500 poets (who knew?) have sent poems and statements to http://www.poetsagainstthewar.org. Here’s mine:                         

 

   TRYING TO WRITE A POEM AGAINST THE WAR

   my daughter who is as beautiful as the day

  hates politics: Face it, Ma,                                     
   they don’t care what you think! All                              
   passion, like Achilles,                                           
   she stalks off to her room,                                      
   to confide in her purple guitar and await                        
   life’s embassies. She’s right,                                   
   of course: bombs will be hurled                                  
   at ordinary streets                                              
   and leaders look grave for the cameras,                          
   and what good are more poems against war                         
   the real subject of which                                        
   so often seems to be the poet’s superior                         
   moral sensitivities? I could                                     
   be mailing myself to the moon                                     
   or marrying a palm tree,                                         
   and yet what can we do                                           
   but offer what we have?                                          
   and so I spend                                                    
   this cold gray glittering morning                                
   trying to write a poem against war                               
   that perhaps may please my daughter                               
   who hates politics                                               
   and does not care much for poetry, either. 

Your blood will plant an olive tree and your people shall live in its shade… — August 22, 2008

Your blood will plant an olive tree and your people shall live in its shade…

What makes a poem subversive? Expressing a common humanity? Refuting identities thrust at us? Turning the pen against injustices? Appreciating beauty in people? Confronting history? Telling stories of life as it is? Singing of sadness, regret and anger? Ironical, but the answer is yes. Mahmoud Darwish of Palestine did all this. He belonged to the tribe of ‘raconteurs of conscience’ whose poetry stirs the hearts that have not closed their eyes to oppression of people and their misery.  Darwish’s is really “an utterly necessary voice, unforgettable once discovered…” as his fellow Arab poet Naomi Shihab once famously said.

Mahmoud Darwish’s death on 9th August 2008 went largely unnoticed in India which has all but turned its back on the Palestinian struggle and people. It was left to the independent voices on internet to let us Indians know that the great voice will no longer sing the songs it had created and give us pleasure, touch us with the beauty of his thoughts, make us sad and uncomfortable with what he recounts. Breyten Breytenbach, an anti-apartheid Afrikaner poet who also knows well the pangs of exile and pain of prison, was at the last reading by Derwish just weeks before he died. He describes the evening thus…

“The sun was setting, there was a soundless wind in the trees and from the neighbouring streets we could hear the voices of children playing. And for hours we sat on the ancient stone seats, spellbound by the depth and the beauty of this poetry. Was it about Palestine? Was it about his people dying, the darkening sky, the intimate relationships with those on the other side of the wall, ‘soldier’ and ‘guest’, exile and love, the return to what is no longer there, the memory of orchards, the dreams of freedom…? Yes – like a deep stream all of these themes were there, of course they so constantly informed his verses; but it was also about olives and figs and a horse against the skyline and the feel of cloth and the mystery of the colour of a flower and the eyes of a beloved and the imagination of a child and the hands of a grandfather. And of death.”

Derwish was fluent in Hebrew and read the work of Lorca and Pablo Neruda in Hebrew translations. His poetry resembles that of Faiz in the sense that he uses stylistically classical language but writes of common concerns in the voice of oppressed people. Also, like Faiz, Derwish’s poetry has many layers of meaning. In a hard hitting poem, he describes the violence that Palestinians face on day to day basis. Its full force comes not from harsh angry words but soft, melancholy tones of lost relationships, death, dreams and colours.

Victim #18

The olive grove was once green;
It was! And the sky was
A blue forest; it was!
What has changed it tonight?

And tonight
I’ll come through the window
And bring you jasmine.
Don’t blame me if I’m late;
They always stop me on the way.

They quietly stopped our truck
at the curve of the road
and quietly turned us East.

My heart was once a blue sparrow;
It was! And your handkerchiefs
Were all white, my beloved.
What has soiled them tonight?
I don’t understand.

They quietly stopped our truck
and quietly turned us East.

For you I have everything:
Both shade and light
And a wedding ring
And even an orchard of fig trees.

They quietly stopped our truck
and quietly turned us East.

The olive grove was always green;
It was, my beloved.
But tonight
The blood of fifty victims
Has turned it into a red pool.
Please don’t blame me
If I can’t come;
They’ve murdered me, too.

