Categories
Essay

How Many Ways To Love a Book

By Sindhu Shivprasad

The summers of high school were eight weeks lived between a haze of pages, books borrowed and exchanged (even secreted away) with abandon.

The exchanges were facilitated with much gusto in rooms, parks, benches by the streets, friends looking over shoulders as the item in question was reverently drawn out of the bag. Some sealed the exchange verbally — “I’ll give it back to you in two weeks” — and the deed was done. Others laid out sacrosanct rules. “Don’t fold the corners. Don’t mark the pages. And for God’s sake, don’t underline anything”.

I have an elderly neighbour who keeps two copies of each book — one for reading and the other for lending. When asked why, she said, “my books are sacred”.

“Sacred” has been used as a stand-in for “religion” for so long that it’s become almost synonymous. But there’s a class of ‘sacred” that refers to things set apart with special meaning and not necessarily connected to anything religious, spiritual or metaphysical.

Sounding very much like German theologian Rudolf Otto, American psychologist JH Leuba suggested that the experience of the sacred is characterised by “an element of awe… The sacred object has a hold upon us, we stand in dynamic relation with it, and this relation is not one of equal to equal, but of superior to inferior.”

I like to observe this in others — the reverent handling of pages, the ginger grip over a paperback so the spine doesn’t crease. Much like the devout scrabble to touch the feet of statues or hold hands with holy seers, even the most upright can fall to weeping at the sight of certain books, begging to hold them in their hands. In essence, they feel what author, educator and priest, Andrew Greeley describes: “By the sacred I mean not only the other-worldly, but also the ecstatic, the transcendental, that which takes man out of himself and puts him in contact with the basic life forces of the universe.”

If you’ve said— or heard someone say —something to the effect of “I lost myself in a book”, you’ve felt this. If you’ve curled up to read a novel and felt as though there were two of you — one curled up on the couch and one hurtling through the pages — then you’ve felt this sacredness.

But like there’s more than one way to love someone, there’s more than one way to love a book. Of course, some cults and sub-cults declare the other blasphemous, but the truth is simple: one book can be revered in many ways.

The platonic lovers read books and keep them only in their hearts and minds, if at all. They don’t actively disrespect the book, but they don’t leave way-markers to say they were here, either. If one “buys books intending to read them” and “reads books only in certain situations” were a Venn diagram, platonic lovers of books would fall into that overlapped territory. They’re most likely to pack a recent bestseller in their rattan bag for a beach day or optimistically buy one at the airport bookstore but crack open only a few pages before falling asleep.

There are the preux[1] lovers, for whom form is inseparable from message. These are the ones who strive to preserve the purity of a novel assured to them by their first-hand bookseller. They carefully mark pauses with magnetic bookmarks and high-quality post-it notes aligned to the line they stopped at. Not for them the creased spines, dog-eared pages, and watermarks from dropping a V.E. Schwab[2] into the bath one tipsy night.

No, these are for the physical lovers, the ones for whom some books are as familiar as a partner’s skin. Touch breeds intimacy — marks of use are marks of love. They leave their footprint — dried flowers, bus tickets, clean leaves off the floor, demonetised currency, letters from a daughter, strands of hair — behind with the boldness of a graffiti artist in broad daylight. The book itself is but a vessel, and they prop it open with whatever’s within arm’s reach: the dog’s tail, an AirPod, or the wrapper of a Twix bar. These are the people who know what it is like to love something to pieces.

And then there are the intellectual lovers, who care to pry open layer after layer and document what they find. The most permanent way-marker— writing in books — has haters and zealots in equal proportions, and this is the class of the latter. After all, the margins — or “sophisticated information-processing space”, as mathematician-philosopher John Dee calls them — often hold more heart-stirring epiphanies than diaries can hope to match. These people might also prefer to read vandalised books over virginal ones, getting caught as much in the flow of the text as in the passions of the reader that came before them.

When I was younger, I was much like the preux booklover I describe: a young novel for a young girl. Smudges, watermarks and left-over mementoes invoked the same ‘ick’ in me that vaguely disgusting bugs did. When you’re young, it’s customary to assume ageing is something that happened to other people — I, however, extended that belief to my straight-spined, pristine novels.

Cut to now: in my late twenties, grey hairs are shooting up from my skull at an alarming rate (a hereditary disposition I give my father much grief about). My oldest books haven’t fared any better, ravaged as they are by time, bathwater, and a 2-month sea voyage from Nigeria to India in ‘06. My early-edition Harry Potter copies, in particular, are now perilously held together by duct tape and makeshift covers. (I’m yet to find Inkheart’s Silvertongue in the real world, but I continue to hope).

