Beginning to understand what keeps calling me back: A short reflection

As I write this I am in Pune; this evening I fly back to Bangalore for a few days. Then I head home. Away from heat and greenery, back into cold and snow. Plenty of both.

As I look back on the past five weeks or so in India, images and memories shift and tumble like the pieces of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope. Diwali in Wardha, Blossom Book House in Bangalore, the crowded dusty streets of Kathmandu, the rocking rhythm of the train from Delhi to Jaipur, Jantar Mantar, the grand astronomical observatory built by Jai Singh II and the magnificent forts towering above the city he founded. Quiet days amid the lush tropical beauty of Kochi, and stimulating literary engagements in Pune.

I learned a lot on this visit—about India, Indians, and myself. About intersections where noise and colour can overwhelm, where nuance can be lost and small wisdoms can be gained.

This has been more of a spiritual encounter for me, if I can use that term. I’ve come a little closer to understanding what it is I am seeking in the repeated act of intentional, albeit short term, displacement. It has, I believe, something to do with death. With loss and grief. With finding a way to experience that which I have mourned, that which has caused me pain and anger, as a life-giving positive force.

It will take time to unravel this thread, this tangled web of thoughts. Now, I suppose, I need the space that distance will grant me to reflect a little. At this moment, from a balcony level with tree tops, I want to drink in the foliage and think about the past few weeks without forcing or directing anything.

What is it that stands out? The people, of course. Friends. Reconnection with old friends, encounters with new friends, and finally meeting face to face with those only known online. The luxury of long conversations. Exploring the landscapes and cityscapes with those who know it well and love it. Who feel it in their souls.

For now, that is what I will hold close to my heart as I prepare to head toward home.

“We are creatures of this world”: Reflections on Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander

I have numbered these pages
And find the ground very uneven

—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Solitaire”

Meena Alexander’s name was unknown to me until she passed away almost exactly a year ago, as I write this. Sadly this is not an uncommon occurrence, that we come to know a writer only after they have left us. This book, Atmospheric Embroidery, came to me from a friend who slipped it to me before I was about to embark on a trip, assuring me that the slender volume should not impact my carefully measured effort to keep my bags below carry-on weight restrictions. I carried it with me through the narrow congested streets of Kathmandu, read it in the air as the snow-capped Himalayas drifted away to my right on my return flight to India, felt the rhythm of its verses play against the rocking of the train from Delhi to Jaipur, and returned to it yet again after a day visiting the forts standing high above the marvellous “Pink City.”

I am writing this review, or response, in Kochi, deep in the south of India where I feel that, in large part through my engagement with these poems, the inability to read and write that has plagued me in these recent months is starting to thaw. Isn’t  that one of the gifts of poetry? Its capacity to spark, rekindle, and loosen a flow of words?

Meena Alexander was born to a Syrian Christian family in the Indian city of Allahabad in 1951, and raised in India and in Sudan. She would spend most of her life living and teaching in New York City, but her writing speaks to a sense of displacement, of distances crossed over oceans and desert sands, in a language that is sparse, yet fierce in its beauty and, at times, its brutality. Drawing on the diverse cultural and linguistic  influences that marked her experiences, her poetry almost seems to hover above the page, unwilling to be closely fixed to any one space or time:

Be fearless with destiny
you whisper to me
it too is an accumulation of longing.
A sideways swipe at the stars.

We are leaving one
Language for the other,
Always and ever—
What crossing enjoins.

—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Syncopation”

Although she was also well known for her prose, it is in the lyric form of poetry that Alexander found her preferred and greatest personal and political expression according to a memorial published at Scroll.in after her death. Poetry allowed her to steer away from the commercial expectations postcolonial writers from the Indian diaspora often face to appeal to the interests of western audiences. The portraits she paints are far more complex, both on an intimate and and broadly focused level:

She plumbed the depths of bodily trauma and memory in her lyrics, essays, and memoirs. Yet her work ranged from these deeply personal experiences to issues of global trauma and violence. She remained committed to a vision of gender, religious, and racial justice and used the symbolic form of poetry to envision cultural hybridity in India and the United States.

This present collection, published in 2015, is the final work published in her lifetime. Her poetry, which is finely honed, clean and spare, needs to be read with attention as much to the words and phrases, as to the silences—listening to what is not said, to what must be imagined. That is, her poems need to be returned to repeatedly, their treasures open up with reengagement.

