My heart struggles for voice: Sing of Life – Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

Around the world, many so-called literary classics are worked into educational curricula long before most students have the depth of life experience to fully appreciate them. How often have we heard (or said) I was put off this author or that work because we were forced to read it in school? But years later a revisit can open new doors, allow new light to enter. Even a piece of literature remembered as well received when one is young, will be met  with entirely new eyes decades later. Living informs the reading, alters the experience.

For countless students growing up in India, Rabindranath Tagore is one of those authors who might well be met with a mix of youthful admiration and obligation. I could not help but smile, then, when I read Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s account of her unexpected reunion with Tagore’s classic Gitanjali (Song Offering) when her husband picked it up off a bookshelf in a café in the village of Bir in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Before long, as she describes it, the small book was “spreadeagled” between the two of them on the table. With the Himalayas rising in the distance, she felt the words rise off the page and enter into her mind. Now, I must admit that I do know Priya and her husband, and that privilege that makes this image that much more endearing—the vision of a shared rediscovery, that will, in time, lead to the very text I now hold in my hands, her thoughtful and spirited new book Sing of Life: Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali.

The original text, subtitled A Collection of Prose Translations Made by the Author from the Original Bengali with an Introduction by W.B.Yeats, was first published in 1913. It is comprised of 103 short pieces adapted from a longer version originally composed in verse. The Indian poet, writer, composer, painter and social reformer is, as are many great figures, a complex and cherished individual. In her Introduction, Chabria provides a succinct overview of his political/historical context, offering a key to understanding his philosophical and artistic importance before examining some of the key poetic and spiritual features that come through, for her, in Gitanjali:

To my mind, Tagore is a modernist bhakti/devotional poet. Cosmic harmonies ring through the love that souses this collection, at once familiar and mysterious as the changing lines on one’s palm. A blessed geography of space is summoned from within the body’s cells and outside, and in every time, whether recollected, in the present, or yet to come.

There is an inherent intimacy and longing in these prose poems combined with imagery and voicing—including an “osmosis of gendering”—that draws on a long tradition of Indian devotional love poetry. To someone unfamiliar with the genre such as myself, it feels exotic and mysterious. Are they to be understood as love songs or prayers? To whom are we listening? My own modest Dover edition copy of Gitanjali, read rather haphazardly without guidance, could hardly be said to have put me on familiar terms with its magic. However, in moving between the haunting revisions and the original songs, I found myself drawn into a sort of conversation of echoes, bridging a century, through which I was free to discover the songs that most clearly and personally spoke to me.

Enter my heart unbidden
even unknown to me

The steps I heard
in my room are

the same that echo
from star to star (from #43, Sing of Life)

It is clear from the Introduction that although the desire to engage, notebook in hand, was an almost immediate response to her chance reencounter with a classic, this was not a project entered into lightly. Chabria details her approach, her reasoning and her own reassurance that Tagore would not have been at odds with her intention and her desire to reimagine his poems, to pull the essence to the surface while remaining faithful to the intent, beauty and spirit of each piece. Her touch is spare, delicate. Key images and phrases are held, perhaps moved, gently rearranged or opened up, inviting space and silence into the telling. Tagore’s appeal to the Beloved, his lord, through his speakers—male, female, young, old—is an intimate one. They are filled with longing, gratitude, grief, peace. The energy and imagery is allowed to breathe fully in the revised imaginings, but they are not altered or lost. It is a remarkable feat.

To offer a taste, #39 reads:

When the heart is hard
come with a shower

When grace is lost
come with song

When work raises its din
come with peace

When my heart crouches
come with light & thunder

– –

lord

of silence

break

open

the door

For point of reference, the first two lines of the original prose version reads: WHEN the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy. / When grace is lost from life, come with burst of song.

Chabria notes that she was first encouraged to publish an excerpt as an erasure poem, but she felt that particular form did not apply “for mine is a tribute.” Great poems, she says, often serve as a spark or inspiration for another poet. She was not attempting to update Tagore either, for the original meditations still contain their fire for her and for us, as anyone turning to the text reproduced in the back of this book can instantly see and feel for themselves. The rhythms, images and moods shift throughout the course of Tagore’s Gitanjali, moving through joy and shame, anticipation and longing, darkness and light. As the sequence nears its close, an awareness of death holds more and more of the poet’s attention. In the revisioned songs of Sing of Life, images and phrases are distilled, sometimes reorganized, and visually spread across the page (each poem contains two sections, with the first sentences offered in verse form and the final sentence strung out across several lines). One senses that Chabria has listened closely, carefully, so her responses may honour the elements that seem most essential, highlighting their beauty and emotional depth.

Ever the mark of rewarding read, my copy of Priya’s latest book is now decorated with notes and sprouting coloured tabs. As a friend, her voice accompanied through my reading (and I resisted watching one of the readings or interviews she has recorded—many available on YouTube) before gathering my thoughts here. I have never known her to engage with any subject, be it over coffee or in the pages of her own books, without a passionate and heartfelt intensity (Yeats was wrong in this regard, by the way, sometimes the best are filled with a passionate intensity). With Sing of Life, this singular energy again comes through, pulling the reader into a double-stranded engagement with Tagore’s classic work. As today’s poet invites you in to her own essential revisioning of these rich prose pieces, be it for the first or the fiftieth time, where the encounter takes you—perhaps back to the original and forward again, or on some other tangent altogether—is your journey.

Sing of Life: Revisioning Tagore’s Gitanjali by Priya Sarukkai Chabria is published by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications in India, and widely available internationally.

Every revolution is a child grown before fire: Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful by Rohan Chhetri

      For so long I felt he was dead
or so alive I couldn’t bring myself to imagine
his ruined light, & yet there he was, grinning,
the old boy so far inside him, just looking
into his face was a vertiginous drop down
the cool dark of an abandoned well, & him
a thin shade at the bottom among the bones.