Over time, I became less preux and more physical, choosing secondhand books over pristine copies for the same reasons that I’d once detested them. “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore!” exclaimed Henry Ward Beecher[3] once, and while I can stand strong in a Crossword or an Amazon, before my favourite Church Street antiquarian store, I am weak. My excuse is that it’s a lot more exciting to be the next in line for the throne of a kingdom contained within 600 pages.

I still draw the line at marginalia, though. It feels too much like watching a movie at the cinema while Chris Hemsworth’s[4] dialogues are punctuated by boos, expletives or, if it were Mark Twain sitting beside me, vicious comments like “The Droolings of an Idiot”.

Inscriptions are yet another marker on the long-winding road of time and an invitation to re-imagine what circumstances this book has been through. These are marks that even preux lovers can’t deny because they rank highly in the eyes of a true bibliomaniac, glossing over the worst wear and tear. Even at their briefest, they tell a story, like a lovingly inscribed “To Mom” in a heartbreakingly unused novel on a used-book shelf. Indeed, a stroll through a secondhand bookstore is a study in betrayal, distance, and the melancholy effects of time. A secret taken to the grave is now out in the open for hundreds to witness.

In a Ziploc on one shelf in my library sits a battered first edition copy of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, passed on to me by another elderly neighbour whose home was suddenly devoid of seating space. An inscription on the flyleaf (instead of the title page where only heathens write) reads: “Berhampore, 1908”. This doesn’t hold a candle to most inscriptions out there, including Lord Byron’s 226-word note to Countess Guiccioli, which ends with, “Think of me sometimes when the Alps and the ocean divide us — but they never will, unless you wish it”. But it is a relic of our colonial history, bequeathed to me.

So it’ll remain: the small book’s journey over Hill Difficulty and the Valley of the Shadow of Death ending on this twenty-something-year-old’s shelf, cheek and jowl with other hand-me-down slices of history and mystery.


[1] Gallant in French

[2] American writer

[3] Nineteenth century US minister and speaker

[4] Australian actor

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Sindhu Shivaprasad is an essayist. Her work has been (or is set to be) published in The Yorkshire Post, Kitaab, The Curator, Thrive Global, and more. When not at her day job or curating for her magazine, Ex Libris, she’s usually curled up in a patch of sunlight with a paperback and lemon tea.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Interview

 When a Hobo in a Fedora Hat Breathes Tolkien…

In Conversation with Strider Marcus Jones

Strider Marcus Jones
i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien

Strider Marcus Jones wrote these lines about an idyllic utopia that was named Lothlorien by JRR Tolkien in Lord of the Rings. Jones writes beautiful poetry that touches the heart with its music and lyricality and recreates a world that hums with peace, beauty, acceptance and tolerance – values that have become more precious than gems in the current world of war, strife and distress. He has created his own Lothlorien in the form of a journal which he has named after the elfin utopia of Tolkien. An avid reader and connoisseur of arts, for him all his appreciation congeals in the form of poetry which draws from music, art and he says, perhaps even his legal training! Let us stride into his poetic universe to uncover more about a man who seems to be reclusive and shy about facing fame and says he learns from not just greats but every poet he publishes.

What started you out as a writer? What got your muse going and when?

In my childhood, I sought ways to escape the poverty of the slums in Salford. My escape, while gathering floorboards from condemned houses every winter and carrying them through back entries in crunching snow to our flat, above two shops for my dad to chop up and burn on the fire was to live in my imagination. I was an explorer and archaeologist discovering lost civilisations and portals to new dimensions our mind’s had lost the ability to see and travel between since the time of the druids. Indoors I devoured books on ancient history, artists, and poetry from the library. I was fascinated by the works of Picasso, Gauguin, Bruegel and many others and sketched some of their paintings. Then one day, my pencil stopped sketching and started to compose words into lines that became “raw” poems.  My first mentor was Anne Ryan, who taught me English Literature at High School when I was fourteen. Before this, I had never told anyone I was writing poetry. My parents, siblings and friends only found out when I was in my twenties and comfortable in myself with being a ranger, a maverick in reality and imagination.

When I read your poetry, I am left wondering… Do you see yourself in the tradition of a gypsy/mendicant singing verses or more as a courtly troubadour or something else?

I don’t have the legs to be a courtly troubadour in tights and my voice sounds like a blacksmith pounding a lump of metal on his anvil.

I feel and relate to being gypsy and am proud of my Celtic roots passed down to me from my Irish Gypsy grandmother on my Father’s side who read the tea leaves, keys, rings, and other items telling people’s fortunes for years with scary accuracy. I seem to have inherited some of her seer abilities for premonition.

