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.

As long as I live in poetry: Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen

Just one more page left
one more paragraph, one more sentence—
give me one more word, dear nurse,
just one more day.
.        – from “The Lamp”

Nabaneeta Dev Sen (1938-2019) the much loved and highly respected Bengali author, scholar and feminist was a versatile and prolific writer whose extensive bibliography includes fiction, essays, children’s literature, travelogues, political columns and more. However, throughout her life she identified herself as a poet, first and foremost. As the daughter of two acclaimed poets, she began writing poems when she was a young child. In her comprehensive Introduction to the present collection, her daughter Nandana Dev Sen—not a poet herself, but a writer, actor and activist—reflects on the way poetry served as a vital and constant companion, one that was not always easy to satisfy. As Nandana records, in her mother’s own words:

“Poetry is like war,” she wrote. “A war with oneself. Finally, only when there is victory and peace, poetry follows. Poetry has to be earned.”

This sentiment can be felt in the clarity and precision that marks her work.

Acrobat presents a selection of poems that span Dev Sen’s career from the late 1950s through to 2019. It is very much a labour of love between a mother, the poet, and a daughter, the translator. Although she would not live to see the final publication, Nabaneeta Dev Sen was very excited about this book which would be her very first major release from a western publisher. She was gravely ill but undaunted when the project began and while translations of some of her poems already existed, she desired newer versions. A modest list of poems was compiled, but that was as far as mother and daughter could go together. Nandana translated those pieces and many more over the following months, gathering them together with a number of poems her mother had translated herself, a few that she had written in English, and one translated by her sister, Antara Dev Sen. Her Introduction includes a biography, personal in tone, and a discussion of the challenges of translating poetry and the considerations she followed when bringing her mother’s Bengali into English.

When presenting work drawn across a period of six decades, there is a common tendency to allow the date of publication to dictate the order. In Acrobat, however, the poetry of Nabaneeta Dev Sen is sorted along thematic lines. The book is divided into five sections, each named for a phrase pulled from one of the poems within it. A chronology is included at the back so one can, as I did, check to see the decade a particular poem belongs to. Such an organic approach makes for a wonderful reading experience, allowing one to appreciate the way the poet’s work visits and revisits similar subjects over the span of her life, with styles and perspectives shifting over time and place. Dev Sen married young and spent her twenties and early thirties living in the US and UK where her academic work eventually drew her away from poetry for a while. In 1974, when her marriage to economist Amartya Sen began to falter, she returned home to Kolkata. As a newly single mother with two daughters amid the scandal of divorce, poetry took on a new importance as a personal space in which to explore her pain, her identity, and her place in the world. In contrast to her scholarly writing which was primarily in English, for almost all of her creative work, she made the “political” decision to write in Bangla—not only a reflection of her feminist values and her language activism but as a voice for deeper emotional exploration and observation.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poetry, to my reading, is distinguished by an alertness to the moment in all its strangeness and wonder. She is attuned to the anxieties and the triumphs of life, distilling key elements into vivid images. This is beautifully illustrated in an early poem, “The Great Fair” that appears in the first section which revolves around the notion of time. The speaker is waiting with a cup of saved coins for an adult who has promised to return to take her to the Great Fair. She lists wonderous toys and treasures she expects to be able to buy, but:

As I waited on my steps
My limbs grew long
My list blew away in the wind
My cup of change became a trunk of gold.

There is nothing left for me to buy
From your Great Fair anymore.

I am going to get up from my steps now

There is a remarkable sadness and defiance in the voice of the speaker; that complicated mix of emotion that comes with growing up, letting go of, or seeing through, the illusions of childhood.

As a passionate advocate for the preservation of Indian tongues, a translator and a promoter of the voices of women, it is not surprising that poetry, words and language, frequently appear as subjects in Dev Sen’s poems. She approaches the theme with humour, with elegance and with pain. “The Year’s First Poem,” for example, begins:

Pretending
as if nothing at all has happened,
picking up the heart
from the sand, dusting it clean
pushing it back inside my blouse
secretly, the first year’s poem gets written.

Other themes that resurface include identity, relationships with others, and a search for deeper truths in life. These are, of course, not unique as poetic topics. It is the distinctive voice, the vulnerability and the openness that combine to make the poems in this collection so strong. But, more than that,  Nandana Dev Sen’s translations and her loving curation of this volume—which opens with an Introduction that is both biography and translator’s note and closes with an open letter to her mother—makes Acrobat at once a beautiful memorial that honours Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s life and spirit and a vital introduction to her poetry for English-speaking readers.

Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen is translated by Nandana Dev Sen and published by Archipelago Books.

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.

I am the hard one: Outgoing Vessel by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

destructive is my normal state (37)

Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen is a singular force of poetic vision. Intense, strident, futuristic. Outgoing Vessel, newly released from Action Books, is the follow up to her award-winning Third-Millennium Heart, a powerful reading experience I loved so much that I responded in verse with an experimental review published here (open the PDF to read). Translator Katrine Ogaard Jensen is on board again for this new journey and, as with her previous work, Outgoing Vessel unfolds over a sequence of poetic movements to form a 193-page, book-length poem that is both epic and operatic in scope. I was not surprised to learn that Olsen is also a librettist. As with her earlier project, the “singer” here is an enigmatic narrative force—perhaps the same one, I don’t know, though I hear a companion rather than a continuation myself.

no one except me can hate feelings
anyone else who claims to hate feelings:
let it be known how they still succumb to them
anyone else who claims to hate feelings:
let it be known how they, in weak moments
open up to them and

and become soft with longing

among all time’s winners
i am the hardest (8)

The early suites of Outgoing Vessel seem charged with negative energy, often erupting in harsh declarations of hatred that begin with the self and extend outward.  The voice is hard, constrained. Darkness and destruction are evoked frequently. Yet the motion is self-driven, Olsen owns her language, and the direction she is moving toward (and expecting others to align with) is not symbolic, but it is futuristic. She seems to be intent on encasing her darker, grieving being, containing it inside a container—described as an orb:

which I will send off as the outgoing
vessel that it is
after which the new human can arrive in its

incoming (48)

Third-Millennium Heart built on a tension between the clinical and the organic, pregnant with promise, anger and grief, rupturing ultimately into a powerful post-human feminist vision—one which gives birth to the possibility of a cyborg-like hive-heart existence. Heart’s speaker devoured and contained. Vessel’s is more isolated, inward focused and philosophical. Pain, grief, and an existential disconnection drive her rhythmic reasoning as she moves toward the foundation of a technological ontology, a science fiction solution, and a re-imagining of a new human beingness.

we must assume there is an original alienation:
first the estrangement, a person, a stranger to themselves
stranger to others, the person exists deep inside their
distant interior, without knowing, they must escape to the
surface, from inside, to become human (108)

The futuristic tone becomes more prevalent as the sequence progresses, propelled in no small part by the “technoscientic” poems that close each section of the work. As translator Katrine Øgaard Jensen explains in her note, Olsen “created these poems by piecing together lines from each suite, running the text through multiple languages in Google Translate, translating it back into Danish via Google Translate” then, from the resulting document, the final piece was created employing a cut-up method. This mechanical process allows for a new tone, energy and uncertainty to enter the cycle (not mention an added challenge for the translator to meet in a satisfactory measure):

human nature
in the coffin, a
relic, collection of Bones and Hair
encapsulated and stored in
a humane vacuum

this is
the refuge (94)

The strange brutality of Olsen’s poetry, the slogan-like chants, and the tightly-honed anger can be off-putting, but as with Third Millennium Heart, I find it oddly therapeutic. Anger in its shades and intensities can be a positive force—it is the healing movement of the cycle of grief, it pushes you forward, up and out of the sandpit of sadness that follows loss, trauma, heartache. It sounds counter-intuitive but I saw it many times working with survivors of acquired brain injury. Yet it is hard to allow it in oneself, for fear it will erupt in uncontrollable ways. Through the course of Outgoing Vessel we witness the speaker’s emergence as a voice of concern, intent on invalidating loneliness—through her outgoing/incoming vessel she comes to a radicalizing understanding of empathy and experience.

Olsen is a poet who, as her translator Jensen freely admits, cannot be neatly and directly rendered into English—her work is highly inventive, rife with cultural references, puns, neologisms, and experiments with language. Rather than attempting to produce an exact copy, Jensen aims to stay true to the “spirit of the work,” allowing it to find its own form in translation. This is, it turns out, an ideal approach for a poet who sees her own  work as a “translation of an idea”. As such, she is simply the first translator and Jensen is the second. The result is a sequence of poems that carries its own fresh energy. Tight. Terse. Tender. And ultimately affirming in its futuristic vision.

Outgoing Vessel by Ursula Andkjær Olsen is translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen. It features stark, spare photographic works by Sophia Kalkau and is published by Action Books.

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.

