Posts Tagged poetry

Voices, stories I don’t hear

Topical is the way to go, for topicality can get you a Booker prize! So here goes.

 It’s the major festive season of the year now. Down south (and in the Bengal) Dasara and Deepavali celebrate female power, female gods. For me this is also the time when relatives, close and distant, renew their efforts to dilute my irreverence  “for there are female gods you can worship, you see!” 

But look at the pantheon of goddesses that Hindu India worships Sita, Durga, Saraswathi, Lakshmi. . . .  Women whose status derives as much from their being wives of powerful male gods as from their own achievements. I’m not about to anachronistically deconstruct these mythical women/godesses  after all, they were “created” and deified at a time  when women were defined in terms of the men in their lives.  Today we can choose not to revere them, so I see little point in castigating them.

What intrigues me is that among these mythical/divine ideal wives, some have become more powerful and popular than others.  And some stories have gone untold.  Take Yashodhara  the wife of the the Buddha. Why is there no cult around her?  OK, forget the deification. Why doesn’t she even figure in our collective memory  myths and legends?

In an age when a woman’s status hinged entirely on her husband, what could being deserted have  meant to her? How did she cope? What was her story?  Why is she not cited as an example of female strength?

There are some stories about her. (Yes, I’ve been researching!) Apparently she chose to follow the rigorous austerity that the Buddha practiced in the first six years of his quest for enlightenment; and refused to let the child in her womb (conceived on the night Siddhartha left her) grow. Consequently she had to endure accusations of infidelity when Rahul was born six years later. There is also a story that years later the Buddha came back to see her. And that she joined the order of his monks. What would she have said to him?  

There’s  a poem on her by Maithili Sharan Gupt: Sakhi veh mujhse keh kar jaate, which you can read here. It’s  a beautiful rendition of Yashodhara’s anguish: she wonders why Siddhartha did not tell her before he left. And I see subtle, ironic indictment of a woman’s lot in the lines where Yashodhara says that she would not have stopped Siddhartha, that like all good wives who willingly sent their men to the wars, she would have let him go.

 I’d like to think that Yashodhara was a strong woman, too. And that maybe her voice is not heard enough because she speaks a discomfiting story. Much as I admire the Buddha’s rational attempt to understand human suffering, for me he is also a man who left his wife without so much as a by-your-leave. 

Maithili Sharan Gupt wrote another fascinating epic Saket (which I’m struggling to read with the help of a charming young colleague from the Hindi Department). In Saket you hear another voice silenced by our selective amnesia Urmilla, Lakshmana’s wife. And she speaks of life in Ayodhya sans Rama and Lakshmana: a  little known part of the Ramayana and a perfect example of alternate histories. While plenty has now been written about Sita’s victimization and Rama’s patriarchal role in it, what of Urmilla? Why are there few stories about her? Amidst the glorification of the “ideal son”, the “ideal brother” and the “ideal wife” (who accompanies her husband), what does Urmilla’s story mean?

Yashodhara, Urmilla … forgotten women on the male road to salvation and greatness. Their stories were different from those of the devoted, suffering, self-sacrificing wife.  What accounts for their relative obscurity? Is it because separated women whether by choice or by force are not ideals that Hindu India is comfortable with?

Speaking of voices  the number of lurkers on this blog has been steadily increasing. Who are these people who come here regularly, (syndicated readers too, mind you) read and go away without a word? More voices I’ll never hear I guess.

Damn. I don’t hear voices.

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Because its time has come …

I dislike poetry. I really do. So I work with myself, reading and re-reading as much as I can. Exposure and Response Prevention. (Don’t ask. It helps to have a psychologist for a spouse impressive jargon comes easily. )

But sometimes I read a poem, perhaps for the tenth time, and something happens. I understand it like never before. Because its time has come I’m ready for it.

So here’s one whose time has come for me. I wrote a vile term paper on it in college.  Oh but last night I fell in love with it. So I’m putting it up here.