                              – from “Sebastian”

Consider the title: Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful. The conjunction, or, carries the weight of invitation. And there is much stunning beauty to be found in the work of Nepali-Indian poet Rohan Chhetri, but also a heavy burden of loss and intolerable pain—often shocking in its sudden depiction or in its lingering aural presence. Intensity of images rooted primarily in the foothills of the eastern Himalaya runs up against layers of emotion barely articulated within tapestries that honour Western lyrical traditions. In awarding the original manuscript the prestigious Kundiman Prize, the Judges Citation recognizes that “Chhetri dramatizes and resists the ways language, and its implicit logic, limit what is possible within our most solitary reflections, defining even those ‘vague dreams’ that in the end we greet alone.”

Now this might seem an intimidating brief with which to open this commentary, but for a reader, no matter if their connection to poetry is casual or confident, there is a certain comfort with familiar forms, say an ode or a sonnet, that makes the turns and twists the themes take that much more striking. In conversation with his editor Kristina Marie Darling, Chhetri is asked about his approach and the value of encouraging this dialogue between inherited literary form and modern, experimental techniques. In his response he suggests that:

“my poetic impulse is a baroque one which is well suited to the syncretic, non-linear, anti-neocolonial poetics that can accommodate politics and revolution from the margins, the fabular, folk horror and mythology, the motif of katabatic descent, the marriage of the classical and the local etc. — all of this prismed through the multiple poetic traditions I write out of as a Nepali-Indian Anglophone writer.”

In this one, full-bodied sentence, the poet offers a clear sense of the mood permeating his work and the atmosphere that envelopes the reader travelling through it. His central point of reference is a borderland where many forces meet—literary, historical, lyrical—crossing lines, echoing long standing struggles over land, language and cultural autonomy. It exists on many levels, in the reality, in the imagining and in the documenting. When I look back across the poems in this slim volume I am reminded anew how grim they are, and yet what I remember is a certain beauty, a bone-deep fundamentalness of being. That is, I suppose, why the myths and fairy tales that enchant us also carry so much darkness and shadow.

Sorrow, absence, and death are never far from the surface in Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful. There is a strong sense of ancestral connection to the poet’s Nepali-Indian background, but the lyric voice is not personal until later, enhancing the mythological, even epic, quality of the poems. Time and again hints of smothered brutality give way to moments of unflinching violence—a violence that arises by both natural force and human design. It is a part of the philosophical/literary exercise at hand, but one that is rooted in historical, political and ethnic conflict. As Chhetri explains, in this book:

there is always that implicit tension between language and violence but it also plays out more overtly in a poem like “Lamentation for a Failed Revolution”, which recounts the events of the last iteration of the Gorkhaland Movement in 2017, a hundred-year-old movement demanding self-determination and a separate Indian state for the Nepali-speaking population in West Bengal.

Revolutions—as an extended legacy gifted from generation to generation—run through this collection. The stories of grandparents, parents, and children find expression as choral and individual voices rising in lament. Some losses are intimate and cumulative, others vivid and abrupt:

Another afternoon            a fifteen-year-old boy
Hear the bullet              thud to breast like second heart
pain’s rubbery percussion             the way he looked up
mouth a shucked-oyster wobble                   Alive
in the elongating horror

                          – from “Lamentation for a Failed Revolution”

In such moments, the dynamic relationship between language and violence is realized with such a sensitive touch—just the right phrase, spacing, word—that the impact is simultaneously personal and political. The broader implications of such moments of barbarity ripple out far beyond any border-straddling community, across state, national and international lines, to be echoed afresh in the ongoing conversation between form, content and technique.

As one would expect, the poems that comprise this collection draw much of their energy and atmosphere from rural imagery featuring forests, rivers and a frequent appearance of deer (causing me to think of Trakl for his fondness for the same motif). However, especially in the latter sections as a lyrical “I” begins to appear, the speaker finds himself in New Delhi and Los Angeles. Yet, as in earlier pieces, the environment is reflected from an array of unexpected angles. Set in LA, “The Intelligence of Hunger” finds the poet who was once able to sleep through earthquakes, gunfire and rampaging elephants, newly alive to noise and a fresh urban reality, hot and dry with fires burning in the hills:

Where I live now every sound I make is a half-note
of loss. The bare mountain withstands, drought-
ridden, the Pacific breaking froth at its feet.
The wind rasps through the chaparral & I think
of the fire followers waiting in their late style
of hunger. The giant coreopsis that will bloom
for three bright weeks in April. I wanted to write
about these. If not love. Wildflowers, not grief.

Yet in this landscape so distant from home, his pen still turns to grief, as the end closes in on a sharp imagination of agony and sacrifice. A mood that crosses miles in an instant.

It is difficult to emerge from this stunning collection unmoved. The language and the intensity of imagery speak to something very primal, human and strangely comforting. I find myself returning over and over again to marvel at how the concert of words plays out on each page. Strongly recommended.

Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful, the third collection by Rohan Chhetri, is published by Tupelo Press in the US and Harper Collins in India with a UK edition coming from Platypus Press in 2022.

Troubling the alphabet: Letters in Language by Harold Legaspi

What can a language reveal? What can it obscure? If your memories were birthed in one culture, can they be retrieved elsewhere? What is gained and what is lost when you migrate from one land to another, from one language to another? How does this shift affect the spelling and the telling of a life?

Wittgenstein’s aphorism: ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’ is false; there were thoughts that lacked words. We doused ourselves in neologisms. Dorothy repeating ‘there’s no place like home.’ A memory burn: the first time I saw a man kissing another man. (from Chapter 9)

The thirty-nine part prose poem that comprises Australian poet Harold Legaspi’s pocket-sized volume Letters in Language seem to dance around these questions, indirectly entertain them. Flirt and tease. Lean in closely. Look away. Catching, again and again, his own reflection.