Like my evening single malt whiskey, age has matured the idealism of my youth and hardened my resolve to give something back to the world and society for giving me this longevity in it. The knocks from the rough and tumble of life have hardened my edges, but my inner core still glows like Aragorn’s calm courage and determination in the quest to bring about a more just and fairer world that protects its innocent people and polluted environment. Since Woody Guthrie, Tom Waits and Bukowski are influences I identify with deeply, I suppose I am a mendicant in some of my poetry but a romantic and revolutionary too, influenced by Neruda, Rumi, Byron, and Shelley shielded by The Tree of Life in Tolkien’s Lothlorien:

THE HEAD IN HIS FEDORA HAT

a lonely man,
cigarette,
rain
and music
in a strange wind blowing

moving,
not knowing,
a gypsy caravan
whose journey doesn't expect
to go back
and explain
why everyone's ruts have the same
blood and vein.

the head in his fedora hat
bows to no one's grip
brim tilted inwards
concealing his vineyards
of lyrical prose
in a chaos composed
to be exposed,
go, git
awed
and jawed
perfect and flawed,
songs from the borderless
plain
where no one has domain
and his outlaw wit
must confess
to remain

a storyteller
that hobo fella

a listening barfly
for a while,
the word-winged butterfly
whose style
they can't close the shutters on
or stop talking about
when he walks out
and is gone.

whiskey and tequila
with a woman who can feel ya
inside her, and know she's not Ophelia
as ya move as one,
to a closer and simplistic,
unmaterialistic
tribal Babylon,

becomes so,
when she stands, spread
all arms and legs
in her Eskimo
Galadriel glow,
sharing mithril breath,
no more suburban settlements
and tortured tenements
of death,
just a fenceless forest
and mountain quests
with a place to rest
on her suckled breasts,
hanging high, swinging slow.

war clouds HARP
through stripped leaves and bark,
where bodies sleeping in houseboat bones
reflect and creak in cobbled stones:
smokey sparks from smoked cigars
drop like meteorites from streetlight stars,
as cordons crush civil rights
under Faust's fascist Fahrenheit’s.
 
one more whiskey for the road.
another story lived and told

under that
fedora hat
inhaling smoke
as he sang and spoke
stranger fella
storyteller.

You seem to have a fascination for JRR Tolkien. You have a poem and a journal by the name of Lothlorien. Why this fascination? Do you think that JRR Tolkien is relevant in the current context? We are after all, reverting to a situation similar to a hundred years ago.

Yes, on all counts. Tolkien and his Lord of The Rings trilogy have been part of my life since I first read one summer when I was twelve years old.  My young mind, starved of adventure and elevenses in Salford’s slums, willingly absorbed the myths and magic, lore’s and legends beguiling me to enter the ‘Age of Man’. This living in a time of relative peace alongside other, more ancient races with musical-poetic languages reflected part of my own reality in living through the Cold War decades under the impending doom of nuclear annihilation where daily life often felt the shadows cast by the Cuban Missile Crisis, war in Vietnam, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and famine in Biafra.

Sauron’s evil eye and invading armies echo an outgoing President Eisenhower’s ominous warning to curtail the influence and corruption of the banking-military-industrial-complex. Instead, Martin Luther King and President John F Kennedy were assassinated and a surveillance state and gilded slavery ideology is being imposed globally using artificial intelligence. Ancient civilisations in Iraq and Libya have been destroyed for control of oil and to maintain global Petro dollar power. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings is just as relevant today in Ukraine, Yemen, and Syria and as it was through the slaughters of Verdun, the Somme and Flanders Fields. It is a warning that good must prevail over evil and this burden is borne by those with courage and conviction who cannot be corrupted.  

What is your Lothlorien? What does poetry mean to you and your existence?

My Lothlorien is a more peaceful world, with more tolerance of other individuals and cultures. Not perfect by any stretch but a place where people laugh, have their neighbours back and work with each other. A place of social justice and equality, music, poetry and art. It is no place for racism, sexism, ageism, corruption, or war. A kind of homestead with birdsong, forest, mountains and rivers, preferably in the French Pyrenees or Alaskan Bush. A place of words composed into poems and stories read and spoken, passed down and added to by each inspired generation in the Native American tradition. Poetry is all about communication and community in my existence. We are caretakers of our words and the world.

You have used Orwell, Gaugin and many more references in your poetry. Which are the writers and artists that influence you the most? What do you find fascinating about them?

Individuality of expression through fiction, poetry, art and music fascinates me. Now, at 62 years of age so many have influenced my poetry with or without me knowing or realising it. These include:

From the past – Chaucer, Tennyson, Shelley, Keats, Blake, W.B. Yeats, Auden, Langston Hughes, Hart Crane, Sexton, Plath, Kerouac, Heaney, Lorca, Orwell, Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Tolkien, Steinbeck, Heller, Donaldson, P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Rilke, Rumi, E.E.Cummings, Neruda, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, Thelonious  Monk, John Coltrane, Dylan, Tom Waits. So many.