The Thought-Fox

 Ted Hughes

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Besides the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.  

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

(This is one of the most anthologized of Ted Hughes’ poems and is also available online, so I’m not citing source.)

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The oppressive boot [and] the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it*

Every now and then I get a distress call from this Echh Aar Lady — “Edit this for me,  will you?” / “Does this mail read OK?” And I oblige, for she’s a friend from an earlier work life. So last week she called and, as usual, she had a crisis. She had to rustle up some training material on telephone etiquette and could I help?

I protested. Not my cup of filtered coffee! Not with my backwoodsy telephone skills —monosyllabic, brusque. She should know! But she persisted. Just a small capsule for a group of fresh-out-of-college,  wet-behind-the-ears graduates given the unpleasant job of handling customer complaints over telephone. Said customers being irate, racially abusive and Anglo-American. 

I was incensed: “These kids need therapy to handle racist abuse, N. And you think popping a smart capsule of inane pleasantries and pseudo-Americanisms will do the trick?” 

“Just give me something I can use,” she pleaded. “I’ll build the material around it.”  

So I gave her this:

TELEPHONE CONVERSATION

(Wole Soyinka)

The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
“I hate a wasted journey — I am African.”
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was foully.
“HOW DARK?” . . . I had not misheard . . . “ARE YOU LIGHT
OR VERY DARK?” Button B, Button A. Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis —
“ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?” Revelation came.
“You mean — like plain or milk chocolate?”
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. “West African sepia”— and as afterthought,
“Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. “WHAT’S THAT?” conceding
“DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” “Like brunette.”
“THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?” “Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused —
Foolishly, madam — by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black — One moment, madam!”— sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears -“Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather
See for yourself?”

 

(Source: Modern Poetry from Africa, Penguin 1963.)

Of course she had no use for it, and lost no time in telling me so. I imagine she’d have binned it after a cursory, mystified glance. I made a half-hearted attempt to make her see the exquisite irony in the poem — the refinement of the so-called savage and the coarseness of the so-called civilized. I could have saved my breath.

I do understand that a great many people dislike, and have no use for, poetry because they imagine it is always worrying about the eternal verities.  I, too, have tin ears for a lot of “poetry.” It is futile to speak of its “uses” to up the ante on poetry. As Auden and Garrett put it:

Those who try to put poetry on a pedestal only succeed in putting it on the shelf. . . . Poetry is no better or worse than human nature. It is profound and shallow, sophisticated and naïve, dull and witty, bawdy and chaste in turn.

(W.H. Auden and J. Garrett. The Poet’s Tongue, Bell.)

 

And when you read poems like Soyinka’s, all those positive adjectives seem justified, don’t they?

 

( * the dominant theme of  Soyinka’s work; his words)

 

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I’m loving this!

I’ve fallen in love! With a blog. (So it’s OK really, hubby dear . . .  don’t be too hard on yourself!)

pō’ĭ-trē

A blog where you can read and listen to fabulous poetry. Cannot thank enough the wonderful people behind it.

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Untitled

This poem moves me. Immensely.

Untitled

This is a poem to my son Peter
whom I have hurt a thousand times
whose large and vulnerable eyes
have glazed in pain at my ragings
thin wrists and fingers hung
boneless in despair, pale freckled back
bent in defeat, pillow soaked
by my failure to understand.
I have scarred through weakness
and impatience your frail confidence forever
because when I needed to strike
you were there to hurt and because
I thought you knew
you were beautiful and fair
your bright eyes and hair
but now I see that no one knows that
about himself, but must be told
and retold until it takes hold
because I think anything can be killed
after awhile, especially beauty
so I write this for life, for love, for
you, my oldest son Peter, age 10,
going on 11.

                                  – Peter Meinke (an American poet)

(The poem is available online, but this is my source – Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico.) 
 

 

 

 

 

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