Drawing inspiration from American Language poet Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Legaspi has entered into his own experimental autobiography. Hejinian’s ground-breaking work, as published in 1980,  featured thirty-seven non-narrative prose poems, each thirty-seven sentences long—one for each year of her life at the time of writing. A second edition, revisited the project, growing with the poet, to forty-five pieces of forty-five sentences each. These sentences refuse direct connection to one another, defying the sequential illusion of conventional life writing. How do we remember ourselves? In fragments and moments, yet somehow, through the translation into language, patterns  and a sense of wholeness emerges. But is it real?

To read My Life is to let the words, the sentences, flow over you. There is a continuity of voice, and of the nature of images that interconnect when memories arise—details of a childhood for example may include activities, rooms, sounds, objects, and observations from a mature vantage point—but the intentional corralling of these images into narrative form distorts the truths it endeavours to preserve. The reader is invited, not to interpret and decode, but to respond from their own experiences of life.

Letters in Language mines a similar domain—life lived—but within the context of a Filipino family, a displaced culture, and multifaceted  questions of identity. I don’t know the author’s age at time of writing, but he does not hold to constraints of length. Legaspi’s language is playful, sentences often clipped and short, with images drawn from pop culture, even current realities like Covid-19 tossed in. The lines tumble over one another, appear connected for a stretch and then not, punctuated with aphorisms, self-reflection, rhetorical questions. The sentences have a transitory relation to one another, as if meaning is, at any single moment incidental and yet sensible. Not unlike the way the fragments and pieces of our own lives are shuffled and reordered each time we pull a memory card from the deck. New contexts constantly reshape who we think we are, refashion our ever-fluctuating histories.

Ever present amid the poems that fill these pages is the author’s lola—his memories of his grandmother fuel his own. The opening sentence reads: “My lola swept autumn leaves with walis tiniting, burned them in a can, wearing her grand billowy housedress.” Walis tingting is a Tagalog word for a broom constructed of coconut midribs. It sweeps its way through Filipino households. Likewise, the expression sweeps its way through these poems—a recurring image or an action that seems to signify the way we sweep through our memories, sweeping some to the forefront, others under the rug.

I who thirsted for knowledge. My niche unknown. Underneath the black economy. Where dry spells quelled my dysphoria. Fixed under the shade of a Bodhi tree. Away from air-conditioned air. Reborn. Conquered. A tangential awakening. Slid straight through, vagina dentata. The tip of my bayonet inched in her spine. Folk tales whispered, they got rid of me efficiently, like a baby out with the dingo. My mother, no shrinking violet. Did what was necessary. To cover up the blame. Walis tingting. As for the men, whose words were carefully chosen—passed on their phobias. My uncles. After thirty-nine years of solitude. Raised me like their own. Classed as a freak, unable to procreate like their sons and daughters (from Chapter 26)

So who is the “I” who lurks in this extended prose poem? A poet who exposes himself through his passions—emotional, intellectual, sexual and spiritual—played out against a formative soundtrack of music, films and books; bound by friends and lovers, and framed within a multigenerational Filipino family. Letters in Language never drifts far from the unresolved reality of the migrant existence, from the feeling of being defined by and yet disconnected from a land that is now somehow alien. After his grandmother, his unaltered link to the Philippines, has passed, Legaspi becomes aware of a kind of anchorlessness. One that rests in language, between a present language that cannot contain the loss, and an ancestral one not comfortably in hand: “Where English was an oblique mirror to my alter ego. I found myself faint with anxiety, a fictional object my truth. A truth with no original, veiled, forsaking to journey where it all began.”  The need to acknowledge this fundamental lack of grounding is then reflected in the closing sections of this text. Chapters 34 to 37 are composed almost entirely in Tagalog, a shift accompanied by translated versions. Thus, of all the questions of identity that surface and resurface throughout this poem, it is the poet’s own bilingual identity that troubles the deepest waters. Casting uncertainty on what has come before. What, if anything, has remained unarticulatable? Lyn Hejinian’s original autobiographical project is essentially unfinished, with material appended over time. Like life. What of Letters? That is not a question to anticipate in advance. Like life.

Letters in Language by Harold Legaspi is published by flying island books, ASM, and Cerberus Press.

What have we done to our planet? Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change by Vinita Agrawal (ed)

The green recedes like a hairline,
blue, blue is our future. And the rains
come like an ominous doorbell. And the fire
comes like a lion devouring, and the earth’s despaired-rumble
in her belly. Under muted breath, Hindus mutter pralaya,
a continent slips through an orifice,
glaciers slide innocently into the sea like a friendly
handshake, and we leave the seventh cause of
climate change nameless.

– Usha Akella, “Adam Walking Backward”

It is either coincidental or inevitable that I started reading Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change on the same day the collapse of a Himalayan glacier and subsequent deadly flooding in Uttarakhand, India, made international news. I finished it to reports of the exceptional winter weather and power outages that left many Texans dead. Accounts of disappearing sea ice, habitat loss, raging fires, too much or too little moisture, extended tropical storm seasons and more have become a constant soundtrack, humming along beneath the chorus of a global pandemic, too insistent to ignore. Of course, countless industries and governments are doing their best to do just that, thus the importance of responses from a multitude of disciplines, including art and literature.

Open Your Eyes is one such effort. Edited by poet Vinita Agrawal and published in India, this attractive volume gathers poetic and prose reflections from a wide range of writers, from India and from around the world including Ranjit Hoskote, Ruth Padel, Abhay K, Anjali Purohit, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Ayaz Rasool Nazki, Barnali Ray Shukla, Esther Vincent Xueming, Indira Chandrasekhar, Kiriti Sengupta, Longbir Terang, Nabina Das, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Sophia Naz and many, many more. For a concern so commonly associated with young western activists, this anthology offers a broader, more diverse response to the threats facing our planet, something that is by no means the province of the young. The oldest contributor here is ninety-two year-old Jayanta Mahapatra who offers a new poem, the mournful “I Am Today,” to the project. He joins sixty-two others raising their voices to call attention to the reality and risks of climate change.