From now – They know who they are. I have published their work in Lothlorien Poetry Journal.

You play instruments — saxophone and clarinet? Does that impact your poetry?

Saying I play instruments is a huge stretch of the imagination. I get strange notes out of my saxophone and clarinet that must sound like a hurricane blowing in anyone’s ears. My black Labrador, Mysty, covers her ears with her paws but I enjoy trying to play. I love jazz music, anything from the 1920s to early 70s, but Miles Davis, Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, and Ornette Coleman took jazz music to a level that transcends mortality.

Jazz music continues to be a profound influence in my poetry. I will explain how.     

Does any kind of music impact your writing?

In some way, unbeknown to me, jazz music, particularly that of Davis, Monk and Coltrane runs parallel to and interweaves with the rhythms of how I think when I write poetry. It closes my mind to the distractions of the outside world. The sound of those perfect and imperfect notes opens a door in my mind, I close my eyes, float into this dark room and my senses fill with images and words, which hover in the air like musical notes where I conduct them into rhythms and phrases bonded to a theme. Some become poems, others disintegrate into specks of dust, the moment gone. Sometimes, the idea and train of thought sleeps in my subconscious for years. This happened with my poems “Visigoth Rover” and “Life is Flamenco” which come from   my sojourns randomly wandering through Spain but were born years later listening to Paco playing Spanish guitar and Flamenco music which is another key influence in my poetry.

VISIGOTH ROVER

i went on the bus to Cordoba,
and tried to find the Moor's
left over
in their excavated floors
and mosaic courtyards,
with hanging flowers brightly chameleon
against whitewashed walls
carrying calls
behind gated iron bars-
but they were gone
leaving mosque arches
and carved stories
to God's doors.

in those ancient streets
where everybody meets-
i saw the old successful men
with their younger women again,
sat in chrome slat chairs,
drinking coffee to cover
their vain love affairs-
and every breast,
was like the crest
of a soft ridge
as i peeped over
the castle wall and Roman bridge
like a Visigoth rover.

soft hand tapping on shoulder,
heavy hair
and beauty older,
the gypsy lady gave her clover
to borrowed breath, 
embroidering it for death,
adding more to less
like the colours fading in her dress.
time and tune are too planned
to understand
her Trevi fountain of prediction,
or the dirty Bernini hand
shaping its description.

LIFE IS FLAMENCO

why can't i walk as far
and smoke more tobacco,
or play my Spanish guitar
like Paco,
putting rhythms and feelings
without old ceilings
you've never heard
before in a word.

life is flamenco,
to come and go
high and low
fast and slow-

she loves him,
he loves her
and their shades within
caress and spur
in a ride and dance
of tempestuous romance.

outback, in Andalucian ease,
i embrace you, like melted breeze
amongst ripe olive trees-
dark and different,
all manly scent
and mind unkempt.

like i do,
Picasso knew
everything about you
when he drew
your elongated arms and legs
around me, in this perpetual bed
of emotion
and motion
for these soft geometric angles
in my finger strokes
and exhaled smokes 
of rhythmic bangles
to circle colour your Celtic skin
with primitive phthalo blue
pigment in wiccan tattoo
before entering
vibrating wings
through thrumming strings
of wild lucid moments
in eternal components.

i can walk as far
and smoke more tobacco,
and play my Spanish guitar
like Paco.

Tell us about how music and language weaves into your poetry — “i’m come home again” — there is no effort at punctuation — and yet the poem is clear and lyrical. I really love this poem – Lothlorien. Can you tell me how you handle the basic tool of words and grammar in your poetry?

In my mind, music is poetry through sound instead of words. Like words, the combinations of notes and pauses have intricate rhythms and phrases. In many of my poems like “Lothlorien” and those above, I weave the rhythms and phrases of jazz music or Spanish guitar and words together with run on lines so there is no need for punctuation. This gives these poems, and many others a spontaneity and energy which feels more natural and real and has a potent, more immediate impact on the senses and emotions when combined with images and happenings. This whole process feels natural to me. It began in my early twenties, when I was listening to old Blues and the likes of Leadbelly and Robert Johnson alongside Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Tom Waits and Neil Young. These are the raw underbelly notes of my pain and anger at the world. Jazz is the mellow top notes. I hope this makes sense. It is hard to explain something that is natural to and part of who I am, so forgive any lack of clarity.