Certain pieces of poetry or artwork stand as starting points or inspiration in many of the poems, as do her own experiences in India, North Africa, and the US. As well as the lives and stories of others on the margins, today or in the past. Movement, chosen or forced, from one place to another, the sense of being far from home or not really knowing where home lies, where one belongs, imbues her poetry with a restlessness, sometimes wistful and nostalgic, sometimes angry, and, as in the cycle of poems inspired by drawings by children from Darfur living in refugee camps by the Chad border, filled with sorrow, fear:

I am singing, stones fill with music.
Do not touch my hair, I cried. They forced me
To uncover my head then beat me when my veil slipped,
Not the pink one I am wearing now, with stripes — this
My aunt gave me. I am not an animal,
They are more free, birds in the trees, horses too.

—from “Green Leaves of El Fasher”

At the heart of this collection is the 14 piece cycle “Indian Ocean Blues.” She notes that this poem arises, in part, from the annual journeys she would undertake across the Indian Ocean from Sudan, where her family was living, to visit India. She recalls the power she found in Aimé Césaire’s Cahier de Retour au Pays Natal, and his Corps Perdu—how she “could hear the waves beat in his lines.” She listened to music while composing the work to mark a rhythm and provide solace and inspiration. Finally, she draws on the Ramayana, taking Sita, cast out by her husband Rama, the earth opening up to provide her refuge, and imagines her in Manhattan:

Rama cast her out,
Lava storms cooled her
Dirt cloaked her,
A shimmering stole.

Days later, on Dyckman Street,
As cobbles crack
She slips into a manhole,
Waves at me.

This cycle of poems evokes childhood adventure, historical passages, Hindu mythology, desperate refugees and contemporary migrants. Spanning half a globe, temporally unbound, this is a piece that speaks to an Indian poet weaving memories and reference points into an idiosyncratic song of loss, longing and new connections.

Reading Atmospheric Embroidery on my third trip to India in two years, my longest yet, I am finding echoes of questions I ask myself as I try to figure out what draws me here, to a country where I have no roots, from a country where, if I were to be honest, I have no particular roots either. If Meena’s family followed her father’s employment to Khartoum, my family followed my father’s insistent desire to be as far from others as he could comfortably manage. My parents started their lives in Toronto and New York City and ended them in a little cottage outside a small village across the continent from all extended family. The forces that lead to displacement  work in multiple directions—permanently, temporarily, haphazardly. At an age when I should feel settled I am more restless than ever, spinning some kind of uncertain tapestry of my own, now with yet a new companion—this book.

Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander is published by Hachette India and by Triquarterly.

My latest passage to India

Each visit to India brings its own rewards, but as one spends more time in another country, the cultural differences become more apparent. There are the obvious ones—fascinating and wonderful to observe. Like the great honour I had to share in a family Diwali celebration, from a respectful distance, delighted and deeply grateful for the experience. I was in Wardha with a friend—a city on few Western tourist’s agendas—a place that revelled in the celebrations. I visited Sevagram, Ghandi’s ashram, and had an opportunity to get out into the beautiful countryside of central India.

It is an experience I will always treasure. Perhaps, when I find the spirit, I will write more.

Until then there is a little pain that requires healing though that may not be possible.

In the meantime, the opportunity to get to know a Twitter friend, his wife and his unruly canine and feline household, has been wonderful, and with a Lit Fest happening here in Bangalore this weekend and Nepal, Jaipur, Kochi and Pune ahead, I hope to find some of the creative inspiration I was hoping for.

For now I’m just checking in.

My new friend.

Writing one’s self out of romance: Balla’s Big Love

Big Love by the self-deprecating and humorously misanthropic Slovak writer, Balla, is an anti-love love story in which the hapless protagonist fumbles around in the dark, imagining he knows what love is while perhaps the best relationship he will ever have slips from his clumsy grasp. This short novella is not only a sharp witted critique of contemporary post-socialist society in Slovakia, in the form of a fondly satirical take on its bureaucratic ineptness and literary pretensions, but it is also an endearing and all too recognizable romantic comedy of the kind that actually exists in real life more often than in the movies.