A Palestinian blogger from Gaza- Heba says, “He taught me to believe that our cause is alive and just and that a Palestinian does live in the conscience of millions with his/her long legacy of love, patience, exile, and nostalgia.” Heba, you are right Palestine will continue to live in my heart with Derwish’s legacy and poetry.  

In one of his last poems, set in ditch where a victim and his enemy have fallen, he articulates his dejectedness at not having been able to see a resolution of Palestine Israel conflict and passes the baton to future poets to dream on and realize their dreams for the Palestinian people.

He said: Would you negotiate with me now?
I said: For what would you negotiate me now,
in this grave-hole?
He said: On my share and your share of this common grave
I said: What use is it?
Time has passed us,
our fate is an exception to the rule
here lay a murderer and the murdered, sleeping in one hole
and it remains for another poet to take this scenario to its end!

I conclude with another of his famous poems, a chance reading of which introduced me to Derwish and the Palestinian struggle, years ago.

The Earth is closing on us
pushing us through the last passage
and we tear off our limbs to pass through.
The Earth is squeezing us.
I wish we were its wheat
so we could die and live again.
I wish the Earth was our mother
so she’d be kind to us.

I wish we were pictures on the rocks
for our dreams to carry as mirrors.
We saw the faces of those who will throw
our children out of the window of this last space.
Our star will hang up mirrors.
Where should we go after the last frontiers?
Where should the birds fly after the last sky?
Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air?
We will write our names with scarlet steam.
We will cut off the hand of the song to be finished by our flesh.
We will die here, here in the last passage.
Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree.

 

Mahmoud Darwish, poet, born March 15, 1941; died August 9, 2008

A meta-poem by Langston Hughes — August 20, 2008

A meta-poem by Langston Hughes

THEME FOR ENGLISH B

The instructor said,

            Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me NOT like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

1951

Discovering African-American Poets — August 13, 2008

Discovering African-American Poets

I finished school and went to university (Jamia Millia Islamia) to study mathematics but got more interested in all the contemporary English literature in the Dr Zakir Hussain Library. I remember my three years of B.Sc. Maths Honours as a period of great intellectual stimulation and growth. I spent hours at the library, got issued numerous books, devoured them, often using up seldom used library tickets of my classmates. I submersed myself totally in them, not really paying much attention to any of the subjects that I was actually supposed to study.

I did not have anyone around me to recommend books or let me know of reputation of writers and books. I mostly picked up books I read randomly, intrigued by their titles. This is how I found “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter” and then ended up reading all four volumes of the autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir. Then her novels- “She Came To Stay” and “The Mandarins” and of course “The Second Sex”. I would read all the works available of an author who interested me. So read a lot of A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, V.S. Naipaul.

The biggest discovery of this period was getting to know the work of African American poets-writers of the Harlem renaissance. I had picked up Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of America” in my usual random fashion and read Margaret Walker’s prose-poem “For My People”:

. . . Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second generation full of courage issue forth, let a people loving freedom come to growth, let a beauty full of healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control!

And Langston Hughes‘ poem “Harlem” also known popularly as “The Dream Deffered”

What happens to a dream deferred?
              Does it dry up 
              like a raisin in the sun?
              Or fester like a sore-
              And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

It was still those days when internet had not been heard of much by likes of us- so I couldn’t just google ‘Harlem Renaissance’ or ‘African American poets’ to find out more. It took years to gather in bits in pieces my acquaintance with these phenomenal poets. Another very famous poem of the genre is by Gil Scott-Heron

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
and Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat
hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie May
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,
or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.
NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32
or report from 29 districts.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being
run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the proper occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock
news and no pictures of hairy armed women
liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back
after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

Poetry, sedition and Old promise… — August 5, 2008

Poetry, sedition and Old promise…

In an earlier post, I had promised to bring some translations of work by Ibn-e-Insha. I begin that task today… heres my translation of his ghazal- “Khamosh raho” 

This is not a time to say anything, don’t say anything- stay quiet

O! people stay quiet, O! people stay quiet

 

Truth is good, but in its roots lies a bowl of poison too

Are you mad?! Don’t be a Socrates for nothing, stay quiet!