Sometimes, I just like to add a moment of mischievous fun to a serious poem as in these two:

REJECTING OVID

the fabulous beauty of your face-
so esoteric,
not always in this place-
beguiles me.

it's late, mesmeric
smile is but a base,
a film to interface
with the movements of the mind behind it.

my smile, me-
like Thomas O'Malley
the alley
cat reclining on a tin bin lid
with fishy whiskers-

turns the ink in the valley
of your quills
into script,
while i sit
and sip

your syllables
with fresh red sepals of hibiscus,
rejecting Ovid
and his Amores
for your stories.



OLD CAFE

a rest, from swinging bar
and animals in the abattoir-
to smoke in mental thinks
spoken holding cooling drinks.

counting out old coppers to be fed
in the set squares of blue and red
plastic tablecloth-
just enough to break up bread in thick barley broth.

Jesus is late
after saying he was coming
back to share the wealth and real estate
of capitalist cunning.

maybe. just maybe.
put another song on the jukebox baby:
no more heroes anymore.
what are we fighting for --

he's hiding in hymns and chants,
in those Monty Python underpants,
from this coalition of new McCarthy's
and it's institutions of Moriarty's.

some shepherds’ sheep will do this dance
in hypothermic trance,
for one pound an hour
like a shamed flower,

watched by sinister sentinels-
while scratched tubular bells,
summon all to Sunday service
where invisible myths exist-

to a shamed flower
with supernatural power
come the hour.  

How do you compose a poem? Is it spontaneous or is it something you do? Do you hear the lines or voices or is it in some other way?

Most poems come from life’s experiences and observations of people, places, nature, and events. These can be from the past, or present and sometimes premonitions of the future which often overlap depending on the theme/s and where I want it to go.

When it comes to composing a poem, I am not robotic, and neither is my Muse. I have no set time and never write for the sake of writing something each day which I find disrupts my subconscious process. A poem can begin at any time of day or night, but my preferred time to think and write is mid-evening going through to witching hour and beyond. I put some music on low, pour myself a slow whiskey and sit down in my favourite chair with pen and folded paper. I never try to force a poem. The urge to write just occurs. I don’t know how, or why. It just happens. My subconscious finds the thread, thinks it through and the poem begins to unravel on the page. I care about the poems since they care about the world and the people in it. So, I often agonise for days and in some cases years, over lines and words and structure, crossing out words and whole lines until they feel right. Editing, and redrafting is a crucial part of the writing process and requires courage and discipline. Butchering your own work feels barbaric in the moment but enhances your poetic voice and strengthens the impact of a poem on the reader.

You are a lawyer and in the Civil Service in UK. How does law blend with poetry?

I am a law graduate and retired legal adviser to the magistrates’ courts/civil servant who retired early. I have never practiced as a lawyer.

I never think about law when I write, but I am sure the discipline brings organisation to the orderly chaos of Spinoza’s universe that resembles the space inside my head.

Tell us about your journal. When and how did you start it?

I started Lothlorien Poetry Journal in January 2021. I publish the online rolling blog of poetry and fiction and printed book volumes — currently standing at eight issues featuring established and emerging poets and fiction writers published on the LPJ blog.

We are a friendly literary journal featuring free verse/rhyming/experimental poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and occasional interviews with poets.

We love poems about enchantment, fantasy, fairy tale, folklore, dreams, dystopian, flora and fauna, magical realism, romance, and anything hiding deep in-between the cracks.

I publish Lothlorien Poetry Journal periodically, 4-6 issues every year. Contributors to each issue (selected from the best work published on the Journal’s Blog) are notified prior to publication and receive a free PDF copy of the issue that features their work.

We nominate for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.

 What do you look for in a poet as a publisher?

I look for a poet or writer’s distinct voice, that spark of originality in their theme/s, the rhythm and musicality in their language and phrasing.  I have no boundaries as to style, form, or subject – prose, rhyming, free verse, sonnets, haiku, experimental or mavericks who break the rules and write about the darker underbelly of society – if it is good and not offensive, racist or sexist Lothlorien Poetry Journal could be the natural home for your work. The best way to find out is to come to Lothlorien, have a read, and decide to submit.

LOTHLORIEN

i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien
to marinate my mind
in your words,
and stand behind
good tribes grown blind,
trapped in old absurd
regressive reasons
and selfish treasons.

in this cast of strife
the Tree of Life
embraces innocent ghosts,
slain by Sauron's hosts-
and their falling cries
make us wise
enough to rise
up in a fellowship of friends
to oppose Mordor's ends
and smote this evil stronger
and longer
for each one of us that dies.

i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien,
persuading
yellow snapdragons
to take wing
and un-fang serpent krakens-
while i bring
all the races
to resume
their bloom
as equals in equal spaces
by removing
and muting
the chorus of crickets
who cheat them from chambered thickets,
hiding corruptions older than long grass
that still fag for favours asked.

i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien
where corporate warfare
and workfare
on health
and welfare
infests our tribal bodies
and separate self
in political lobbies
so conscience can't care
or share
worth and wealth-

to rally drones
of walking bones,
too tired
and uninspired
to think things through
and the powerless who see it true.
red unites, blue divides,
which one are you
and what will you do
when reason decides.