Our hero, Andrič, as is typical for Balla, is a thinly veiled version of the author himself—a writer at heart but a bureaucrat by day. Not unlike another absurdist author from the other side of what is now, once again, the Czech-Slovak divide. And like Kafka, his protagonists tend to exist in isolation, unable to communicate with or understand the world around them. In this case Andrič is trapped in such a strangely off base circle of reasoning about human nature and his own place within it that he routinely and consistently misconstrues his unnecessarily patient girlfriend’s cues until, of course, it is finally too late.

The first time Andrič sees Laura she is wearing a neck brace. She has been injured in a car accident. A strange impetuous for a budding attraction. A single mother with a young daughter, Laura seems to be everything he is not. She is boisterous, outgoing, physically active, responsible and capable of looking after herself and her child, even if it means being creative in seeking out opportunities and resources. It’s hard to imagine what she sees in Andrič. But somehow their relationship, albeit a long distance one, manages to survive for two years. She is, however, one of the least developed characters in the book, a function of how limited Andrič understanding of her truly is.

The supporting cast, if you like, is wonderful. In fact, it is these two unlikely, eccentric characters, who play well against the two aspects of Andrič’s life, the professional and the literary, and serve to challenge his limitations while furthering the overall satirical intent of the novel as a whole. Panza is his office mate and best friend. Unmarried, he lives with his sister, a fact that inspires a healthy amount of curiosity around the office. Even more than Andrič, he exists in isolation, formed and informed by his long bureaucratic career which has left him vacillating between paranoia and despondency. He exhibits a practiced form of engagement with the world that reflects his rejection of ordinary human interaction:

Panza is sitting, listening to Andrič and nodding, or rather, he’s not listening, only nodding, his eyes and his whole face make it clear that he doesn’t understand, and how could he, since he’s not listening, it’s not that he is stupid, he just can’t be bothered to listen, he’s had bad experiences in the past  when  he  used  to  listen  and  got nothing  in  return,  so  now he  professionally  and  routinely  doesn’t  listen,  especially  when a sentence begins in a complicated way.

Because how could such a sentence possibly end?

Panza, whose tendency to express panic about the state of affairs within the system to which he has dedicated his career and within which he should long been disavowed of any ideals or illusions of freedom promised by the collapse of Communism, fuels the younger Andrič’s own fears. And fascination. Together they are a misfit pair, with Panza consuming more of Andrič’s attentions than Laura even if it is, again, difficult to figure out if their bond is more than circumstantial, because they never seem to enjoy each other’s company. Or perhaps these are two men for whom enjoy and company are not natural counterparts.

By contrast, Laura’s mother Elvira, is a former school teacher with an apartment filled with books and a string of former husbands, one for any necessary anecdote or discussion point. An ethereal being who almost floats around the jumbled space she shares with her daughter and granddaughter, her disaffection with contemporary society comes from a different angle than Panza’s. Reading and everything associated with it seems, so far as Andrič can tell, to be the source of her particular melancholy, her “sadness beyond words.” She views her nation as a country of sleepwalkers, dulled into a state of semi-consciousness—a state which has extended to Slovak writers. She is especially harsh on them claiming they all, even the female writers, lack experience with women. Without experience, how can anyone write? But, as she says:

Fortunately,  writers  don’t  exist  anymore.  Because to exist is to mean something. But they don’t mean anything. We  should erase them from our diaries, we should stop phoning them on their name day. They are nobodies. Yet these nobodies haven’t even noticed.

As a writer himself, Andrič makes the mistake of equating his ability to create with some measure of accomplishment in his personal life, no matter how obvious the messages Laura is signalling should be. Over and over he fails to see that what he imagines is, at last, “big love”with Laura, is rapidly losing its hold on her. We only have the briefest glance into her side of the equation and she comes across as unconvinced of her love forAndrič as we are. Once she slips away, he is left to slowly realize that big love is sometimes measured by the space left in your heart and life once someone is gone. And, of course, by then it is too late. But even then, he salvages a perverse pleasure that he somehow found the words, although he cannot remember uttering them, that finally severed their relationship for good:

After Laura informed him about the termination of their relationship Andrič gradually began to swell up with a kind of absurd pride about the fact that he, too, was capable of using words, that his words had consequences  – and this also applied to statements he couldn’t remember at  all  –  but Laura refused to  repeat  those  words  of  great  significance  and  merely  reminded him that he had uttered them in a wine cellar in Spišská Sobota.

Who else but Andrič would follow such reasoning?