It is November.
You know it from the susurration of light –
unclotted light, its guest-like tone
On my nephew’s face
the light is like a muscle,
quickening as he pedals.
The sweat still a secret –
armpits fold of private skin.

He’s seven,
as old as the ancient duration of exile.
The world’s grown warmer since his birth.
That is all I’m able to say
when he points to graffiti on the way –
‘What is Global Warming?’

– Sumana Roy, “’Global Warming’”

Concern about the health of our planet and its inhabitants is hardly new. When I was growing up in Canada, during the 1960s and 70s and on into my university years, we fretted about overpopulation and starvation, pollution, acid rain and holes in the ozone. Today, as manmade threats to the earth are increasingly urgent, governments such as the provincial one I live under are almost hostile to the notion of “Global Warming” as if it is a notion dreamed up yesterday by nefarious enemies of Capitalism and the Economy. It’s not that simple.

Given the theme of this anthology, it is hardly surprising that natural imagery runs a strong course through many of the poems and stories that comprise this book—birds and insects, rivers and forests, floods and drought, violent storms and heavy silence. The gathered offerings are strong; these themes are explored with fresh energy, rarely slipping toward the cliched or the overly sentimental. Sorrow crossed with anger tends to be the driving force; an inclination to preach gives way to the power of the image. In Rohan Chhetri’s “Fish Cross the River in the Rain” for instance, the speaker and his father go down to a river where electrofishing is being practiced:

To stand on the wave-nipped bank as shoal
after stunned shoal heave their nets. The fish
wake older, dreaming brief new lives huddled
in a foreign prison gasping at each other’s
gills blinded like a sack of mirrors.

The poets and writers contributing their work to Open Your Eyes bring, along with love of language, a lived wisdom that informs their varied approaches to the theme. Theirs is a passionate and often surprising engagement with the crisis at hand—a willingness to engage with the past, speak to the present and envision the all-too-likely future, as Sudeep Sen illustrates in his striking “Disembodied” which opens:

My body carved from abandoned bricks of a ruined temple
.                                      from minaret shards of an old mosque
.           from slate-remnants of a medieval church apse,
                          from soil tilled by my ancestors.

My bones don’t fit together correctly       as they should—
the searing ultra-violet light from Aurora Borealis
.                            patches and etch-corrects my orientation—
magnetic pulses prove potent.

 

My flesh sculpted from fruits of the tropics,
.                                                        blood from coconut water,
skin coloured by the brown bark of Indian teak.

My lungs fuelled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air
.                         echo asthmatic, a new vinyl dub-remix.

His poem ends with a portrait of an ominous near future, or nearly present. The prose pieces which close out the book take, for the most part, a more explicit glance into a possible world to come, employing elements magic and speculative fiction to imagine more anxious allegories of what could lie ahead. Open Your Eyes is an important contribution to the growing literature addressing the reality of climate change, yet one has to ask, is a project like this a call to arms, or evidence that, in the wilderness, a chorus of voices were shouting even if we refused to listen? I know what it should be.

Walking along the beach in Kochi with a friend we watched dogs searching among the refuse, trash and plastic washed upon the shore.

*

Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change is edited by Vinita Agrawal and published by Hawakal Publishers. I will confess that I ordered this book (which appears to be readily available outside India) because a number of my friends have work included within its pages, but that, in the end, turned out to be a welcome door to discovering many writers I might not have encountered otherwise.

The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’: Porcelain by Durs Grünbein

In the winter when cupola and dome are white with snow,
the ravaged city fills my soul with shame, simply shame.
Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael—then nothing more to show…
Your downfall is the stuff of trashy melodrama.
How long ago was that? Don’t ask me, I can’t say.
The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’. (8)

The German city of Dresden, once known as Florence on the Elba, was long renowned for its Baroque architecture and pleasant climate. The Allied air raids that began on February 13, 1945 rapidly reduced this jewel to an eerie landscape of hollow structural supports rising out of a sea of rubble. 25,000 souls were lost in the firestorm and it would take decades to clean up and restore the damaged structures.

Buildings can be rebuilt, but the legacy of the bombing of Dresden is complex. The action was met with controversy among Allied forces, the losses exaggerated for effect by the Nazis, and the destruction doubly symbolic—first of German suffering in the war, second of lingering guilt. So, there is no one black-and-white way to understand this event, a reality that German poet Durs Grünbein explores in his book-length cycle, Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City. What began in 1992 as an annual ritual to mark the anniversary of the bombing, would eventually be published in 2005 as a sequence of forty-nine ten-line poems, rhymed and classical in form. Now, seventy-five years after the fateful air raids, the first English edition has been released with extensive notes, extra images and an additional, newly composed poem, translated and introduced by Karen Leeder.

Born in Dresden in 1962, Grünbein grew up amid the physical and psychological ruins of his hometown, surrounded by the historical and symbolic weight it carried, but without claim to any direct experience of the devastation. This temporal and emotional distance colours his poetic reflections while offering a double-edged sword to his critics—he was accused of both daring to intrude on the suffering of others and failing to do justice to the true horrors the city endured. In anticipation of this, the opening lines of the first poem in his sequence read:

Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone
when your little light first appeared on the scene.
Moist eyes are not the same as grey hair, son. (1)

Right away he is giving space to his would-be detractors and the lines that follow set the tone for what will not be a straightforward elegiac exercise.

As Grünbein strives to make sense of the bombing of Dresden—poem by poem, across the span of more than a decade—he allows multiple voices, angles and perspectives to appear, shifting moods and tones to rise and fall. However, his concern with the role of the poet as “a keeper and creator of memories” remains his central focus. For too long, mourning for the shattered city had been coloured by the motivations of political interests—Porcelain can be seen as an effort to challenge and release that grief.