IN THE TALK OF MY TOBACCO SMOKE

i have disconnected self
from the wire of the world
retreated to this unmade croft
of wild grass and savage stone
moored mountains
set in sea
blue black green grey
dyed all the colours of my mood
and liquid language-
to climb rocks
instead of rungs
living with them
moving around their settlements
of revolutionary random place
for simple solitary glory.
i am reduced again
to elements and matter
that barter her body for food
teasing and turning
her flesh to take words and plough.
rapid rain
slaps the skin
on honest hands
strongly gentle
while sowing seeds
the way i touch my lover
in the talk of my tobacco smoke:
now she knows
she tastes
like all the drops
of my dreams
falling on the forest
of our Lothlorien.

Thanks for your lovely poetry and time.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

My Favourite Poem

I am not sure it is wise to choose a favourite poem out of the millions that exist. It would seem to exclude all the others from the imaginary summit of a fictional pillar. The circumference of that pillar means that there is only room for one poem up there and it might be better not to erect the pillar in the first place and leave the literary landscape unobstructed.

But it is too late for me. I have already chosen a favourite poem. In fact, I have chosen a favourite several times. The first poet I read in any depth, Edgar Allan Poe, provided me with my first favourite, not ‘The Raven’ but a slightly less famous work called ‘The Bells’. How I loved the tinkle, jangle and crash of the cadences in the stanzas of that piece!

I read it again recently and found that it retains great musical power and it is still a poem I regard with intense fondness, but it is no longer my favourite of all. That is hardly surprising considering I was reading Poe when I was 15 years old. Our youthful tastes change not only according to our experiences but also as a result of all the other literature we consume. There is surely a tendency to prefer narrative poems when we are small and a diminishing reliance on actual stories as we grow older. Yet it was the music of ‘The Bells’ that fascinated me rather than the febrile images it contains.

Jabberwocky. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I think my love of euphony has always meant that I relish the way a poem sounds more than I appreciate any meanings it might convey. This is why it was easy for a nonsense poem to become my new favourite and to gently push aside the Poe piece. Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ became for me the supreme poem and I learned it by heart. It is a poem that makes contextual sense despite all the meaningless neologisms with which it is sprinkled. Somehow, we understand the new words coined by Carroll and there is no need to have them explained. It is a poem that we absorb through osmosis rather than through the normal process of everyday communication. A masterpiece!

When I was 18 years old, I began reading Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and a few other English Romantics, and I discovered ‘Ozymandias’. Now this seemed to me to be a perfect poem. It had music, imagery and a moral, and furthermore it was ironic, an archaic episode with timeless relevance. Again, I learned it by heart, and I found myself in the not uncommon position of reciting it to myself whenever I happened to be confronted with an ancient ruin, whether the blocks of a tumbled castle or shattered torso of a fallen statue. It is a poem that turns a reader into an actor, an introvert into a declaimer. It became my new favourite but only for a short while. The poem that caused it to fall in my estimation was another in the same anthology I was reading.

An Illustration from Kubla Khan. Courtesy: Creative commons

Kubla Khan’ struck me as especially appealing because it has a wildness about it that balances out its sense of control. I am not sure why Coleridge affected me to a greater extent than Shelley (and Byron affected me hardly at all) but I was enthralled by the imprecise exoticism and the intimations of doom among paradise in this poem, which is as menacing as it is delightful, as frantic as it is magical. Coleridge himself regarded it as a work in progress, a frustrated potential, unfinished, a burst dream bubble. I wonder if a continuation might have diminished it? The fragmentary nature of the piece adds to its allure by increasing its strangeness. There is atonality here as well as smoothness, like troubling chords inserted in a serene nocturne.

A few years passed and I discovered a new favourite and had to topple poor old ‘Kubla Khan’ from the apex of that idealised pillar and replace it with The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the first Edward Fitzgerald translation, but whether this series of seventy-five quatrains can be regarded as just one poem is open to debate. Personally, I regard the quatrains as linked inextricably by mood, metaphors as well as theme, and there is a mini-sequence within the whole that gains significant momentum by being treated as a single creation. My ambition once again was to learn the work by heart and recite it at moments that were appropriate but despite my efforts I failed in the endeavour. There was simply too much wordage for me to succeed.