*

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

Drawing draws us in: On Being Drawn by Peter Cole and Terry Winters

What would it mean to translate a drawing into a poem? To render the experience of a piece of art into words? Ekphrasis as translation. And, following from that idea, to what extent can one view translation as a form of ekphrasis? These are the questions that propel On Being Drawn, the most recent offering in the Cahier Series—the joint project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. The result, a unique collaborative project between artist Terry Winters and poet and translator Peter Cole, is a multilayered, dynamic exploration of the translational interrelationship between different forms of artistic expression.

Each addition to this collection of beautifully presented hand-sown booklets pairs a story, essay, or poetry with illustrations. The subjects, always in some way an examination of the idea of writing or translating—or both—are as varied as the writers invited to contribute. The artwork chosen to accompany the text is always striking and engaging in its own right, but there is not necessarily an intentional or existing  relationship between the writer and illustrator, so the final product is a complementary yet parallel effort. Sometimes, as with Éric Chevillard’s QWERTY Invectives, the artist (in this case Philippe Favier) comments on and reaches beyond the text. But with On Being Drawn, artist and author share equal billing. The connection between the two, as such, is essential. It originated with Winters’ request for some poems from Cole for a catalogue for an art show he was preparing. The selected images and poems are included here along with Cole’s later reflections on the act of translating images into words. Therein lies the true magic of this booklet: the commentary is poetic, open-ended and thought-provoking, enriching the entire experience.

There are different levels of interest and connection at play in a work like this. The initial exercise is one of ekphrasis—literary description or commentary on a visual piece of art—but an ekphrastic engagement undertaken in which, as Cole says: “I wanted to see what would happen if I consciously approached the writing as I would a translation.” The secondary project is a reflection, from a temporal distance, on the composition of these poems, and a closer meditation on the question: Is ekphrasis a kind of translation? And can the reverse be true?

These are two very different inquiries. The first might seem more obvious: ekphrasis renders the value, essence or meaning of an artwork into another medium. One expressed with words. Of course, it must be noted that Winters’ drawings are sometimes drawn from natural objects, but most (or at least those that Cole was drawn to) are abstracted—circles, lines, patterns. The poems generated are sometimes descriptive, but often rely on word games, playing with language against the image, engaging in a sort of lyrical Rorschach test. But then again, this results in a translation of the spirit of a work of art that does not appear to be anything specific but could, for the viewer, be almost anything. As they exist together in this work, the twelve selected drawings belong to part of an artist’s larger body of work; the poems are, in a sense, birthed in response to them. The poet’s musings are born of further reflections on translation as ekphrasis.

One of my favourite pairings, drawing and poem alike, is this one, simply called Untitled, 1988, to which Cole responds:

The nerve and zinc ascent of it
descending extension in every direction –
knots of cinder and brightness as one
wash of ash through which it hums
beneath the skin       these paths are thought.

Within the passage that follows this (nicely set off in a fainter print than the poems) he reflects, moving from art to literary translation:

‘My small skill to save a likeness’ John Berger writes of his own sketching his father’s final face in his coffin.

But in the case of these almost abstract sketches, a likeness of what? And how might that ‘what’ be tricked into speech?

It isn’t always pleasant. The act itself and the realization – that part of a translation’s depth derives from its movement through death. The total identification with an original leading to its replacement, so that another’s name and lines live on. so the present unfurls as a rickety bridge of resemblances and resurrections. And the translator, too, passes away again and again through self-effacement faced. For now. And after? An afterlife, after all?

It is perhaps, then, no accident that tracing a line from art to writing poetry to questions of literary translation offers such a rich avenue of exploration for Peter Cole, a translator from Arabic and Hebrew.

When the symbolic rendering of the two languages through which a translator navigates differ the letter acquires a certain significance. Cole is attuned to the shapes of letters surfacing through some of the images. As he reminds us:

The materiality of the letter, of all letters – as building block and spirit trap, a grounding but insurgent tactility – lurks beneath our talk and verse, bringing us back to what matters, as matter, involving continual return to beginnings and incessant permutation.

This brief volume, scarcely more than 40 pages, provides an especially rewarding opportunity for engagement. The art work is varied, representing the full range of the artist’s career, the poems are accessible yet well matched—curiously they often pick up on movement and energy in the drawings. And the commentary is insightful yet unobtrusive, faded so as not to upstage the initial connections. As ever, a welcome addition to a rich collection.

On Being Drawn, The Cahier Series, no. 36, by Peter Cole and Terry Winters is published by the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions.

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.