Fragmented and lyrical, the work is infused with historical figures and references. The city’s character is often evoked, sometimes personified, sometimes in imagined vignettes, while the fine porcelain for which Dresden is famous is a recurring motif—intact and shattered.

Swans adorned the dinner service made for Count von Brühl—
flawless just like them you were: proud, curvaceous pin-up girl.
But it almost struck you dumb with shock when the fish,
the shells and dolphins shattered into smithereens,
sinking into the depths where no word could reach.
Who would hide munitions in porcelain tureens? (45)

Grünbein also draws on his literary forbears throughout these poetic illuminations, but by far his closest companion is Paul Celan. The ghost of the Holocaust poet haunts this cycle, directly and indirectly.

The forty-nine (plus one) poems that comprise Porcelain explore the complex layers of loss, meaning and memory and together form a rich meditation on war, destruction and the question of who owns suffering. It is not a dirge but a human reckoning. The presentation of this anniversary edition is both handsome and sombre, while Karen Leeder’s translation gives the poetry an immediate, grounded feel and the detailed glossary and notes provide context, as required, to enhance the reading experience.

Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City by Durs Grünbein is translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.

Art and poetry meet online: Ignite from with in the confines

In late September a wonderful artist friend of mine, Deepa Gopal, invited me to participate in an online exhibition featuring eight artists and eight poets. The past few months have  been rather dry for me creatively for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is this extended period of pandemic living. And that was the spark of inspiration for this unique show.

Each artist contributed five pieces of art inspired by, or in keeping with, the theme IGNITE-from within the confines. Each poet was then paired with an artist and asked to contribute five new or recent poems with at least one written in direct response to one or more of the pieces. I was immediately inspired by the work of my partner, Dubai based Peruvian artist German Fernandez and wrote four new poems, companions to specific images and added one more piece written earlier this year. It was a lot of fun and I look forward to seeing our work together, as well as the contributions of my fellow artists and poets as the show rolls out over the following eight days.

I hope you will come and see this unique collaboration. Links for our blog, Instagram account and YouTube channel are below.

SCHEDULE – IGNITE-from within the confines-
5 NOV to 12 NOV 2020 – 4 pm (UAE time/GMT+4 hrs) every day

ARTIST and POET profile on official blog (2 blog posts)

ART & POEM on YouTube (one video)
– one artwork and one poem –

will be published on Facebook and Instagram too

As of today, November 10, my poetry can be found here.
German Fernandez’ profile and artwork can be found here.

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Official Blog: https://ignitefromwithintheconfines.blogspot.com/
Official Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ignite.fwtc.2020/
YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClJQhklsmPqHkaU6FmMmhEA/featured?view_as=subscriber

Dark folksongs for a new millennium: I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other by Ulrike Almut Sandig

we don’t know each other yet. I don’t even know
myself. every morning I get up and I don’t have a clue:
is it me, Almut? Ulrike? just who was that child under
its mother’s skirts? I am the mother, I am the daughter
I am the shadow for you to hide beneath

No question here. This is German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig, an artist for whom performance and collaboration—with other poets, musicians and filmmakers—is very important. She is a literary multi-instrumentalist and that sensibility colours her very distinctive poetry. From the outset, her approach was less than conventional. She began by pasting her poems to lampposts and distributing them as flyers and free postcards—reaching out to those resistant to poetry by making it readily accessible through the use of familiar images, comforting rhythms and experimental presentation. Yet, like the traditional folktales from which she derives so much of her inspiration, Sandig’s simple, fanciful poems hide a darkly serious heart. Beneath the allure and beauty of her language, her work boldly addresses some of the most important political issues of the day.

The whimsically titled I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other is her second collection to be released in English translation, following 2018’s much more modestly named Thick Of It. Both works are translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books. The title not only reflects the names of the sections within the book, but is contained and echoed in a couple of pieces. As with her earlier volume, tracks and traces wind their way through her poetry, sowing connections, entertaining dialogue, evoking natural and fantastic elements, and openly comment on modern warfare, the misuse of science, the fate of migrants, and the rise of Right Wing sentiments. She is like a bright radical spirit emerging from a world of shadowy forests and bleak fairy tales.

Compared to Thick of It (reviewed here) which was originally published in German in 2011, I am A Field which originally appeared five years later (2016) is a much more complex and unapologetically political exercise. ballad of the abolition of night (Sandig’s titles are always presented in bold either as headers or within the text—a convention I will hold to here) bluntly depicts instances of torture reported in American “Black Sites” or detainee camps, each verse beginning with the refrain

underneath the utterly cloudless sky
of a state lagging somewhat behind
on the historical timeline of our kind
in a camp for detainees

and each situation, so uncomfortably familiar from the news, loses none of its horror in poetic form.

The fate of refugees fleeing twenty-first century conflict is another theme that reappears several times throughout. This is captured with particular power in almost thirteen questions about Idomeni, 2016 AD. Based on an article about an expanding community of migrants trapped on the Greek border, it begins:

and what if love is not the answer after all?
and what if that dove doesn’t go out and
fetch the first leaf it finds and bring it
back as a sign: land in sight? and what if
there’s no daylight on the waters ahead
but instead just women and children
sinking? and what if there’s not a single
jot of good Deutsch to be found in this
Land of mine, but tarred and feathered
pity as a hyperlink, until I go and forget
my own language too?

Unforgiving in its sentiment, the poem highlights apathy and an unwillingness to engage with the plight of the migrants one way or another, ending with reference to the gorier original version of Cinderella:

coocoo, coocoo Idomeni, there’s blood in
the shoe. I wash my hands in the rain.

At the end of the day, there’s no question who will be disfigured and who will feign innocence.