I tried reading more modern poetry, serious and mature work that I failed to understand at first and had to consider very carefully before I could tease out any meaning. I read Akhmatova, Rilke, Pound, Eliot. I tried (but was generally defeated by) Ginsberg, Olsen, William Carlos Williams. This was all well and good but my candidate for new favourite turned out to be something light, an insignificant ditty dashed off by a poet who wrote it as a gift for a friend, and once again it was the music that won me over, the jangling, tinkling, tingling, clipping, clopping, jingly rhythms. ‘Tarantella’ by Hilaire Belloc imitates the sound of a guitar and clapping hands, it clatters along merrily, nostalgically, a tribute to an ephemeral occasion in a mountain tavern that can never be lived again, and the words and their phrasing evoke much of the atmosphere of that night with an appreciable impetus. A candidate for new favourite, yes, but it ultimately failed to displace the Rubáiyát.

That was in my early twenties and soon after I lost interest in poetry, I have no idea why, and rarely read any. Occasionally I would browse an anthology and discover something interesting, but only a few poems made any impression at all on me, and none became my favourite. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám remained at the summit of my appreciation by default. My return to poetry was slow and uneven. The work of Federico García Lorca caught my attention and I chose ‘Canción de Jinete’ to learn by heart, which I did, probably poorly (my Spanish was never fluent). A little later I discovered the precocious genius of Arthur Rimbaud and taught myself ‘Le Coeur Supplicié’ because its torrent of fantastical words appealed to my inner ear.

Unfortunately, what I believed poetry had to offer was something I had no great use for. I misunderstood what it had to offer. That is no great crime, but I did miss out on its delights for a long time. Not until my mid-thirties did I start to return to the pleasures of poetry, and it was the humourist Don Marquis who ushered me back into the heaven I had forsaken, yet it is too much to claim that any of his poems became my favourite. I adore his cycle of poems about the cockroach Archy and the cat Mehitabel, but they must be taken as a whole in an evolving mythos. No individual poem of the cycle is worthy of special attention at the expense of the others. All are good, but together they are brilliant and thus they disqualify themselves from the game.

Now that I was reconciled with poetry, my tastes widened, and I read from a broader set of cultures and times than before. Sappho, Ovid, Catullus, Tagore, Basho, Tu Fu, Housman, Holub, Mandelstam, Eliot, Yeats, Edward Thomas, Dorothy Parker, Ai Ogawa, Ogden Nash, Derek Walcott. I was very enthusiastic about the novels and short stories of Richard Brautigan, so I read his poetry too and found a poem called ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ that neatly summed up my own hopes for the future of the world. Did it become my new favourite? Not quite. I continued reading. Pessoa enthralled me, Cendrars and Queneau dazzled me. Complicated poetry dealing with the human condition and experimental verse based on mathematics made me nod my head sagely in a close approximation of a deep appreciation.

The City’ by C.P. Cavafy became my new favourite. I had heard his name often mentioned but felt no great desire to explore further. Then by chance I saw this particular poem. What a terrific piece! Hard, bleak even, wrenchingly bitter, but it does not depress the spirits of the reader despite its melancholy message. On the contrary it seems to inspire the reader to action. The poem is quietly and relentlessly insistent that you will never change your life for the better, that you can never escape the circumstances that have trapped you. It issues a challenge to the reader. Prove me wrong, the poem seems to say! I immersed myself in as much of Cavafy’s poetry as I could find. I went out of my way to visit his house in the city of Alexandria in Egypt, so wonderful did I now regard his work. Was this the final destination on my poetic voyage?

Not quite. There was another poem by another poet sunk deep beneath the surface of my awareness and it had been there for a long time. I can say that it had probably been my secret favourite from the beginning. I must have read it in an idle moment and forgotten about it, or thought I had forgotten about it, but it remained on the seabed of my subconscious, and ultimately it wrecked all the poetical vessels that followed, for I was never fully satisfied with any of those I called my favourites. I rediscovered it one unexpected day and it returned with unstoppable force into my affections. It was written by a poet who went to sea and saw the world, who travelled rather aimlessly for a number of years before the urge to write poetry took hold of him.

‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield is evocative and beautiful. It is heady and a little regretful at the same time. It contrasts the supposed splendours of the past with the drab present, and yet ironically in our own age we perceive romance even in the grime and smoke of Masefield’s ‘present’. Three ages are given to us for contemplation, a pre-classical time, the golden age of the Spanish Main, and the very start of the 20th Century, and three ships loaded with merchandise to represent those ages. The ships of Assyria and Spain are loaded with exotic and tropical treasures. They are floating envoys of a pair of widely spaced but equally fabulous cultures. The British ship is grimy and ugly and it wallows through a drab sea on a blustery day, carrying cargo that is practically an insult to the taste of the aesthete. The language employed is perfect for Masefield’s purpose. I know of no poem I like better.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine…

Cargoes (1903), John Masefield (1878-1967) 

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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Review

John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha 

Title: John Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee

Author: Amit Ranjan

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Retracing colonial history is always fascinating. And, if the characters are out of the ordinary, that re-examination is even more interesting. This book revisits the life of John Lang, an Australian writer-lawyer settled in India in the 19th century. 

John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer of Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee by Amit Ranjan is about Lang’s life, his accomplishments and his literary works. Lang (1816-1864) was a fiery journalist and novelist who constantly annoyed the establishment of the East India Company with his vituperative and pathogenic humor. He had lived in India since the age of 26. 

A visiting fellow at University of South Wales, Sydney, a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Miami and who teaches English at NCERT , New Delhi Ranjan’s earlier books  include poetry collections Find Me Leonard Cohen, I’m Almost Thirty

A lawyer, John Lang picked up Persian and Urdu quickly to argue cases in lower courts. He mostly fought against the British and won a few well-known cases in the company’s own court. Also, Lang represented Rani Laxmibai in her legal battle against the annexation of her kingdom of Jhansi by the East India Company. 

In about five hundred pages, Ranjan looks at the personality of Lang rather vividly. Also Australia’s first native-born novelist, John Lang had a remarkable life. Coming from a family of ten children (including half- and step-siblings), he went to Cambridge to qualify as a barrister. When he represented the Rani of Jhansi against the East India Company, he documented his impression of the queen. 

Amusingly, this became the basis of some scenes in an Indian television serial depicting a fictitious intimate relationship between them. Lang flamboyantly fought yet another case of Lala Jotee Persaud for his due as a provisioner in the British army. Persaud won 2 lakh rupees, which was, in 1851, a princely amount. 

It is not because Lang was the first Australian writer or was among the first writers of English prose on India, or because of the historical place where Lang lived in the politically volatile 19th century that propelled Ranjan to write the book. The motive behind the book is clear:  Lang was a fine writer.

In his short life of 48 years, Lang produced 23 novels, one travelogue, some plays and five volumes of poetry. His novels were mostly in the romance genre and were set in India. His themes were typically bold and very much so somewhat rebellious. After his death in 1864, he remained a well-known writer and his books continued to sell for another 40 years. Lang’s novels were found to be too feminist for Victorian comfort, and his white male protagonists were often described by the narrator as ‘India he loved, England he despised’.

Lang also pursued a career as a journalist, producing The Mofussilite from Meerut — editions of which came out from Ambala, Calcutta. Apparently, as it carried anti-government reports, its file copies were destroyed. 

 “Lang can indeed be viewed as the father of Indian tabloid journalism. The tabloid, of course, had its equivalent of what is now known as ‘Page 3’, but it was very different–in that it was very literary, with an overdose of Lang’s Latin, Boccaccios and Byrons,” Ranjan writes in the book. 

As if all this wasn’t enough, the Indophile spoke at least five languages and produced works as a translator. There were numerous fictional works presumed to have been written or co-authored or significantly inspired by Lang. 

Lang’s versatile talents and established scholarship were surpassed by the colourful life that he led. His escapades and misadventures — landed him in a Calcutta jail for libel and in Vienna on suspicions of being a spy. He won the bets. His divorce and love affair even led to an illegitimate child. 

Lang had a rationalist’s curiosity about phrenology — a pseudoscience that correlated measurements of different parts of the skull with race and mental ability that was fashionable among Europeans in his times. All these are explored and commented upon. 

The book also captures some interesting episodes in Lang’s life like this one: There was a party in progress at John Lang’s house in Mussoorie as he died. Lang had frowned upon the idea of truncating it merely on account of his illness. Bronchitis was the immediate cause of this unforgettable personality’s demise. 

Writes Prof. Saugata Bhaduri in the foreword: “Far from being just another piece of sound academic literary-historical work and a well-researched biography of a lesser-known author who needs to be repatriated to the canon, this book is an exuberant exercise in passion – a passion that set one off on a late-night foray into the unknown just to look up some obscure tomb, or to pick up some obscure discursive thread. Amit’s is an exercise that demonstrates how variegated, yet connected, our little histories are.”

Part history and part literary pleasure, this book is captivating. It will be a delight for history and language buffs as also aficionados of wordplay. Ranjan’s book is well researched, with plenty of reference and end-notes. Witty and interweaving, the narrative makes for an interesting read.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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