For such a short book, Big Love offers a lot through the somewhat thick lens of its hapless protagonist. It is relentless in its critique of society, family, love and literature. Many of the references are specific to Slovak history and culture, but a lack of familiarity with the underlying intertextual content will not impair the enjoyment of this funny/tragic tale. Andrič, for all his tendency to overthink the emotions out of any reasonable situation is endearing, the humour is bitter, sarcastic and wise. Yet, as the ending nears, his own existential crisis deepens, lending more credence to that well-worn Kafka comparison.

Just released from Jantar Publishing, Big Love by Balla is translated from the Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood.

Remembering a friend on World Mental Heath Day

When I started this blog in 2014, I was reeling in the aftermath of a major manic episode. One that effectively cost me my career. My early posts were angry, fueled by the shame and trauma of having endured such a public breakdown, and the complete insensitivity of my employer, a situation compounded by the fact that I had worked in the disability and mental health field and had never denied my own mental health history. But when I needed someone to step in and guide me to medical care there was no one.

On this day it would be good to stand up and say: Yes, I’m a survivor. Truth is, I’m lucky. I respond well to a long standing medical treatment (if I’m not so reckless as to believe I don’t need it) and I was able to coast for about seventeen years between breakdowns and, after losing everything in my mid-fifties, finally access solid supportive psychiatric and psychological care.

Over the past year I have needed that support twice when stability waned.

That’s actually a rather dismal situation, truth be told, but like I said, I am lucky, I respond well to medication and compared to many other people with bipolar disorder, I’ve been able to function well—most of the time. My son has faced much greater obstacles.

But today I want to talk about Ulla.

When I appeared online as a rough ghost, I quickly became connected with a group of fellow bloggers dealing with mental health challenges. Ulla, who went by the name Blahpolar was funny, outrageous, tragic, and queer. She lived in South Africa, a country I had long been interested in, and she was a huge fan of Canadian literature. We bonded almost instantly. We could joke and riff off each other as if we’d been friends forever. A little more than a year after we met online, I flew to South Africa and spent a week with her in the Eastern Cape Province. We were as comfortable together in person as we had been online.

But Ulla was struggling.

She had had a rough life. Her illness had only been diagnosed recently, at age forty-five. But the damage ran deep, complicated by so many factors. And yet she was one of the most  gifted writers and wonderful people I ever met.

By the time I got to know her she was unable to work, living on saving s in a small house she’d inherited from her mother, in a remote seaside community. But the blackness was closing in fast, even at the time we met. Every rand stretched, she tried everything she could afford to fight it off.  No treatment—not even shock therapy—seemed to have any effect.

She survived the first suicide attempt. Succeeded the second time, a little over three years ago now.

I say “succeeded” because it is selfish of me to insist that a woman of forty-six, who has waged many long and bitter battles, does not have the right to say: I cannot live this way. But it breaks my heart that she is gone, and angers me that in the end, she had to die alone.

Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows was her favourite book. A bold plea for assisted death for those with severe depression who see no other option.

Who has the right to weigh another’s pain?

Unaware that World Mental Heath Day was approaching, I pulled out the elegy I wrote for her the other night and tried to read it through. When I composed it, three months after her death, I was numb. My parents had died less than two months before her and all those losses were deeply intertwined. They are only breaking loose now.

I can’t get through this piece right any more. A sob rises in my chest just thinking about it. But on his day I wish to share it once again.

It is the best way to honour my friend Ulla. And everyone else who has reached the point where they felt no option but to join “that nocturnal tribe.” One should not wish that on anyone, but we cannot judge them. Least of all those of us who have known some measure of the pain depression and bipolar can bring. We can only try to ensure that support, understanding, and services are available for those who need it.

So, once again, for Ulla Kelly, And I Will Tell You Something.

Instructions for interacting with the material world: A Users Manual by Jiři Kolář

You can always be assured that a hardcover release from Prague-based indie publisher Twisted Spoon Press will be something very special. All their books—dedicated to bringing both long neglected and contemporary writers to English audiences—offer work that is unique and engaging, but they really put a little extra effort into their beautifully presented, typically illustrated, hardcover texts.

Like Jiři Kolář‘s A User’s Manual.

One of the most important Central European poets/visual artists of the postwar era, Kolář (1914-2002) was best known internationally for his innovative collages, but within Czechoslovakia he was a aligned with other politically defiant artists. He was a member of the avant-garde Group 42 until it was disbanded after the Communists came to power and, when the police discovered the manuscript to his controversial collection Prometheus’ Liver, he was arrested and labelled an “enemy of the state.” His poetry and artwork reflects his view of the society he saw around him.