As in Sandig’s earlier work, European folklore is an important influence—she reimagines nursery rhymes and fairy tales and, along with a fondness for lowercase letters and limited punctuation, this lends a magical atmosphere to her poems. However, not unlike the tradition she is calling on, these elements often serve as the perfect vehicles to explore the brutality of human nature. In I Am a Field, this aspect is pronounced with the inclusion of the “Grimm” cycle which is explicitly based on tales from The Children’s and Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm which, in their unsanitized original versions, could be gruesome and unsettling to say the least. In Fitcher’s Bird, for example, she gives poetic voice to the young woman who disguises herself to rescue and reanimate her older sisters who’ve been murdered and dismembered by an evil sorcerer:

I dipped myself in
a barrel of honey
slit open the bed and
rolled in the feathers.
now I am an odd
bird, nobody
knows me, I
scarcely know
myself. a globe is
stuck in my throat
I can’t get it down:
a monstrous great
round chamber
of wonders racing
through the dark.

Yet, in rescuing her sisters, the narrator is extending her intention to heal all who have been butchered. Other poems in this cycle evoke drone warfare, IS converts, and the reality of life for migrants in Germany and other contemporary realities. In her generous end notes which provide basic background, as needed, to the political and/or lyrical inspiration of many of the pieces, translator Karen Leeder indicates that knowledge of the fairy tales is not necessary to appreciate the Grimm poems, but that German readers might identify intertextual phrases and references even if their origins might not be immediately recognized. And since many of the stories may be lesser known, her short notes offer a little guidance to any interested reader who wishes to know more. She  adds:

The German word “Grimm” also, however, means rage: a rage that permeates the cycle as a reaction to the darkness in the collective German consciousness.

I would suggest that some of that rage underscores much of the collection as a whole, as an invigorating energy that refuses to be silenced. There is beauty and ugliness here, balanced against anger and hope: a collection as strange and strangely intriguing as its wonderfully eccentric title.

I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other by Ulrike Almut Sandig is translated from the German by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.

Everything sings if you listen hard: A History of What I’ll Become by Jill Jones

I want to say that this is not poetry for the young. Of course anyone can read it, admire the wit and the wordplay, lose track of the number of perfect lines that emerge, page after page. But there is something else. I looked back to my review of one of Jones’ earlier books Brink, my introduction to her work and to date the only one of her many collections I’ve been able to readily obtain. I was surprised to see my response to that work so very closely echoed my reaction to this book two years on. My review reflects the fact. From the mention of a conversation I had with Caribbean-Canadian poet NourbeSe Philip about how, at its best, poetry comes from lived experience, and decades of it, to the way I found in the queerness of Jones’ poems a rare, even unlikely, resonance with my own strangely gendered history. These very same ideas came to mind when I started thinking about how to write about A History of What I’ll Become, but I can’t simply tread the same paths again. And fortunately, I don’t have to.

As her twelfth full-length book of poetry, this new collection carries many of the threads that thrilled me in her earlier work, qualities of her poetic sensibility no doubt, but somehow it feels larger, bolder, more intense, and yet as wise, linguistically playful and physically fragile. At times I am aware that I don’t know enough about the craft of writing poetry to appreciate the forms, inspirations and influences she may be drawing on. I notice the improvisations and the poems constructed of her own dismantled and reorganized present and earlier material. But what’s important is the final measure; what comes across on the page. That’s what matters. I read, write about and even occasionally write poetry in appreciative ignorance. I attend to the impact of the emotion, the power of the word. And there is something thrillingly immediate in Jones’ language. She knows how to “listen hard” for the song; there are stanzas and passages in which I instantly recognize my own existence. Strangely (or perhaps not so), I feel comforted and challenged to be able to grow older in her poetic company.

There’s nothing sacred about me.    I was born under stars
that kept moving.   Outside I could smell lost temperatures
stolen dust    my blood tainted with history.
But here I am without a prayer    looking for gods in everything
that’s melting.   I watch the littlest sparrow.   It knows
where the crumbs are.

– from “This Crumbling Aura”

Jones’ native habitat tends to be urban, domestic but not domesticated. Backyards and city streets. Places for coming together, in the passions of remembered youth or the sensuous intimacy of long-term loving. Spaces for fracturing and falling apart, relationships and bodies fragmenting against the passage of time. If Brink was a more intentionally ecopoetic exercise—natural imagery and elements are a significant presence—I want to say that, in A History, nature rides on a deeper, personal, existential current. Nature reflecting the poet back to herself.

I’m less articulate than grass.
I hobble on my syllables
hoping something will surrender
a thought, maybe, a kindness,
a practicality.
A gap in the trees before sunset
does more.

The wind picks up
as the horizon I stare at
slips away from
the slope of today’s sun.
In some places there are no days.
I could write it down
but who knows what colour
anything is?

– from “A Gap in the Trees”

Yet what strikes me most in this book is the sensation of being alive, of life as it stretches out and shapes us from the time we are born—our temperaments, genders, identities, attractions—to a growing awareness of our limitations, aging, death. This is very much an embodied process, or rather, a coming to peace with the body, a learning to live with one’s body. I’m not certain this can ever be but a lifetime journey, one with different stages, elements and aspects. Not over until its over, perhaps. But it also exists apart from the body, in our memories, our expectations and our dreams. In our own histories of what we will become. That is the force that drives this collection for me, reinforced through the recurrence of lines in the “Improvising” series that runs throughout, and in the pieces that appear at the halfway mark, especially this, “Dream Home” which begins:

I sometimes dream of always dreaming.
I don’t think of that as death. But when will I wake?
When will I turn to you, go to you, come to you,
carrying night with me, the things I can’t tell?
   (As if it’s loss that remains, that no tongue
    can assemble within daylight.)
Maybe this dreaming is the immortal body,
dormant except in sleep, a kind of bliss that evaporates
each day, a kind of dread that escapes the waking
of shape and sinew.

And ends with the couplet:

To wake is not the opposite of dreaming.
To dream is to be unowned by anything but the dream.