 

Truth is good but better if someone else dies for it

Are you mansoor that you’ll go to the gallows? Stay quiet!

 

They say that the sun revolves round the earth

We agree, let the sun revolve, stay quiet!

 

Fear lurks in the gathering and the chains pierce

Think again! Yes, think again!  Yes, think again! Stay quiet!

 

Warm tears and cold sighs, the seasons felt in this heart!

Don’t open the secrets of this garden, take a walk, stay quiet!

 

Sit on the side having closed my eyes and keep closed the doors of my heart

Insha ji take this thread and stitch your lips, stay quiet!

I had contributed the original ghazal, along with another couple of poems for a campaign demanding release of an independent film maker Ajay TG who has been arrested in Chhattisgarh on charges of sedition under Sec 124 A of the IPC and the Chattisgarh Special Public Security Act. CSPSA assumes guilt by association and criminalises even political belief. Under this act ‘any contact’ with a banned organisation becomes a criminal offence. Ajay has been arrested because allegedly he wrote a letter to Maoistsin Chhattisgarh requesting them to return his camera which they had snatched from him while Ajay was accompanying a team of PUCL in Bastar in 2004!

To know more about Ajay and the campaign to release him click here  

Following is my English translation of Jo kuchh dekha-suna, samjha, likh liya- by Nirmala Putul a santhali poet (from Hindi translation by Ashok Sinha).

You have words, arguments, intelligence
Entire system is at your disposal
You can falsify truth by retelling it again and again
You can write me off completely in just one pronouncement

 

What eyes have seen
You can prove wrong
I realise…

 

But don’t forget
those who call truth-“truth”
And falsehood-  

“false” with all their might

haven’t been totally wiped out.

More on Insha later… promise!

 

 

 

 

More Poems About Poetry — July 24, 2008

More Poems About Poetry

Some more meta-poems… the first is by one of my favourites- Alice Walker. She speaks in this poem of her conversation with muse, during which she describes the creation of poetry as a painful, near death experience before poetry arrives in the garb of “wierd light”. She recounts ways in which poetry talks to poets. Once the muse arrives it nags and nags till the poem is done.

The second meta poem of this post is a short and sweet feminist poem by a poet called Tess Gallagher. This is the first time I have read anything by her but the poem really touched my heart. It reminded me of things I learnt from my mother without actually ever being taught and the eerie similarity between her and me even though she died when I was just an adolescent. The poem also spoke to me because so many times I promise myself to get back to the poem while I immerse myself in this or that mindless chore and a little girl stands next to me too watching me do it all.

And the final one by a master- Dylan Thomas. This poem is sort of a pure meta poem but beautiful nevertheless.

I Said to Poetry

I said to Poetry: “I’m finished
with you.”
Having to almost die
before some wierd light
comes creeping through
is no fun.
“No thank you, Creation,
no muse need apply.
I’m out for good times–
at the very least,
some painless convention.”

Poetry laid back
and played dead
until this morning.
I wasn’t sad or anything,
only restless.

Poetry said: “You remember
the desert, and how glad you were
that you have an eye
to see it with? You remember
that, if ever so slightly?”
I said: “I didn’t hear that.
Besides, it’s
five o’clock in the a.m.
I’m not getting up
in the dark
to talk to you.”

Poetry said: “But think about the time
you saw the moon
over that small canyon
that you liked so much better
than the grand one–and how surprised you were
that the moonlight was green
and you still had
one good eye
to see it with

Think of that!”

“I’ll join the church!” I said,
huffily, turning my face to the wall.
“I’ll learn how to pray again!”

“Let me ask you,” said Poetry.
“When you pray, what do you think
you’ll see?”

Poetry had me.

“There’s no paper
in this room,” I said.
“And that new pen I bought
makes a funny noise.”

“Bullshit,” said Poetry.
“Bullshit,” said I.

By Alice Walker

——————————————————–

Stop Writing the Poem

to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. I’ll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.
by Tess Gallagher

——————————————————————-

 

Notes on the Art of Poetry

I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
in the world between the covers of books,
such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,
such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
such and so many blinding bright lights,
splashing all over the pages
in a million bits and pieces
all of which were words, words, words,
and each of which were alive forever
in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.

by Dylan Thomas