This most unusual—and handsome—volume pairs 52 “action poems”, written in the 1950s and 60s, with images from “Weekly 1967,” one of his  series of collages created as a running commentary on each week of a year. First published together in this form in 1969, the resulting book is not only very entertaining to look at, but characterized by a sly creative energy and a devious wit. Each poem in A User’s Manual presents itself a set of instructions, often nonsensical, that mimic the form of communist dicta. Week 13, “Path,” for example, directs the reader to:

Go
empty-handed
on foot or by train
to a town
where you know no one
and spend three days there
When hungry
ask for bread
when thirsty
ask for water
Spend the night where possible
and every day ask
nine people about a person
with the same name as yours
with the same destiny as yours

The collages that accompany each poem are constructed from newspaper clippings, documents, cut outs, patterns formed with words or musical notation. Some are dedicated to individuals (sometimes presented as a profile portrait), others have a stark political feel, and yet others are abstract patterns. Together with his instructional verses, the effect is an elevation of the everyday and an imagining of a specific way of reacting to the world. As Ryan Scott explains in his Translator’s Note, in this work, Kolář is explicitly engaging with the materiality of language. He is inviting direct interaction with the immediate surroundings by calling attention to “the locus of speech, action and things.”

“Homage to T. S. E.” opposite an image titled To Michel Butor

As unusual as they are, many of the poems are oddly practical enough that they could serve as inspiration triggers. The language is spare, reasons and explanations are not offered, but therein lies the charm. Some are even strangely beautiful. Like Week 47, for instance, “Poem of Silence: For Emil Juliš”:

Collect
a pile of pebbles
and from them compose
anywhere

and with a title
pebble by pebble
as word by word
line by line

as verse by verse
a poetry poem

Exiled to Paris in 1980, as were many artists of his generation, Kolář returned frequently to Prague  after the Velvet Revolution, and spent his final years in the city. But born of a response the restrictions imposed under Communist occupation, A User’s Manual stands as a creative act of rebelllion that seeks a certain dignity in absurdity.  It makes a wonderful read, a fascinating visual experience, and would be a fine gift for an artistic friend.

A User’s Manual by Jiři Kolář with illustrations by the author, is translated by Ryan Scott, and published by Twisted Spoon Press.

In search of my own poetic voice: A few thoughts about writing poetry with a link to my work at Poetry at Sangam

a shiver of unease
runs its course across
my shoulders, shudders
down a rocky spine
to dissipate
through fissures
in this sleeping
mountain
mine

Over the past couple of years I have, often in defiance, insisted on writing about the poetry I read. At the same time, my focus in reading poetry has shifted, taking in more contemporary poets, as well as experimental and translated works. But I know nothing about formal analysis, and even less about how one might set out to write a poem. But I’ve not let that stop me from attempting the odd poetic effort, even if I always feel like I’m writing into the dark. Stumbling into it sideways.

This month I have the honour of having several of my poems included with some truly fine poets and translators in the latest issue of Poetry at Sangam. My contribution includes a photo essay originally published at RIC Journal, a piece I wrote after I returned from central Australia. I’d gone to hike the Larapinta Trail and arrived with a brutal head cold brewing, so hiking was limited, but in that magnificent ancient land I sensed the presence of my mother in a dream for the first time after her death the year before. This piece recounts that experience.

My three new poems, all touch on authenticity, the body, and gender identity—pretty typical terrain for me, but one that I am beginning to feel may be best explored in a poetic realm as I move toward other subjects in essay form because, as I explain in my introduction:

Poetry, fractured prose, and fables have begun to play a greater role in my writing repertoire by offering a space for me to explore the raw, the visceral, the discordant elements of my being from a distance. It still arises from my own emotional journey, sometimes riding close to the arc of my narrative reality, but I can be abstract, ambiguous or disassociated from the speaker or the subject as much as I want or need to be. Many of my poetic efforts gestate over long periods of time, moving in and out of first person, falling apart and coming back together as need be. But in the end, it is all trial and error. I don’t really know anything about writing poetry at all.

My full introduction and links to my poems can be found here. And be sure to check out the rest of this wonderful issue at the same time.

With thanks to my dear friend, Priya Sarukkai Chabria.