Or, to be honest, where else but in sleep can we truly surrender to a dream? In waking life, especially these days, too many uncertainties persist. Dreaming is possibly that place in which time can extend in more than one direction, often simultaneously, making this poem a perfect point of balance for collection that looks to the past and the future, with room for both heady nostalgia and lingering uncertainty. But then, that’s just my reading. I would encourage you to entertain your own.

A History of What I’ll Become by Jill Jones is published by UWA Publishing.

A timeless immediacy: Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved by Adeeba Shahid Talukder

At this moment, as the world grapples with a rapidly spreading virus, two contradictory impulses can be observed: borders are being reinforced around nations in the interest of isolation from without and within, while simultaneously, we are observing unprecedented international scientific collaboration. On the ground level, class differences and prejudices can be augmented and yet, to defeat COVID-19, it will be necessary to rise above them.

On the individual level, to get through the difficult months ahead, those who find their regular lives upended are looking to find ways to occupy, distract and comfort themselves. That is, however, not always easy. If some avid readers are finding themselves struggling to settle into a novel or a work of nonfiction, that’s where poetry can offer respite.

But how are we to read poetry in a time of disruption, uncertainty, and exceptional circumstances? Do we look to contemporary voices, or to those from the past—classical themed works that have echoed down the years, the centuries, speaking to love and loss, peace and war, and everything in between?  Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, the new collection by Pakistani-American poet, translator and ghazal singer Adeeba Shahid Talukder, offers, in its own unique way, a blend of both. This collection, reaches across vast distances to call on traditional tales, and iconic Persian and Urdu poetry, and bring it home and into the present day, into the lived reality of a young Muslim American woman’s experience of life in New York City.

New York City. When Talukder composed these poems, and when I first read them, who could have known that before I would write my reflections on this book, NYC would have become the epicentre of a global pandemic? In some ways the altered circumstances imbue certain pieces with a new aura; in other ways, nothing changes at all because so many of these poems deal with those elements of growing up and coming into one’s own that are at once smaller and greater than any global catastrophe.

In her Preface, Talduker acknowledges her influences, a litany of prominent Persian and Urdu poets who have formed and informed the way she views the world. They include Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Allama Iqbal, Mirza Sauda, Noon Meem Rashid, Ibn-e-Insha, Agha Shahid Ali and more. Her intimate knowledge of the literary traditions and poetic forms is evident and effortless, but her objective is broader. She seeks:

to defend and decolonize this universe—its beauty, its grandeur, its intellectual feats. At the same time, I defy the patriarchy of it, the patriarchy with which so much of literature is cursed.

That is an admirable objective—to honour and challenge a world so thoroughly dominated by the male voice. And yet it is that strong modern feminine presence that makes this collection so powerful.

Written over the span of a decade, there is an ongoing theme, developed throughout the course of Shar-E-Jaanaan, of a young woman’s experience navigating the dynamics of her immigrant family and their expectations, coping with questions of identity and self-esteem, exploring sexual independence and romance, and, finally, falling in love with a white, non-Muslim man. While grounded, or often returning, to an urban American setting, she effortlessly draws on the beauty, passion and tragedy of classical imagery and legends, passed down in Persian and Urdu poetry, often writing in response to specific lines or images from the ghazals of Faiz, Ghalib and others. However, rather than being restrained by her benefactors, she is buoyed by their legacy. The result is a work of remarkable elegance.

The first poem “When in the dark / my mind brightened” opens with a stark confession that sets the tone for the collection that will follow:

I realized I could no longer
wait to be beautiful. Thus, I pushed
bangles upon bangles
onto my wrist, rubbing
my hands raw with metal
and glass.

Each time a bangle broke, I watched
the blood at my veins
with a grim face,
feeling more like a woman.

It ends with the speaker’s mother, facing her maturing, possibly troubled, daughter with terror. The first section, “The Wine Cup” returns to the tension between mother and daughter through a sequence clearly set in Manhattan that closes with a classic maternal concern: You’re getting older, and there are such few boys.

Traditional elements, and poetic influences become more evident from the second section on. Her notes at the end of the book introduce the stories from which she draws inspiration and acknowledge the poetic lines woven into, or referenced, where relevant, so familiarity with Urdu literature is not necessary, but some background would certainly further enrich the experience. She calls on several epic themes, with the seventh-century Arab legend of the ill-fated lovers Laila and Qays notably surfacing in a number of pieces. In this tale, when Qays, a poet, is forbidden to marry his beloved beauty, he takes to running through the streets calling her name and composing love poems. His erratic behaviour earns him the nickname Manjoon, or madman, and he is forced into exile.

Other poems incorporate lines, or images drawn from one or another of her literary touchstones. In the light of the current state of the world, “If It Were (after Ghalib)” seem especially poignant now that I return to it:

The hospital sheets cover my face. No one sees. My eyes are closed, my
hands spread like a hem. The walls white like jasmines.

I sing: I would die happily, if it were once.

The patients’ quarters are hushed but I can hear his breathing, the
way he smiles into my neck and ear. In each room, his bulk rises
and falls beneath the thin blankets. In each room, his face in the blue
light. I scream and scream.

His arrow was half-drawn. The liver aches, anticipating its touch.

The scale cannot measure my weight. I am a goddess; the sickle moon
and East River are mine to feed. I shred all the roses, let the torn petals
fall all over the tiles.

The true context of this poem will later come clear in the titular sequence, “Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved”, the centrepiece of the book . It opens with a reference to the events that followed the assassination of Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, on December 27, 2007 and its very personal impact, halfway across the world:

At December’s end Benazir died
in a suicide attack.

                             Men burned

tires, cars, banks,
petrol pumps and factories

Perhaps in grief.

The nights in New York
were clear, cold

and I read Faiz
in a way I never would

again. In Washington Square,
the benches were empty.

What follows is a harrowing account of the speaker’s descent into madness, accompanied in her mania, by God and her poetic saints, culminating eventually in hospitalization and echoing back to the poem I quoted above. It’s devastating, horrifying and strangely familiar, but on my first encounter I did not recognize it for what it really is.

Talukder’s poetry frequently captures the dramatic sweep from ecstasy to despair, an element I read as an attraction to the  heightened intensity of desperate romance, loss, madness, and suicide (real or threatened) that features in so many traditional Asian legends. I could not help, for instance to note how often reference to the story of Laila and Manjoon appears. But until I read an interview with the poet, I was unaware of her own personal bipolar history and her desire, through her writing, to break down some of the misunderstanding and stigma she has faced. Looking back, that explains some of the unspoken level of attraction I felt to these elements in my initial reading, for I, too, am bipolar—this kind of emotional instability is more than poetic for me, it is real. I’ve known madness and hospitalization myself.

This is a collection that came to me, unexpected, through a publisher’s inquiry. The appeal was, first and foremost, to the language and the poet’s connection to Persian and Urdu literature, something my travels and connections in India have started to bring to my attention. The true beauty here, though, lies in the fluid crossing of borders—of language, nation, era and gender—not as an act of re-imagining or re-purposing, but a full-bodied act of translating a rich literary heritage into something new, vital. In this respect, among the illustrious Urdu forebearers of this young Pakistani-American woman, the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali holds special relevance. His body of work spoke to both sides of his life and identity, to both of the homes he knew, but he was able to address that space where the two meet—the hyphen.

The maturity and diversity displayed in Shahr-E-Jaanaan is impressive, a testament to the many years over which it came into being (her first book, What is Not Beautiful was also written and released during this period). In our rapidly evolving new world, Adeeba Shahid Talukder is a poet, and performer, to watch.

Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved is published by Tupelo Press.

Letters to a distant shore: A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett

I have spent most of my life landbound, far from open water. As a result, oceans and seas have always held a special fascination for me—those distant horizons, blue fading into blue, and endless watery expanses. Similarly, poetry inspired by ocean imagery has invariably captured my imagination and that’s what I suspected Australian poet Felicity Plunkett’s new collection, A Kinder Sea, with its stylized black and white wave-decorated cover might offer. And it does, but of course it is so much more. It is a rich and generous exploration of an ocean of skeletal fragments, human longings, and loved and forgotten souls.

Written over a period of seven years, the poems in this book seem to come together around their uniting element in an organic, interactive manner, forging connections and participating in debate with one another along the way. There is a clear sense, then, of a creative ebb and flow that runs through the collection. Referring to Paul Celan’s depiction of poems as “making their ways to readers like letters in bottles,” Plunkett describes her new work as “a book of unspoken hopes, un-mourned losses, of mute and unprayable prayers and letters never sent.”

If the poems that comprise A Kinder Sea arose, as their author indicates, over time, in conversation with one another, as missives in search of readers, they also exist in dialogue with artists and poets from whom Plunkett draws inspiration. Early on, Celan’s quote referring to poems as bottled messages, serves as the epigraph for the multi-part piece, “Glass Letters”. Twelve aching, embodied and intimate poetic communiqués follow:

This morning want-of-you has left me.
I test for its absence, press bruises, look clear

in the sea’s flat glass. No sign of storm’s spines:
sharp possibilities. Disturbance has bled

itself out. Shaken wordless, I wash syllables
in salt, trace remembered promises to

the place where they rolled in foam. You
erase waves from our correspondence:

excise agitation.

The palette she paints from is one of varied, often melancholy colours. Poets, most notably Emily Dickinson and Celan, but also Rilke, William Carl Williams, Sylvia Plath and others offer epigraphs, allusions and inspiration, alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Neil Young.

Felicity Plunkett writes with a formal sensibility and delicate precision, her language seems to register, not simply in the ear or the imagination of the reader, but on the very surface of the skin. One senses that each word, each line has been carefully honed to cast a reflection at once sharp and shifting—much like the surface of the sea. As in her award winning debut, Vanishing Point where flakes appear as a recurring image, in A Kinder Sea, there is, apart from the obvious connecting feature, a bone-level awareness and an existential grammar awash in the waves—the abstracted self as body and language. Consider the hospitalized speaker’s lament in “Songs in a Red Key”:

Conduct a river in plastic over
my shoulder through an elbow’s fold
My shroud stretches to fray
translucent at its seams, rolled
soft by the smooth stones
of a queue of injured
bones: white-gowned, awkward

-ly sheeted  nativity
angel, nameless, I shepherd
drip chamber and tremble-wheel
trolley across night’s locked ward
jitter this tangle through
silence: my hubris muted
below drug’s sea levels

Or the epistle to a secret, perhaps doomed, addressee in “Strand”:

Nothing to say when words lose their letters
in winter. Letter’s spines dismantle
in my silent hand.

I hear your name in a dream of sea. Dream
my secrets fall from my mouth, braced
neat as pearls

Broken mirror, split salt, opened
umbrella. Salt rain broke and I thought no
harm could come to you.

But, of course, the sea is the primary note sounding through this collection, sometimes as a passing metaphor, sometimes as a broader backdrop, and in one set of poems, as a vast, inviting, yet often unforgiving space that has drawn daring souls to adventure, even death. The sequence “In Search of the Miraculous” contains some of my favourite pieces: “Equal Footing Mermaids” honouring Donald Crowhurst, the British businessman who died competing in a single-handed round-the-world yacht race in 1969, and “Disappearing Act” in memory of Dutch-born film maker and performance artist, Bas Jan Ader, who was lost at sea in what would be his final performance, an intended solo voyage across the Atlantic. These poems speak to the romance of the sea that has always held a particular allure, in art and literature, for a landbound soul like myself.

A Kinder Sea has rightly been referred to as a masterpiece. It is certainly a testament to Plunkett’s ability to evoke recurring themes in a constellation of image and form that remains fresh, never predictable. And, like the ocean itself, there is an unmeasurable depth to this collection, one that invites slow, thoughtful engagement.

A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett is published by University of Queensland Press.